Shortly after joining the staff of USA TODAY I received a data set I would analyze almost every week for the next decade. It was the weekly Best-Selling Books list, which ranked the nation’s top-selling books based on confidential sales data. The list not only produced an endless stream of story ideas to pitch, but it also captured the zeitgeist of America in a singular way.

For example, did you know that cookbooks sell a bit more during the week of Mother’s Day, or that Oprah Winfrey turned many obscure writers into number one best-selling authors just by having them on her show? Week after week, the book list editor and I pored ...

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