Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999

As we look at the bestsellers of the past hundred years, decade by decade, we will, perhaps, get a sense of just what it is that makes Americans buy a book in large quantities, of that elusive & mysterious mix of elements & appeal that makes a book, fiction or nonfiction, a bestseller.
~Michael Korda

Sometimes we come across a book during our work day that just is too good not to share. A book that you might not be looking for, but once you find it, it's vastly entertaining to browse through. Such a book is Michael Korda's Making the List.

What the author has done is take the annual bestseller lists of The Bookman & Publishers Weekly & used them to look "at the twentieth-century American cultural landscape through the prism of its popular reading". (Did you know that "within the trade, the Publishers Weekly list has long been regarded by some a more accurate than the [New York] Times, & it is certainly more venerable"?) The book features a chapter for each decade with an introduction to the events & issues of the period, followed by a list each year's bestsellers. Some decades also have extra lists, like the "War Books" between 1917-18; the earliest lists are for fiction only.

A cursory glance through the earliest lists shows that the library system does not own many bestsellers from the earliest decades (although authors such as H.G. Wells, Edna Ferber, John Galsworthy, Edith Wharton & Zane Grey make an appearance or two), but by the 1930s the names get more & more familiar & you can find more of these vintage bestsellers in the library catalog. We've made a list of a few formerly famous titles you may have forgotten!


1914 Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1915 The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Grey
1917 Mr Britling Sees It Through by H.G. Wells
1926 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
1931 A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich
1941 Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber
1954 No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman
1954 This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart


1912 The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori
1925 When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne
1932 The Story of My Life by Clarence Darrow
1940 I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson
1942 Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawligs
1950 Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
1962 Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Also, bestsellers throughout the 20th century have been adapted for film! One of the earliest adaptations I found on the lists & in the catalog was Kitty Foyle-so you can read the book & watch the movie!

Michael Korda says: "The bestseller list is therefore neither as predictable nor as dominating as its critics make it out to be. Plenty of really strange books get onto the list & stay there for a long time, & as much as booksellers may pay attention to the list, they still fill their stores with books that aren't on it." Do you agree?

1 comment:

Ania said...

Great to see The Montessori Method on the list!Cool :-)