100 years, 94 books
June 1, 2015 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Matt Kahn has read and reviewed every bestselling novel of the last 100 years, starting with The Inside of the Cup (1913), including masterpieces like s like All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) to the surprisingly dark E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to a reluctant slog through John Grishham, ending with The Fault in Our Stars (2014). Interview.
posted by TheophileEscargot (20 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice, had a buddy named Chris do this half a decade back. Seemed a worthy pursuit and provided some interesting and tedious explorations of popular culture.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 10:16 PM on June 1, 2015


I would never have guessed The Silmarillion was a best seller. It happens to be my favorite of the Middle Earth books, but I've told others considering it that it's like reading the Bible. I appreciated Matt's explanation as to how this happened.

I'm ashamed to admit that I contributed to the John Grisham rise in the mid to late 90's. A well meaning aunt handed me The Client and I ended up reading a few more. But only once...
posted by sbutler at 12:01 AM on June 2, 2015


The novelization of E.T. was a best-seller? I don't expect too much from the best-seller list, but I wasn't expecting that.

Guess how many times the words "pervert" or "sex fiend" to show up in a novelization of E.T.? The answer is "a lot more than you'd expect."

I had the novelization of The Cat from Outer Space when I was a kid. It was not good, but I enjoyed it, as I was a kid, and there was a space alien that looked like a cat with a glowing collar on the cover. OK, it was just a cat wearing the collar, and you had to imagine that this was actually an alien in the form of a cat based on the flimsy pretense of the film, which I was more than willing to do. The cover of the novelization featured on Amazon is so disappointing and generic, not even Penguin Classic level generic. The Amazon page of the movie includes the cover more or less how I remember, although I seem to remember that it was an actual movie still and not a movie poster. My point is, you're not going to sell many novelizations of The Cat from Outer Space without a picture of the cat wearing the collar on the cover. It's like you're not even trying.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:16 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I pity him, not everything has to be a masterpiece of literary merit, but bestsellers seem to usually be some of the worst.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:23 AM on June 2, 2015


I feel far worse for him for the Dan Brown books than for the Grisham ones, to be honest. Although man, if you want pulpy bestsellers, you could do a lot worse than the late seventies and most of the eighties. Ludlum, lots of Stephen King (including The Talisman, I had no idea that had done that well)... That's fun to read.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:42 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hahahaha. What bet did this dude lose?
posted by hal_c_on at 1:03 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's a worthy project, but from the reviews I looked at (Valley of the Dolls, The Silver Chalice, and The Source, books I've actually read), you don't really get a very good sense of what the books are actually like. There's not much about the plot or characters, and the writing is pretty dull and perfunctory.

This was a lot of work, though, so I'll give him an A for effort.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 1:47 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't have a problem with John Grisham--his books are all kind of retreads of each other but he is a lawyer so at least I, the non-lawyer, can get a glimpse (even if exaggerated!) of what that world is like. And he can write decently well.

But Dan Brown is just embarrassing.
posted by zardoz at 3:18 AM on June 2, 2015


Some of these are very good indeed. Some (two) of them are Johnathan Livingston Seagull.
posted by jfuller at 6:13 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Literary merit, as has been noted, is often orthogonal to the best seller list and the best seller list was often manipulated by publishers on in one case by radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and his listeners.
posted by plinth at 6:37 AM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Shepherd story is priceless!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:57 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, I knew Grisham was popular in the 90s but I had no idea he dominated sales for so long.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:10 AM on June 2, 2015


I've been analyzing the past 55 years of the New York Times Bestsellers list in posts on my blog. Among other findings, I noted that from 1960 (the year I started my analysis) through 1990, male authors dominated the list with 80% of the weeks. In the 2010s women have been on top 56.4% of the weeks.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:59 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Zane Grey! My grandma had a whole bunch of book club editions of Zane Grey novels at her house, and I read them all. It was the beginning of me understand literary formulas: every Zane Grey novel ended with the hero and heroine riding into the sunset. This was so consistent that when one of the books ended with them gazing into the embers of their campfire, I was thrilled.

It's a worthy project, but from the reviews I looked at (Valley of the Dolls, The Silver Chalice, and The Source, books I've actually read), you don't really get a very good sense of what the books are actually like. There's not much about the plot or characters, and the writing is pretty dull and perfunctory.

The review of Zane Grey's The U.P. Trail reads like a high school book report: a summary of the novel, and then a milquetoast judgment of it with absolutely no reference to the contents of the novel to justify the judgment.
posted by not that girl at 8:41 AM on June 2, 2015


As long as we are speaking of the Cat From Outer Space, I watched the trailer again recently and there's a part where they are being chased by the military I think and are on a bike and there's a fence and the cat's collar glows and he lifts them over the fence just in time. Isn't the flying bike scene in ET just a shameless ripoff of that? ET was four years later.
posted by freecellwizard at 8:42 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


If I'd done this, I'd have given myself a certain number of byes: books I was allowed to skip for any reason, or none. Maybe two would be fair. My two would be Silmarillion, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And if a book could, in my opinion, be fairly judged and thoughtfully written about without reading the whole thing, that would be acceptable.

I'd look forward to the John Grisham run, Tom Clancy, Michener—I have an affection for competent genre fiction. Working my way through the Grisham-dominated 90s would be a comfort and pleasure.
posted by not that girl at 8:46 AM on June 2, 2015


Dan Brown is just embarrassing.

So's a piss in a funky bar restroom, yet we all find ourselves enjoyin that now'n then.
posted by Twang at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dan Brown is just embarrassing.

I know his writing kind of sucks on multiple levels, and I probably shouldn't admit this, but my cousin and I had a great time reading his books on trains and in pubs and hostels across Europe 10+ years ago. It was a fun trip and I feel a bit of nostalgia whenever DB comes up. YMMV.
posted by JenMarie at 11:09 AM on June 2, 2015


In rifling through this list, I discovered that midcentury bestsellerman and Caine Mutiny author Herman Wouk is in fact still alive. And he put out a new novel in 2012 at age 97!
posted by Countess Elena at 8:13 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


(To be honest, the novel doesn't sound too good, but I am amazed to see a man who rivalled Norman Mailer and Philip Roth in the press of his day still at his game.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:15 PM on June 2, 2015


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