Friday, October 11, 2019

Booknote: Bestseller: a Century of America's Favorite Books

Robert McParland, Bestseller: a Century of America's Favorite Books. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-5381-0999-1.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: books, reading, reference, pop culture
Format: hardcover
Source: Hutchins Library, Berea College 

This book does a few things. One, it looks at bestseller books year by year from the 1890s to the 2010s. Two, it looks at reading habits of people throughout the centuries, so you learn what people read then and now, reflecting the context of their times. Three, you also get historical context. The author tells use what else is going on in history, literature pop culture, and other areas in society to better appreciate why people read what they read at a given time. The book is way more than a list of bestsellers.

The book is arranged in nine chapters after the book's introduction. Each chapter has a small introduction to the decade it covers, then a section for each year in a decade looking at specific bestsellers, patterns, reading habits, historical context, and even interviews with sample readers to illustrate specific points. For example a brief interview with a World War II veteran about his reading habits back then while at war. After the chapters, you get a section of notes. There is also a bibliography. Note this bibliography covers the works the author consulted and not the bestsellers listed. It could have been helpful to have an additional list of the bestsellers, say by decade or such.

A strength of the book is that it covers so many elements about readers and reading along with the bestseller listings. You get to trace how reading habits in the United States changed and evolved over time. We do see that at times people in the United States did read more, and they did read more "serious" things, but they did so also reflecting their times.

While interesting overall, the book is more like an academic textbook, so a lot of the text can be pretty dry reading. Thus, some parts have a better reading flow; some parts you may find more interesting and may want to focus on more. Other parts may be more dry, and you're better off skimming them. In the end, this book works pretty well as a reference work where you can study the decades and see what was popular at a time and why, learn what motivated readers to pick up specific books thus making them bestsellers.

This is not a book for personal collections unless you are a scholar in pop culture or literature. It is more a book for libraries. I'd say it is mainly for academic libraries, especially if their college or university has strong interests in literacy and popular culture. It also works for trivia, say to find what books were bestsellers in 1955. Do note the book takes us to 2018, so as of this post, it's pretty current. However, over time this book is limited by its range, so the question is if will get updated editions down the road?

Bottom line is I liked it. I recommend it mainly for academic libraries. It may also be good for some public libraries, likely ones with larger popular collections.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

The author tells us what the book provides:

"This book provides a listing of bestselling books and recalls the contemporary context in which those books were situated" (vii).

A brief definition of bestseller from the book:

"A bestseller is a book that has caught the imagination of many readers. It is a book that has energy and momentum in the market and is being successfully marketed by its publisher" (ix). 

You can still find books from the 1950s with relative ease:

"Books from the 1950s can be found today in libraries, tucked away and forgotten in the corners of older homes, or stacked in rows at garage sales" (54). 

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