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Ugh, Jonathan Livingston Seagull twice
March 6, 2013 1:27 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by Chrysostom (71 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool. Can't wait for Ship of Fools cuz I ain't reading it. ;) The write-ups so far are fairly terse and info-laden, but still, ambitious project. I can't say I'll remember to check back ... but I'll try to remember.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:33 PM on March 6, 2013


This would be a lot of fun, until about 1980
posted by thelonius at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just came on here to say that I looooove Jonathan Livingston Seagull...and wouldn't mind if it was reviewed twice or thrice =0)
posted by The1andonly at 1:37 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Neojaponisme was doing this for a while, but good luck finding anything from "a few years ago" on twitter.
posted by subdee at 1:41 PM on March 6, 2013


So The Mammoth Hunters will have to be read. I still bet the review won't best this one of The Plains of Passage.
posted by chavenet at 1:41 PM on March 6, 2013


Very interested in his review of Trinity. I have an...interesting connection.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:44 PM on March 6, 2013


Man the 90s are going to be brutal.
posted by The Whelk at 1:47 PM on March 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Wow ... I can't believe that The Silmarillion was a best-seller. That is truly bizarre. Even in the depths of my Tolkien obsession, I couldn't finish it.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:49 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who the hell is John Grisham?
posted by telstar at 1:50 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


so much john grisham! we really loved our courtroom thrillers in the 90s.
posted by kerning at 1:50 PM on March 6, 2013


Who the hell is John Grisham


A device for creating leading roles for Tom Cruise about 18 years ago.
posted by The Whelk at 1:53 PM on March 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


So many of the books on that list that I recognize are just trash, this seems like needless masochism. The world does not really need any reviews of Clear and Present Danger or the Da Vinci Code, let alone one more review. Maybe try the Pulitzer winners? Or the non-winners? Or just read though the lifetime reading plan (looks like some sailor already abandoned that course)
posted by shothotbot at 1:56 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just came on here to say that I looooove Jonathan Livingston Seagull...and wouldn't mind if it was reviewed twice or thrice =0)

Once was enough for me. Though, it definitely is a great explanation toward the trend of New Age spiritualism that arose in the 60s and 70s. It can also be described as, "Jesus as a seagull....THINK ABOUT IT."

I'm surprised by how dominant Grisham was, yeesh. I was also surprised that apparently the novelization of E.T. was a bestseller. Sweet.
posted by Atreides at 1:58 PM on March 6, 2013


Wow ... I can't believe that The Silmarillion was a best-seller. That is truly bizarre. Even in the depths of my Tolkien obsession, I couldn't finish it.

Neither did anyone else. But it looked great on their shelves.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:01 PM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Speak for yourself, Sebmojo.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:03 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


The novelization of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is the first one I read, probably in 1982. Fun fact: M&Ms were used instead of Reese's Pieces in the novel. This is essentially the only thing I remember about it.

(If we go by the chronological order of the list, I haven't read any until The Good Earth and I haven't read very many others. Because of that, this seems sort of fun in a "let's figure out what it says about changing culture" way. But I'm not sure it'd be enough to even think about reading The Da Vinci Code again.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:05 PM on March 6, 2013


Actually reading The Silmarillion is like painting your lead figures. Sets you apart from the run-of-the-mill.
posted by shothotbot at 2:06 PM on March 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


He might be better off to read every book that hit #1, not just the #1 for the year. It would be a lot more work, but there would be a lot more variety-the 90s wouldn't be all Grisham.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:07 PM on March 6, 2013


John Grisham is a novelist, one of whose books the protagonist of Houellebecq's Platform judiciously buries in the sand.
posted by seemoreglass at 2:09 PM on March 6, 2013


So many of the books on that list that I recognize are just trash, this seems like needless masochism.

