By now the book covers are nearly as familiar as a can of Campbell's Soup, almost as ubiquitous as the Nike swoop. The "Chicken Soup" books are a sales phenomenon, one that would be easy to dismiss as pure hype were it not for a rather crucial element: These books have heart.
From the original "Chicken Soup for the Soul" (now coming up on its fifth "helping" of stories) to the more narrowly focused collections of stories for the "teen-age soul," "woman's soul" and even a cookbook, these books are what a friend of mine calls "great bathtub reading," and to her, that's the highest praise there is.
And a bathtub is a good place to read them, because otherwise you're going to need tissues. That is what I learned after reading the newest in the series, "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul" (12.95; Health Communications Inc). From what one of the co-authors says, my reaction is fairly ordinary.
"I've had people start crying in book stores," said Dr. Marty Becker, the veterinarian who is one of four co-authors for the book.
The 90 stories -- chosen from more than 5,000 submissions -- pack a punch, to be sure. Becker believes it's because there's something special about the role animals play in our lives, and the difference an animal can make to someone who's in trouble -- or just needs the touch of another living being.
"Rarely do our true feelings come out with other people," said Becker. "But our pets ... they see your naked self, your true self, and they validate you with the wag of a tail. You come home and they greet you like a rock star. Fifteen minutes of fame, every time you walk in the door!"
"It's no wonder this is important in the high-tech, low-touch world we live in," he said, "where people don't know their neighbors, where they have a long commute to a 50-hour-a week job. Animals reflect back positive emotion -- and we need that in our lives."
Becker says it's not an either-or proposition -- either you love animals or you love people. He has found that for some people finding a place in the heart for a pet is the first step back from a life of isolation.
"I don't want to suggest that pets are substitutes for people," he said. "Pets can help us find the affection connection with other people. They're a great social lubricant."
The veterinarian hopes the book can be an inspiration for all kinds of animal lovers. It's certainly a celebration of the highest levels of an almost spiritual connection between people and animals. "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul" has a handful of stories by such celebrities as Barbara Bush, Betty White, and two famous animal lovers who have passed on, Jimmy Stewart and Gilda Radner. While it's no doubt those names help sell books, the stories by people you've never heard of are the ones that will really stay with you. Maybe even change your life.
"You should take from this book the message that the need to love and be loved is timeless and tangible," said Becker, who said he hoped those of us who find we just don't have time for the lives we should be living find another lesson in the stories, and in the time we share with animals.
"I'd like to see people get off the hamster wheel of their lives and play," he said.
And maybe later, you could write about it. The publishers are collecting stories now for a second collection, to be released in the year 2000.
Pets on the Web: Want to be a veterinarian? My Veterinary Information Network colleague Dr. Stuart Turner has put together a wonderfully attractive and informative Careers in Veterinary Medicine Web site (www.vin.com/scripts/asp/career_web.asp) with features on the profession and on the veterinary schools and colleges. (His own school, the University of California-Davis, is in the spotlight this month.) The site also offers the option of searching for veterinary resources on the major search engines and provides a page of links to other careers for animal lovers. Not to be missed: His feature on how women are changing the profession.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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