100 Years Of Bestsellers

reading1In February of last year, Matthew Kahn, a creative writing student at California State University at Northridge, began to implement a singularly trying but interesting project on his blog: to read 100 years of No. 1 bestsellers, from 1913 to 2013, and post reviews.  

For this blog I plan, among other things, to read and review every novel to reach the number one spot on Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list, starting in 1913.  Beyond just a book review, I’m going to provide some information on the authors and the time at which these books were written in an attempt to figure out just what made these particular books popular at that particular time.

I decided to undertake this endeavor as a mission to read books I never would have otherwise read, discover authors who have been lost to obscurity, and to see how what’s popular has changed over the last one hundred years.  I plan to post a new review every Monday, with links, short essays, and the like between review posts. (Matthew Kahn)

‘Hyperlinked” titles in the list are those Mr. Kahn read and reviewed.  The others are still waiting to be reviewed:

* Books that appear multiple times will be condensed into one post. The review of The Robe, the only book to reach number one on two inconsecutive years (1943 and 1953) will be published under the earlier date.
** Publishers Weekly did not include the Harry Potter books in its listings.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix was the bestselling book for 2003, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the bestselling book of 2007.  I have decided to go with the official PW list.  This is not due to any bias against Harry Potter (I have fond memories of waiting in line for the midnight release of the final book).  By not counting Harry, I add The Da Vinci Code and A Thousand Splendid Suns to the list.  The Da Vinci Code already appears for 2004.  A Thousand Splendid Suns has a lot less notoriety than Harry Potter, so is more in tune with mission.

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Laura Miller, a literary critic of the Salon, interviewed Mr. Kahn. Answering her questions, Mr. Kahn shared his opinion about the books on the list he “covered” already, named his most and least favorite authors and titles and, prompted by Ms. Miller, reflected on some of the larger topics, such as his impressions  about the book business over the past 100 years and its prevailing tendencies. 

One thing about the massive shift in the 1960s is that it’s partly about a changing perspective on books. They’re more seen as a part of the entertainment industry. In the first half of this list, there are about 10 years where the bestseller was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. There were a few years where the bestseller was written by a Nobel Prize winner. With Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” in 1960, that was the last time either of those things were true. It’s the last book on the list to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The title of Laura Miller’s article is somewhat misleading: Lessons from Stephen King and “Valley of the Dolls”: Reading 100 years of bestsellers. Stephen King is barely mentioned in the article, except in the list of bestsellers and when Mathew Kahn says:

I know that around the beginning of 1960 there’s a massive shift toward genre fiction — Le Carré, Stephen King, even Tolkien one year — and away from things like coming-of-age stories. So it’s not going to all be the same…

The image Ms. Miller has chosen for her article makes up for this mishap — this is by far the most expressive picture of Stephen King I’ve seen so far. He looks as if he’d just been asked, “Mister King, what makes a book a bestseller?”

Stephen King. Credit: AP/ Francois Mori

Stephen King. Credit: AP/ Francois Mori

The tagline, however, is true to the meat of the article: What the most popular books of the past century taught one writer about America’s strange taste in fiction.  Read the article here, and follow the link to Matthew’s blog Kahn’s Corner. 




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