Except for the angle about "why was this a bestseller then." That seems to me an interesting question to explore even if the book itself is crap--perhaps especially if the book is crap.
posted by yoink at 2:09 PM on March 6, 2013


Jondalar "finds her nodule," which is surprising because it's probably where he left it last time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites +] [!]

This made me BUST OUT LAUGHING!!!!
posted by MoxieProxy at 2:11 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's true, yoink, but I think the answer is the same for one John Grisham novel as for eight of them.

I read The Firm when it came out, in about a two afternoons. It was page turning, and terribly written. I wasn't screaming "Give me those four hours back!" but I wasn't about to read any more Grisham, either.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:18 PM on March 6, 2013


1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy

THE PAIN THE PAIN
posted by COBRA! at 2:27 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aw man, all those Left Behind books.
posted by Cookiebastard at 2:29 PM on March 6, 2013


I'm surprised by how dominant Grisham was, yeesh. I was also surprised that apparently the novelization of E.T. was a bestseller. Sweet.

What makes it even more surprising is that it was actually the novelization of E.T. the Video Game.
posted by The Bellman at 2:32 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read The Firm when it came out, in about a two afternoons. It was page turning, and terribly written. I wasn't screaming "Give me those four hours back!" but I wasn't about to read any more Grisham, either.

Yeah, probably. But it will be interesting to see if he can find some particular angle that made this particular Grisham novel in this particular year seem so relevant to so many people. I mean, there's a ton of people turning out this kind of stuff and lots of it hits the bestseller lists; why was this one the winner in this particular year? It can't just be "OMG, another Grisham has come out; I MUST BUY IT!"
posted by yoink at 2:33 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I once read an argument that Grisham was like aspirational fanfiction for aging middle-tier professionals, a life just like yourse could be! But exciting and with all the unpleasant stuff taken out and you are also younger and fitter and right about everything all the time.
posted by The Whelk at 2:39 PM on March 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


It can't just be "OMG, another Grisham has come out; I MUST BUY IT!"

Oh yes it can.
posted by jalexei at 2:40 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The good thing about Grisham is that the prose is inoffensively readable and they go quick. I'd rather read a few of his than go through The Silmarillion again (which, yes, I have read).

It's weird how Khaled Hosseini is stuck there in the middle of a bunch of crap.
posted by something something at 2:43 PM on March 6, 2013


Man, that list is like an exhibit demonstrating when literature went from being an artistic force and subject of national discussion to being an aide for getting businesspeople through air travel.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


It can't just be "OMG, another Grisham has come out; I MUST BUY IT!"

Oh yes it can.


Well, no. Even the most popular writers can lose their audience if they stop delivering the goods--whatever those goods happen to be. I think you could see one novel hit the best sellers list simply on "OMG, it's the new one!" but if it spectacularly failed to deliver whatever reward readers are looking for, the next one would be a tougher sell. After all, the last few decades of this list are made up mostly of popular writers with dedicated fanbases (Brown, King, Grisham etc.) but not every one of their books makes it to the top every year. So obviously there is something to be said in any given year about why a given novel happened to make it that extra mile beyond "the fan base all chipped in" to "this was the biggest of the year!" No?
posted by yoink at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2013


A while ago, when I was stuck in a hostel with nothing to do and nobody to talk to, I picked up a book of John Grisham short stories. They've all run together in my mind now, into something that goes kind of like this:

"Once upon a time, a man wanted to do a thing. (In the background, colorful southerners said colorfully southern things.) So he went right ahead and did it. (There was some food, too.)"

So I think that's the guy's problem right there. He may not actually understand what a story is. Given that handicap, I find his successes as an author truly inspiring.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's weird how Khaled Hosseini is stuck there in the middle of a bunch of crap.

