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Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction

by John Sutherland

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The author begins his “very short introduction” with the question, referring to bestsellers: “Why read, or contemplate, with any degree of seriousness, less than ‘good’ books?” He offers an example and short discussion of an early 20th century bestseller (1923, [Black Oxen] by Gertrude Atherton), before stating: great literary works are timeless, but bestsellers are “snapshots: of a particular age.

An interesting beginning, but in the next 10 pages or so, he:
*argues that Huckleberry Finn is not such an American book as it seems as it borrows from other non-American authors (quotes from Dumas, uses some Walter Scott...)
*notes (with charts) that so few translated books have ever made the US lists
*belabors the point that Americans very liberally pirated British books during the 19th century prior to an international copyright agreement in 1891 (so so difficult to be sympathetic on that point when, during the same era, Britain is plundering half the world...).

I don’t mind criticism of my country; in fact, I can find it quite enlightening; however, this seemed oddly placed, and I began to wonder who Mr. Sutherland’s intended audience actually was.

The good news is that after this part, Sutherland settles down and presents a well-organized short introduction to “bestsellers.” First he looks at the lists generally. He discusses terminology and whether there are cyclical patterns (he says no, not really, but certain types of books do reoccur on the lists. i.e. “religious bestsellers”). He discusses “literary” bestsellers, “comeback” bestsellers (very rare), the origin of paperback books and bestsellers, sales mania in the modern era, and then crunches some impressive numbers—all these topics liberally illustrated with examples of bestselling books.

Sutherland then offers reasonably long chapters on each of the intriguing histories of the American and UK bestseller lists and book markets, including some prehistory for both, beginning back in the 18th century. As an American (and former bookseller), I knew very little about the history of the UK book market, and perhaps falsely assumed that it has functioned fundamentally like the American market, but they have had very different (and fascintating) histories. Included in each of these two chapters are quick overview by decade or era, and a discussion of genre in both regions (again, the American bestselling genres were familiar, but many of the UK ones were not...the “Saharan romance”?). He brings us up relatively up-to-do before spending a couple of pages on the future of the bestsellers.

Overall I thought the book very good, with many fascinating insights for readers who might enjoy a bit of study on the subject of popular fiction and how they reflect the “fashions and ideologies of the day.” However, I don’t think he ever clearly answers his initial question, though I think he does suggest indirectly that we read popular books because we love looking in the cultural mirror. He never mentions (unless I’ve missed it), the desire many readers have for a common, cultural experience..

note: my husband found an error in Sutherland’s discussion of science fiction where he identified John W. Campbell as the editor of Amazing Stories... ( )
3 vote avaland | Apr 8, 2012 |
This title was about bestsellers. Why do certain books become so wildly popular? Are old bestsellers books we still read? No! Are the now read classics bestsellers in their time? Mostly not. And when at the start of the 19th century Americans tend to read British books, hundred years laters it's the other way around.

A nice book that mentioned some titles that made me curious.

http://boekenwijs.blogspot.com/2010/06/bestsellers-very-short-introduction.html ( )
  boekenwijs | Jun 8, 2010 |
An interesting introduction to the way bestsellers happen and how it reflects the era they're written in rather than, often, any real merit or worth. While some of today's bestsellers may endure, they are also influenced by selling pressure and the way the market works. This is almost a comfort book for some people who write well but don't sell the blockbuster. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Mar 26, 2008 |
A very good introduction, from a British perspective, to the best-seller list. ( )
  ericlee | Mar 1, 2008 |
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Why read, or contemplate, with any degree of seriousness, less than 'good' (and sometimes downright bad) books — the Deepings of the literary world?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199214891, Paperback)

Lady Chatterley's Lover. The Blue Lagoon. Portnoy's Complaint. The Da Vinci Code. For the last century, the tastes and preferences of the common reader have been reflected in the American and British bestseller lists, and this Very Short Introduction takes an engaging look through the lists to reveal what we have been reading--and why. John Sutherland shows that bestseller lists monitor one of the strongest pulses in modern literature and are therefore worthy of serious study. Exploring the relationship between bestsellers and the fashions, ideologies, and cultural concerns of the day, the book includes short case-studies and lively summaries of bestsellers through the years: from In His Steps--now almost totally forgotten, but the biggest all-time bestseller between 1895 and 1945--to Gone with the Wind, The Andromeda Strain, and The Da Vinci Code. Discussing both classic and contemporary novels, alongside some surprising titles and long-forgotten names. Sutherland lifts the lid on the bestseller industry, revealing what makes a book into a bestseller and what separates bestsellers from canonical fiction.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:19 -0400)

"This Very Short Introduction takes a look through 'bestseller lists' since their arrival on the scene in the 1980s, to show that these lists monitor one of the strongest pulses in modern literary fiction and are therefore worthy of serious study. Examining how these books reflect the fashions and ideologies of the day, it asks what separates bestsellers from canonical fiction, lifts the lid on the bestseller industry, and includes lively summaries of bestsellers through the years, from Huckleberry Finn to The Da Vinci Code, via many long-forgotten, but once bestselling, titles."--Jacket.… (more)

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