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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ron Charles would have hated readers in 1943

This summer we had a rather heated discussion of an article by Ron Charles bemoaning the popularity of Harry Potter. In it, he lamented that
when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired. True, Oprah Winfrey can turn serious works of fiction such as Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" or Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" into megasellers. But among the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon.com this week, only six are novels -- and that includes the upcoming seventh volume of He Who Must Not Be Outsold, James Patterson's "The Quickie," the 13th volume of Janet Evanovich's comic mystery series and a vampire love saga.
Alas, alas, alas--what are we to do, Charles pondered, about the fact that the best-selling book of 2006 on Amazon "was 'Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems,' by Cesar Millan"?

As we noted in July, best-seller lists from the past rarely match up with our assessments of and assumptions about the important books from that period. Or, put differently, to the Ron Charleses of the world, people have always been reading trashy books short on literary merit.

In today's NY Times blog "Paper Cuts," they publish a best-seller list from January 1943. Suffice to say, I've never heard of any of the books on it, though a few of the fiction and nonfiction authors ring a vague, distant bell. The list does contain a novel written by one "Jake Falstaff," which apparently was quite a hit in Cleveland and gives us our requisite Renaissance connection.

Amazingly, America made it out of 1943 despite reading all these long-forgotten books, which I assume were more the type that would cause Charles to "snap his broom in two" than erudite explorations of the human condition filled with dazzling prose and magical (in a good way) storytelling. Who knows, maybe there are even one or two stunners in the list. We'll leave that for the poor sap who decides to write his or her dissertation on "World War II Best-Sellers and the Politics of American Fiction" (actually, that sounds like an interesting project).

  • At 12/04/2007 02:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I do not know what "made it out of 1943" means, but the fact that you admit you hardly recognize most of the works in that list and feel sorry for the "poor sap" who decides to read them may actually support Charles' views, in the sense that a bestseller today may become irrelevant tomorrow.

    Your argument that it may actually be an "interesting project" also supports what Charles wrote, as one can imagine not following Oprah or reading *Harry Potter* but just looking forward to reading forgotten bestsellers from 1943.

    If people will "make it out" of any year regardless of what they read, then that argument does not only challege Charles it may also support him.

    Charles might have been against readers who read bestsellers in any year, but what about readers from 2007 looking forward to reading works published in 1943? And why stop at 1943?

    Finally, the implication that there may a few "stunners" in the list supports Charles' views again, as it implies that not all bestsellers are worth reading and that it will take much time before one realizes the value of a work.


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