I only read The Kite Runner, and it would not be out of place on a shelf of "crap."
posted by MoxieProxy at 2:48 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


that list is like an exhibit demonstrating when literature went from being an artistic force and subject of national discussion

Perhaps. Although a 1960s version of Metafilter would be rolling its eyes at the loathesome "middlebrow" taste revealed by these books. These are the equivalents of Oscar winners in the movies: big, sprawling narratives that take on Important Social Issues. But the literati, for the most part--like the most part of cinephiles today--regarded them contempt.
posted by yoink at 2:49 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe try the Pulitzer winners? Or the non-winners?

Well, I suppose the premise is that reviewing best-sellers will provide some insights into culture and society etc. at that point in time. Pulitzer winners are more of a complex beast (a Pulitzer might be awarded as a lifetime achievement award, for example, to a writer that is over the hill and irrelevant).
posted by KokuRyu at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2013


"an attempt to figure out just what made these particular books popular"

Oh. So it's marketing research. Once he understands, what next? A Product Manager job at Proctor and Gamble?
posted by surplus at 2:52 PM on March 6, 2013


It can't just be "OMG, another Grisham has come out; I MUST BUY IT!"

I think some people read for pure escape, nothing more, and since their standards aren't... finely calibrated... they read whatever is on the bestseller list. Or, like in the case of my sister, who has a stressful job in a brainy field (ie, she's no dummy), people read whatever has the most goddamn torrents these days.

I see stuff on my sister's Kindle I wasn't even aware existed. It would be called pulp, for lack of a better word... airport books? Generic, wholesale reading material? Stuff with bright, colorful pictures on the cover (that cannot be seen on a monochromatic Kindle)?

Fantastic post by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:54 PM on March 6, 2013


Oh. So it's marketing research. Once he understands, what next? A Product Manager job at Proctor and Gamble?

If you really want to get dismal, perhaps the blogger is aiming for a position as a cultural studies instructor. Or, perhaps has an interest in that thing called "history"?
posted by KokuRyu at 2:55 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


surplus: " Once he understands, what next? A Product Manager job at Proctor and Gamble?"

Must knowledge have a purpose? Maybe he's just interested in why things were the way they were?
posted by Chrysostom at 2:56 PM on March 6, 2013


I think some people read for pure escape, nothing more, and since their standards aren't... finely calibrated... they read whatever is on the bestseller list.

Or they buy books at the drugstore or the airport or something, where they're not going to have anything else.

There definitely was a period where people were buying Grisham just because it was Grisham.
posted by LionIndex at 2:57 PM on March 6, 2013


I only read The Kite Runner, and it would not be out of place on a shelf of "crap."

Well, I mean, there's still a pretty big difference between A Thousand Splendid Suns (which I thought was far better than The Kite Runner, if that matters), and The Lost Symbol. I wonder if Grisham just didn't have a new book out that year or something.
posted by something something at 3:02 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There definitely was a period where people were buying Grisham just because it was Grisham.

Yeah, sure; because he represented to them a solid brand. I would imagine we all have authors we will buy "the next work of" without bothering to read a review beforehand. But I don't think it's true that the content of the work is irrelevant to Grisham's success, which is what seems to be being implied here (and I will admit I've never read one and doubt I ever will). That is, a simple reductio ad absurdum can demonstrate that this is incorrect: if you replaced the content with pages from the NYC phone book, readers would complain. They would take the book back to bookshop and demand their money back, in fact. And they would be very unlikely to buy the next book by Grisham without getting some assurances beforehand that it wasn't another phonebook stunt. So there is clearly some standard that the book must meet.
posted by yoink at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


For one thing, There would be far too many characters.
posted by The Whelk at 3:19 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wouldn't be too sure the older books are all that great either. I read the Man of the Forest (1919) once. It was a silly western about a cowboy and a city girl who inherits a ranch. I remember a lot of horse back riding.
posted by interplanetjanet at 3:27 PM on March 6, 2013


Maybe try the Pulitzer winners?

"The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses."

- William Gass, to whom, for all I know, the quotation also applies.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:28 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


he represented to them a solid brand.

