January 21, 2014

Bill O’Reilly is our James Baldwin


James Baldwin at the March on Washington

James Baldwin at the March on Washington

James Baldwin was the number one New York Times bestseller on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.

It’s a habit I have, to look back at the lists of bestsellers from previous decades. I do it out of curiosity alone: they pose no questions, these lists. They solve no answers. They indicate nothing much at all. But the temptation remains, to draw a line from those lists to our own ranking of bestselling books, to note themes, to ask—and it’s a useless question, I know—what happened.

During yesterday’s day of memory, I looked again. The Times weren’t yet publishing their list in 1929 when Dr. Martin Luther King was born. They didn’t begin until 1931. So I skipped ahead, past the buses, past the trip to India, past his books and his stabbing, to his speech, The Speech, in the summer of 1963. The summer after the newspaper strikes, the summer before Dallas. A summer when James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time remained the bestselling non-fiction book in the country.

But I’m sure many people know that bit of trivia. Baldwin was at the March in person as well. He was on the cover of Time that year. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise. And it’s not as if his book’s popularity alone could be used as a statement about how different we are now. After all our own top five Times nonfiction bestsellers this week are, let’s see…

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson
  2. Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
  3. Things that Matter by Charles Krauthammer
  4. David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
  5. The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

See? One that glorifies armed warfare (and is a movie), two by conservative television pundits, one that glorifies feckless greed (and is a movie), and one that enervates the discontented with carefully-chosen narratives of materialist determinism. But again, there are no real conclusions to be had from comparing these lists. Much of that list from ’63 is padded with the usual fluff—Bob Hope is number two, Charles Schultz is on there. And they, too, were reading a book about a Wall Street fortune … but in a strange juxtaposition with our current list, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree by Arthur Lewis doesn’t celebrate greed but paints it in a poor light.

The fiction list is worth a look, too. There are some remarkable books on there—Fowles, Salinger, du Maurier—as well as some dreck. The top of the list seems to be a strange bit of Catholic anti-Soviet schmaltz. The most interesting might be Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. The book was apparently made into  film by Rod Serling, though I’d heard of neither. It’s the usual paranoid political thriller, with threats to the presidency by, get this, a fascist general. Who does the president fight in the thrillers on our list? He takes on Mexicans (Hazardous Duty) and Russians (Command Authority).

Again, there are no lessons here—certainly nothing to do directly with Dr. King—unless it is a simple one: People read more interesting books in 1963. Maybe that mattered.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.