February 21, 2013

Reading the twentieth century’s bestsellers


Literary devotion. In the form of a tattoo, or committing to reading 11 John Grisham novels for the sake of an interest in the history of twentieth century publishing.

Sometimes people embark on reading projects that I envy, like A Year of Reading the World, and sometimes I hear about a project that I admire, but for which life feels too short: such is Matt Zahn’s 100 Years, 94 Books, a project where Zahn, a creative writing student at California State University, is reading every book that has reached the #1 spot on the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list since 1913, in chronological order. That’s 100 years, but only 94 books, because some juggernauts, like Gone With the Wind, Johnathan Livingston Seagull, and The Da Vinci Code have made it twice. And The Robe … oh, The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas: a novel about one of the Roman soldiers who crucified Christ and who gambles for and wins his robe, which changes his life yadda yadda, it was made into a spectacularly bad blood-and-sandals epic movie starring Richard Burton, and claimed the top PW spot in 1943 when it was first published, and in 1953, when the movie came out. Volunteering to read The Robe even once feels like the ultimate act of selflessness — twice? Somebody’d deserve a Congressional Medal of Honor for Devoted Service to the Turkeys of American Literature.

Zahn is blogging as he goes, providing for each book a discussion of who the author was, what the book’s about, why it was a hit at the time, and whether he recommends it. The first two entries demonstrate that Zahn’s doing great research and turning up all kinds of information about the history of literary tastes, advertising budgets, publication schemes (the first book on the list was initially published serially, for instance), and much more that will be interesting to have in one place, as a long and broad overview of the century’s reading. Also, he’s honest — on The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright, the entry for 1914, he concludes: “I wouldn’t recommend it.  Simply put, it’s not very good.”

Publishers Weekly interviewed Zahn at the start of his reading:

PW: How did the idea for the project come about?

Matt Kahn: I took a class on twentieth century American novelists during the Fall 2012 semester. Before we began reading the first text for the course (The Sun Also Rises), the professor lectured on what constituted the literary canon. He pointed out that The Sun Also Rises was far from the most popular book in the year it was released. The bestselling book of 1926 was The Private Life of Helen of Troy.  I’ve always been interested in how society affects popular culture and vice-versa, so the idea for the blog developed from that lecture.

Had you read any of the books before starting the project? Which ones are you looking forward to? Least looking forward to?

Only a few. I read The Grapes of Wrath (1939) in my eleventh grade English class. I was also a big Stephen King fan in high school, so I’ve already read the Tommyknockers (1987).  I’m looking forward to rereading The Grapes of Wrath. I’m also excited to read Dr. Zhivago and Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m not really looking forward to the Tom Clancy books. I’m dreading having to tackle 50 Shades of Grey.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.