Thursday, 20 September 2012

Forgotten Bestsellers: Where are they now?

Today I stumbled across a fascinating website, or rather, section of a website.  It lists the top 10 bestselling books in the USA for each year from 1900 to 2005, based on the Publishers Weekly figures.  Look at it here!  In the absence of a similar list for the UK (tell us in the comments if one exists), I found it so interesting to scan through history at these former chart toppers.

Obviously it's fascinating to skim through and see big names appear and disappear.  The Hound of the Baskervilles makes the top 10 in 1902, Joseph Conrad rather surprisingly only cracks the top 10 with The Arrow of Gold in 1919, Gone with the Wind achieves two consecutive years at the top in 1936 and 1937, in 1983 not one book managed to sell a novelisation of Star Wars' Return of the Jedi by an American "medical specialist" named James Kahn.  I was probably most surprised to see Winston Churchill topping the charts in 1901 with The Crisis; unfortunately a little research revealed this to be a different Winston than our celebrated bald prime minister.

What surprised me still more, though, was the enormous prevalence of books I had never even heard of, by authors I never knew existed.  Now it's worth bearing in mind that in the context of this list I'm still fairly new to this world, and that I've lived my whole life in a different continent to the homelands of most of these books.  However a little bit of research shows that a lot of these books, even the very bestsellers, are almost impossible to get hold of in 2012.  Some don't even make it onto Wikipedia.

One notable example is the clearly enormously successful Lloyd C Douglas, who wrote mainly in the 1930s and 40s.  Douglas had the top selling book in the USA in 4 separate years: Green Light in 1935, The Big Fisherman in 1948, and The Robe in both 1943 and 1953 (the latter following a film release, just as a reminder that films cashing in on successful books is far from a uniquely 21st Century problem).  The Robe was so successful that it stayed in the top 10 for four consecutive years from 1942 to 1945, totalling over 3.7 million sales.

Assuming you haven't heard of any of these titles, you can easily crib from Wikipedia that Douglas' "written works were of a moral, didactic, and distinctly religious tone" - The Robe tells the story of the crucifixion by taking the seamless robe of Jesus as it's focus (it wasn't torn, but was instead soldiers drew lots for it).  This might not sound like bestseller material, but in fact it fits in rather well with other hits of the era - 1941's greatest hit was The Keys of the Kingdom by AJ Cronin about a Catholic missionary; 1942's crown went to The Song of Bernadette, a saint's life novel by a Holocaust fleeing Austrian Jew.

If you think the obscurity of these titles is down to their more distant origins, similar examples can be plucked (at least from my perspective) from the 1970s and 80s.  In both 1972 and 1973 the bestselling book was Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, "fable in novella form about a seagull learning about life and flight, and a homily about self-perfection".  Household names like Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel and Stephen King dominate the late 1980s, but as recently as 1985 Jean M Auel could outsell them all with The Mammoth Hunters.

One reaction, which I certainly share, is a desire to go back and read these forgotten works, and try to recapture what all the fuss was about.  It seems to me an important part of understanding the past in a historical context - how can you fully process American reactions to World War Two without noting that novels with Christian themes were enormously popular?  I can't say I would read these novels with much hope of enjoyment (although there might be some excitement: in 1945 Douglas's didacticism gave way to Forever Amber, a controversial romance featuring "70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" - by far the best thing about those figures being that they were tallied up by the Attorney General of Massachusetts), but they cannot fail to be fascinating as social documents about how our grandparents filled their days before television.

Another thought-provoking question is to consider which of our current crop of bestsellers will stand the test of time.  Obviously it's impossible to say for sure, but I'd be sceptical as to whether Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code will still be read in even 10 years, let alone 50 - as I'm sure was the case in the 1930s, much of the success of a bestselling novel is due to the hype that it creates, as more and more people read a book to see what all the fuss is about.  Not to dismiss its genuninely flabbergasting sales, but I'm not sure if the next generation will ever fully understand why millions of people shelled out for the kinky adventures of Christian and Anastasia.

I guess the obvious conclusion to draw from the list is that it's novels with 'literary value' that stick around.  An idealist would say this is because their innate timeless quality shines through; a cynic would point out the only people who read old books tend to be pretentious literature students.  It's certainly true that if you're reading for cheap thrills (whether they concern lovers or fighters), then there will always be a new generation of books sweeping last years hits into the dustbins of the future - the bookselling industry depends on it.

Have you read any of the books we've dismissed as 'forgotten'?  Let us know in the comments, or tell us what you think a reader of 2050 will think of our current crop of bestsellers!  When you're done, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with all our updates.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this and viewing the selection of featured sites. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together.
    wordpress ecommerce themes