Mr. Michael Korda is the perfect person to write this book. He brings to the project an enormous sense of perspective from his many decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster, having had two books (Power! and Queenie) on the best seller list, being a book lover, and having a great story telling talent. The experience is like having a pleasant discussion over fine wine and aged cheese in a beautiful country home with a beautifully flickering fire in the background.
Today's best seller list began with surveys by Harry Thurston Peck in 1895. Mr. Korda's book then captures almost the entire history of best sellers in the United States. The lists for 1900-1912 come from The Bookman and from Publishers Weekly for 1912-1999. During the earliest years, there is only a fiction list. Later on, the list divides into at least fiction and non-fiction and sometimes includes special lists (such as during war years on war topics).
Most of the book is contained in ten chapters that each cover a decade. An essay captures the main themes in writing, popular taste, publishing, retailing, technology (if any) and the legal environment. Along the way, Mr. Korda sprinkles in factoids that sharpen up the appeal of the material. For example, the popular author Winston Churchill in the early part of the 20th century did not later become the prime minister of Great Britain. In certain years, he can tell you how many books had to be sold to make number one on the list. Further, he provides a sense of perspective in pointing out minor and major taste trends along the way. For instance, sex was only hinted at until after World War II. By 1999, it had almost disappeared again from best sellers after temporarily having been a centerpiece in the 1960s and 1970s.
I was impressed both by how many great books that I have enjoyed were actually best sellers, and how many books that were best sellers I have never heard of.
At the end of each decade is a year-by-year best seller list. Reading through those felt like stepping into a warm Jacuzzi as the warm memories of books I have loved flooded back over my mind. It was almost visceral. I could feel myself becoming young again, and then aging to the current day. If you are like me, the book is worth it just for the great nostalgia you will enjoy.
I have put together a brief list of best sellers by decade that may surprise you:
1900-1909: The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Virginian; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms; The Pit; The Jungle.
1910-1919: The Montessori Method; The Education of Henry Adams; Penrod; Seventeen; Pollyanna.
1920-1929: Outline of History; Emily Post's Etiquette; The Story of Philosophy; The Bridge of San Luis Rey; All Quiet on the Western Front; Ripley's Believe It or Not.
1930-1939: Of Time and the River; Of Mice and Men; Grapes of Wrath; Mein Kampf; Life with Father; How to Win Friends and Influence People.
1940-1949: A Bell for Adano; Yankee from Olympus; The Greatest Story Ever Told; Berlin Diary.
1950-1959: Andersonville; The Old Man and the Sea; Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book; Kon-Tiki; The Sea Around Us; Revised Standard Edition of the Bible; Power of Positive Thinking; Why Johnny Can't Read; Eloise; Atlas Shrugged; Kids Say the Darndest Things!; Masters of Deceit; The Ugly American.
1960-1969: Franny & Zooey; The Shoes of the Fisherman; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Profiles in Courage; In Cold Blood.
1970-1979: Sophie's Choice; Roots; Ragtime; The Thorn Birds.
1980-1989: In Search of Excellence; The One Minute Manager; Megatrends; Iaccoca; The Mammoth Hunters.
1990-1999: Annually dominated by John Grisham for most of the decade.
What's the weakness then of the book? Well, for all of its charm, the cultural perspective is a mile wide and a few centimeters thick. So, although the book certainly hits its target, to give us "a look at who we are, seen through what we read," you will probably not learn too much that you did not know already. The main lesson for me is that the public taste is better than I would have thought. Many fine books did sell well.
Serious students of cultural history will find raw material here for further consideration, but not much analysis.
If you are like me, you enjoy seeing other peoples' libraries. What lessons do you draw from the reading tastes of Americans over the last century? How might those tastes change for the better or worse in the future?
May you always find books that excite and inspire you!