Story goes that back when Sydney Sheldon was the super-mega-bestselling writer de jour, he and his publishers were arguing over what they should call his upcoming novel.

He put an end to the discussion by saying "Let's just call it 'Sydney Sheldon's Next Book'."

The point being, of course, that once your name is above the title, the title really doesn't much matter.
posted by BWA at 3:34 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe try the Pulitzer winners?

Here's the overlap. 1960 is the last year a Pulitzer went to the bestselling novel in the country.

So Big by Edna Ferber
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
posted by yoink at 3:41 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe try the Pulitzer winners?

I tried, even blogged about it, with a friend. Crashed on the rocks of Margaret Mitchell.

While there are some hidden gems, or at least interesting books, in that early batch, you would be shocked at how many of them were turgid dreck. So Big was decent. Booth Tarkington's a smug prig. The Good Earth I actually liked although my blogging partner hated it. I should pick it back up again one of these days...
posted by Diablevert at 3:47 PM on March 6, 2013


I feel I should add, just to pimp a couple of the obscure-but-interesting Pulitzer winners --- Honey In The Horn was the most breathtakingly cynical (and therefor, to me, fascinating) book about a little-recounted time and place in American history --- the Oregon frontier. The Store was more workmanlike in its plotting, but worthwhile for the vivid and rare setting and characters --- Reconstruction small-town Alabama. And my blog partner loved but loved the lyric Now In November. Laughing Boy was also interestingly evocative --- modernist stream of consciousness from a Native hero in New Mexico --- and I managed to dig up a suggestive essay which claimed it was an influence on JD Salinger.

So there, from my sufferings, I bring you what little I culled.
posted by Diablevert at 3:57 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Guys, forget Grisham - if he's doing best-sellers, he's gonna have to get through Dan Brown.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:13 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I only read The Kite Runner

I read it when it was called "A Separate Peace"
posted by thelonius at 4:23 PM on March 6, 2013


Of similar interest, with a more analytic look at the bestseller list over the years, is legendary editor Michael Korda's
Making the List
.
posted by twsf at 4:34 PM on March 6, 2013


That Michael Korda book looks like it has a much better interest to time ratio.
posted by shothotbot at 5:20 PM on March 6, 2013


Honey In The Horn was the most breathtakingly cynical (and therefore, to me, fascinating) book about a little-recounted time and place in American history ---

One of my favorite relatively unknown historical novels. I happened upon it in my grandmother's bookshelf many years ago.
posted by Agave at 5:30 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pop quiz! What is the best-selling book of all time?

We use the ever-authoritative website Wikipedia as our arbiter. Note that they exclude some popular answers - The Bible, The Qur'an, The Communist Manifesto - as possibilities, because exact distribution figures are hard to come by.

What is the certifiably best-selling book of all time? Here's the authoritative Wikipedia link.

A small hint appears below:

sʞooq ɟo ʇsɹoʍ ǝɥʇ sɐʍ ʇı 'sʞooq ɟo ʇsǝq ǝɥʇ sɐʍ ʇı
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:58 PM on March 6, 2013


Kite Runner was a ubiquitous book for a summer because nobody knew anything about where we were invading.

Blond Nazi Taliban Pedophile Antagonist.
posted by benzenedream at 6:13 PM on March 6, 2013


I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull and read it several times... in second grade. I hear that it hasn't aged well.
posted by Blue Meanie at 7:01 PM on March 6, 2013


I've been working on a similar project for a while, but not limiting myself to the number one bestsellers. I love that someone else is doing this, too!

I have grown to hate authors with three names: Harold Bell Wright, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Adela Rogers St. Johns, et al. Three names in an early 20th century novelist is generally a sign of square-jawed Christianity.

