A Bestseller's Database

Again from Books Inq.--a Bestseller database.

Interesting to peruse and see how many I have read and how many I've forgotten completely.  Also neat is to see some of the anomalies:

Willa Cather Shadows on the Rock
Joseph Conrad The Arrow of Gold--not one of his more notable books, but presence on the list at all is remarkable.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Hound of the Baskervilles--Not really unexpected as a best seller--I just tend to forget that Holmes crept into the 20th century.
Elizabeth von Arnim The Enchanted April (misfiled under Elizabeth)

Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose
William Faulkner The Reivers--Again, not a stand-out book by the author and, I believe, his last, but still to see Faulkner on such a list is a bit of a surprise.
Ellen Glasgow Vein of Iron
Hemingway hits the list five times, but Hemingway was nothing if he was not accessible by a large reading public--whether or not that public got from his books what he put into them may be debatable, but still, we see A Movable Feast and For Whom the Bell tolls among the others.
Aldous Huxley--Eyeless in Gaza (Interesting)
V. Basco Ibanez--The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--unjustly neglected nowadays.
Sinclair Lewis--Babbit and Main Street
Vladimir Nabokov--Lolita--for all the wrong reasons, I suspect
Boris Pasternak--Dr. Zhivago--I often wonder how many actually read this best seller--ditto on Eco
Katherine Anne Porter--Ship of Fools--Lest we forget the ends to which we are driven by foolish politics.
Edith Wharton--Age of Innocence and House of Mirth, among others.

This among a plethora of Kings and Micheners.  I did not see as so notable the presence of Steinbeck on the lists many times.  I've actually wondered about the presence of Steinbeck on the classics lists because most of his material reads like fairly standard best-seller fare.  But, to be fair to him, he is perhaps a writer for whom I failed to acquire the knack.  I enjoy what he writes, but I don't sense anything much below the surface--it seems that what you read is what you get.  But then, I mistakenly thought that about Hemingway for a long time.

I do note that well-known "literary" writers make the list when they write about sex--Myra Breckenridge, Portnoy's Complaint (or anything else by Roth with the exception of The Plot Against America), anything by John Updike--and above plausibly The Reivers and notably Lolita.


  1. Steven, is it not instructive that the best-sellers do not always represent the authors' best works, and that probably says something about the marketplace and readers' tastes at certain points in book-selling history. It reminds me also of the ways in which the Pulitzer Prize has been curiously awarded (almost belatedly sometimes) to authors (e.g., Faulkner's THER REIVERS); when the writer has already published his or her best work, the Pulitzer committee tries to make up for prior oversights by giving the award to an author for a less worthy book. The bottom line, I suppose, is this: be wary of best seller lists.

  2. Yes, I would agree--definitely be wary of best seller lists.

    I noticed something that I consider very strange, or perhaps I just misunderstand the nature of the list.

    JRR Tolkien's _The Silmarillion_ is listed, but not _The Hobbit_ or _The Lord of the Rings_. Even if TS had outsold the other two, which I doubt, the other two should still be listed.

  3. Dear Fred,

    I suspect the list actually refers to a very limited time window of best-sellerdom. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were not best-sellers in the year of release--they became mega-bestsellers over time. So--I think there may be some nuances to the list in that they are looking for something that in the year of release climbed to the top of one list or another.

    Otherwise a number of books that should have made it did not--including the Bible. In addition, if you think about all the colleges assigning some works of modern fiction for all these years to all their students.

    So, yes, all cautions to best-seller lists, but it is interesting to look at the qualities that some items making the list share. The three that really stand out to me are Edith Wharton's two and Umberto Eco. I am strongly suspicious that while it was a best-seller, it may well have been the least read best seller in the history of the lists. For every forty people I know who bought a copy one finished it.

    But I do find the lists instructive.



  4. Dear RT,

    It is an interesting note, however, I will note that Hemingway and Nabokov seem to run against the grain you point out. Nabokov I understand fairly well because I don't think it sold as literature. Hemingway, I have to wonder about.

    But yes, it is usually a lesser known work--certainly not the apex. As Fred points out with the Silmarillion. It may be an effect of building up a certain readership before you actually make the lists. With _The Reivers_ it was, more than likely, the fact that it was nearly immediately optioned as a movie--and it did have some the "steamier" or at least more overt Faulknerian moments (in addition to the fact that it was pretty straight-forward reading for Faulkner.)

    There are many puzzles in the list and that's what makes it so enjoyable to peruse. Thanks for the comments.



  5. Steven,

    OK, I guess then that _The Silmarillion_ did so well because of the great popularity of its predecessors.

    I'm one of the ones who did read _The Name of the Rose_ and have read it several times. Last year, I bowed to the inevitable and got a hardbound copy because my paperback copy was slowly disintegrating.

    I also saw the movie and thought it wasn't a bad job, considering the complexity of the novel.


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