Ever wanted a time machine, but for what people thought and felt in the past? To be able to imagine what it was like to live in the head-space of English-language readers before the Great War? Through the magic of digital archives, record keeping, and a healthy dash of imagination, you can try, but ultimately, you can’t. From our perspective, we know that the Great War will be just the first of two World Wars.
I found, on Project Gutenberg, a list of the top ten best-selling books of every year, from 1895 – 1923. With links to those that they have in digital form for free download. Nice. Intriguingly, these seem to be derived ultimately from the Publisher’s Weekly lists. How, exactly, Publisher’s Weekly compiles these lists is a trade secret, so I wouldn’t completely trust it. However, it’s still very, very interesting. The New York Times would begin keeping their own best sellers list in 1931, in case you were wondering.
Please, feel free to go to Project Gutenberg’s Bookshelf of American Bestsellers, and have an extensive look. If you want to read them in paper form, you might have to luck out and discover one at a book sale, and check our collections, although most of them will be very hard to find. How, exactly, best selling books end up falling so far into obscurity is another question, so here are my own observations of the list. I’ll cover the earliest ones, from 1895 up until WWI, in 1914.
I haven’t even heard of most of these books.
It’s true. Most of them are completely unfamiliar to me. Even if it’s a smash hit in its own time, a book can clearly just drop off the popularity cliff and into the void in the course of a few generations. That’s a sobering thought. Maybe it’ll happen to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter or anything by James Patterson or Steven King too, just like it did to 1900’s Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley. I know it sounds impossible, but clearly it can happen.
The ones I have heard of.
Special Case: The Shuttle
Oh, hey, it’s The Shuttle. I only know it exists because I found a copy super cheap once. I didn’t realize it was that popular in its time. I think I’ll write a Reader’s Corner post about it. And now you’re reading it. Awesome.
Aside from this one, there’s three rough categories the other books I know fall into: famous author, famous book, and movie books.
People clearly just ate up whatever Winston Churchill wrote. Not too familiar with the books, but I do know about Winston Churchill. Other authors I’ve heard of, although I’m not familiar with these particular titles on Project Gutenburg: J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and that’s pretty much it.
The Book Itself is Famous – A Timeless Work of Literature?
Alright, now for the actually famous works in here, and what they’re famous for. If I can recognize a book by title, not author, and I can give you a rundown of what it’s about even if I haven’t read it, it’s on the list. These are the elite few that are still in print, over a century later:
- The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. It’s short, sweet, and set during the American Civil War. I remember reading this one in middle school, and probably a lot of you did too.
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the classic Sherlock Holmes novella – a perfect short read for Halloween!
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, classic social commentary novel about the hypocrisy of upper-crust moral rectitude.
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Mostly famous today for the meat-packing plant scene. Everybody likes
sausageleaf lard, but nobody wants to see how sausageleaf lard is made. Arguably contributed to the formation of the FDA. Lovely. If you’ve read it at all, it was probably for history class.
- Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. I know about this one, but haven’t read it. Named after its endlessly-optimistic heroine… which isn’t necessarily seen as a heroic quality these days, which tells you a lot about why the rest of these books are so obscure. Calling someone a Pollyanna is not a compliment.
Cultural drift over time has made the majority of the books on the list very boring and/or difficult reads.
Continuing on the theme of cultural drift, there’s the third, weirder category. This time period coincides with the rise of cinema, so there are a handful of books that are definitely still sort-of-well-known to very-well-known, but they’re famous for the movie that’s based on them, no longer necessarily in their own right. Ultimately, the movies are more famous than the book.
- First, there’s The Prisoner of Zenda, which is also the most obscure, being a clutch of movies that were themselves adaptations of the book, play, and then other movies, for decades. IMDB suggests that the most recent adaptations were a very straight 1984 TV miniseries, and a sports-comedy adaptation in 1993. Weird.
- Second, The Clansman, is arguably the most famous of these movie-books, because the film it was made into – The Birth of a Nation – is standard watching in film classes, for the fact that this movie represents the invention of modern film editing. As for the story, it’s awful, gut-churningly racist propaganda about the KKK being heroes. In case anyone wanted to plead “but morals were different back then” – no, I’m going to nip that in the bud right here. The director, D. W. Griffith, immediately made another film – Intolerance – to try to absolve himself of contemporary accusations of racism, so, for the record, it was definitely seen as racist at the time. His efforts didn’t work, in large part because The Birth of a Nation was, by far, the most popular, and overshadowed everything that he did after, and also because as a rebuttal after all that, Intolerance was incredibly weak, and also a flop so catastrophic that it ruined him. So, ultimately, the answer is that racism was incredibly popular in 1911.
- Third, The Virginian. This is a very quirky book, and arguably the first true literary Western. Before, there were plenty of Westerns, but they were relegated to dime-novel adventure stories and cheap entertainment. This book was adapted to a play, several movies, and in very broad-strokes terms, a well-known 1962 television show.
Whether for pop-cultural or historical reasons, nearly as many books survive as movies as they do as books. Maybe this will be the fate of books like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, where the book was certainly popular, but the movie franchise even more so. Only time will tell.
The Path to Timelessness?
So, in the end, only very few of these best-selling monster smash hits actually managed to pass a full century in the public imagination. I’m also fairly sure it must have been difficult to predict which of these works would make it. Let’s not forget that nearly half of them are known purely because they had the good fortune to be made into movies. And remade. Lots. If you ever hear people complain about how today’s movie theaters are stuffed with bland safe remakes, remember this: a quick search for the title “The Prisoner of Zenda” on IMDB turns up no less than eight movies or TV series with that exact title. This isn’t a new problem, really.
Ultimately, if you want your book to become a true classic, you need luck, specifically the luck to treat a major concern of your own time, which also will go on to be a major concern of the future, or at least be relevant to future history classes. How was Frances Hodgson Burnett to know in 1907 that the phenomenon of American heiresses marrying English nobility would represent an entire world killed stone dead by two whole world wars bookending a global financial collapse? She couldn’t have known. Nobody really could in her day. Even the list-dominating book is a pinball in the arcade of history. Only few people can claim a spot on the eternal literature high-score list. But, if you want to give luck an extra boost, though, definitely sell the movie rights if you can.
— Article by Katherine, Shawnee