Also, fuck, people loved Zane Grey and Booth Tarkington so much back then, and who reads them now?
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:02 PM on March 6, 2013


People are crying about Grisham and Brown, and I find it interesting how few of the first half of the books I recognize at all. Despite how often the same author ascends to the bestseller position in the early days there's no staying power there. It seems there's nothing new about unmemorable authors popular in their day but ultimately contributing nothing to literature.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:34 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have any of you looked at the New York Times bestseller list lately? At least half the stuff on there is crap. Danielle Steele makes the bestseller list. Popularity does not equal excellence.

I've been reviewing the Newbery Medal winners for my book review site, and I have been amazed by how bad some of the books are (though many on the list are excellent). I don't know what the explanation is for that. The Newbery winners are chosen by a committee of librarians, and you'd think they'd know better. Maybe the books seemed better than they were at the time because they were of the moment, because you had to be there or something. Maybe they get chosen because the author, who had written much better books in the past, got passed over in earlier years.
posted by orange swan at 9:17 PM on March 6, 2013


The reason I started my project was that I was so fucking sick of people saying "Oh, literature used to be different, but now all people buy is crap". People have always loved crap, from celebrity memoirs to garbage saccharine romantic nonsense. It by Elinor Glyn was the Fifty Shades of Gray of 1927.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:21 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What is the certifiably best-selling book of all time? Here's the authoritative Wikipedia link.

Dutch literature is represented on that list by Anne Frank and Xaviera Hollander.

Figures.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:12 AM on March 7, 2013


Dutch literature is represented on that list by Anne Frank and Xaviera Hollander.

The Happy Hooker Hides in a Closet.

Pretty hard to blend those.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:26 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I only read The Kite Runner

I read it when it was called "A Separate Peace"


Wow! what were you being punished for that you were forced to read both of those?
posted by wobumingbai at 5:46 AM on March 7, 2013


Another list to compare and contrast "excellence" vs. "popularity". What struck me about the popular selections was how many seemed to be "a book I was forced to read in high school" (On the Beach) or "a book I'm supposed to think is good but probably never read" (Ulysses). On the other hand, the Modern Library's own choices could be criticized on the grounds of ignoring science fiction for the most part.

The equally troubling non-fiction list. The takeaway here seems to be that Americans are basically selfish, paranoid anarchists.
posted by seemoreglass at 6:31 AM on March 7, 2013


The Modern Library's readers' list is the best argument against democracy yet mounted.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:53 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]



Once you understand that Best Seller is a literary genre, the list makes more sense.

Just as nearly all Westerns are in fact westerns, and nearly all Science Fiction are in fact science fiction, for decades now, nearly all Best Sellers have been written in the style of best sellers.

Doesn't matter if it's soviet spies, medieval monks, or killer clowns, the declamatory style and relationship with the reader is of a piece.

See also: American cinema since c. 1975.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:38 AM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


1983: Return of the Jedi FTW!

The fuzzy Ewoks continued in wild jubiliation, far into the night, while this small company of gallant adventurers watched on from the sidelines.
posted by ericbop at 10:02 AM on March 7, 2013


I don't see the point once you get to the past 20 years or so.
Prior to then it makes some sense to read what people were reading in a different era.
posted by Rashomon at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2013


Consider being at an airport bookshop that only stocks airport books. If you don't have the choice of a newspaper, Grisham or Brown become a relatively attractive proposition compared to people who aspire to emulate them *shudder*. In such a situation, some shops still stock Crighton books (from the 90s), who was slightly better iirc, or the odd classic ---usually Lolita.

As for Silmarillion, readers of the other two books expect a novel and are greeted by a succession of cosmogony, god squabbles, elf tales, Nordic pastiche, and invented history. Not hard to see how people get disappointed (not to mention that the boring bits are in the beginning).
posted by ersatz at 2:22 PM on March 7, 2013


That's fair criticism of The Silmarillion. It is a bid odds and ends-y at times and the slower, less grounded stuff is at the beginning. It's essentially the creation myths of the people we hung out with in LOTR, and as such has a more distant affect.

That said, some of it is truly moving and beautiful.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:43 PM on March 7, 2013


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