Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What people have been reading all these years

The other day Nathan Bransford linked to Kahn's Corner, where Matt Kahn is reading the top-selling books from each of the past 100 years (although, since some books topped the list more than once, there are 94 books in all). You can see Kahn's complete "100 years, 94 books" list here. The idea intrigued me, partly because I look forward to seeing what someone else has to say about the works of Booth Tarkington and Sinclair Lewis; partly because I find the range of books fascinating (from The Grapes of Wrath to Valley of the Dolls), and partly because it emphasizes how fleeting public acclaim is. Booth Tarkington, for example, won two Pulitzer Prizes and was a bestselling author, yet he's not read widely (or even much, I would venture to say) nowadays. It's also interesting that a single author can so dominate the list (that would be John Grisham, occupying more than 10% of the list's slots, leaving every other author in the dust).

I couldn't resist counting to see how many titles on that list I've read, and it turned out to be ten of the 94. But bestsellerdom is only one way to look at the changing tastes of readers. I thought it would be interesting to look at the list of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction/novels over roughly the same time period (they only go back to 1918; also, the prize hasn't been awarded every year). The list is below, behind the cut. And while there's some overlap between the two lists, there isn't much.

It turns out I've read nine of the 85 Pulitzer-winning books. And although I've read other works by Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sinclair, Updike, Wilder, Hersey, Michener, Hemingway, Porter, Styron, Grau, Welty, Stafford, Lurie, Roth, Eugenides ... I just haven't read anything they won Pulitzers for. (Perhaps I'm a jinx?)  Another thing that struck me was that I've read more Pulitzer winners from the 'teens and '20s than from recent years--in fact, the most recent winner I've read is 1983's The Color Purple. I haven't read many of the bestsellers from recent years either. It brought home to me how much my reading tastes have veered away from mainstream adult fiction. For years I've been reading young-adult fiction, and adult nonfiction (especially memoir and essays), and when I do read adult fiction, it's usually something that has flown under everyone else's radar.

I should also say that when I refer to books I "haven't read," I actually think of them as books I "haven't read yet." Some part of me expects that I'll get around to reading every book, eventually. That is the part of me commonly referred to as "delusional."

If you had to read all of the books on one list or the other, which list would you prefer?

(Pulitzer winners behind the cut)

2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad (Egan)
2010 Tinkers (Harding)
2009 Olive Kitteridge (Strout)
2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz)
2007 The Road (McCarthy)
2006 March (Brooks)
2005 Gilead (Robinson)
2004 The Known World (Jones)
2003 Middlesex (Eugenides)
2002 Empire Falls (Russo)
2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon)
2000 Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri)
1999 The Hours (Cunningham)
1998 American Pastoral (Roth)
1997 Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Millhauser)
1996 Independence Day (Ford)
1995 The Stone Diaries (Shields)
1994 The Shipping News (Proulx)
1993 A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Butler)
1992 A Thousand Acres (Smiley)
1991 Rabbit at Rest (Updike)
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Hijuelos)
1989 Breathing Lessons (Tyler)
1988 Beloved (Morrison)
1987 A Summons to Memphis (Taylor)
1986 Lonesome Dove (McMurtry)
1985 Foreign Affairs (Lurie)
1984 Ironweed (Kennedy)
1983 The Color Purple (Walker)
1982 Rabbit is Rich (Updike)
1981 A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
1980 The Executioner's Song (Mailer)
1979 The Stories of John Cheever (Cheever)
1978 Elbow Room (McPherson)
1976 Humboldt's Gift (Bellow)
1975 The Killer Angels (Shaara)
1973 The Optimist's Daughter (Welty)
1972 Angle of Repose (Stegner)
1970 Collected Stories (Stafford)
1969 House Made of Dawn (Momaday)
1968 The Confessions of Nat Turner (Styron)
1967 The Fixer (Malamud)
1966 Collected Stories (Porter)
1965 The Keepers of the House (Grau)
1963 The Reivers (Faulkner)
1962 The Edge of Sadness (O'Connor)
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
1960 Advise and Consent (Drury)
1959 The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (Taylor)
1958 A Death in the Family (Agee)
1956 Andersonville (Kantor)
1955 A Fable (Faulkner)
1953 The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1952 The Caine Mutiny (Wouk)
1951 The Town (Richter)
1950 The Way West (Guthrie)
1949 Guard of Honor (Cozzens)
1948 Tales of the South Pacific (Michener)
1947 All the King's Men (Warren)
1945 A Bell for Adano (Hersey)
1944 Journey in the Dark (Flavin)
1943 Dragon's Teeth (Sinclair)
1942 In This Our Life (Glasgow)
1940 The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1939 The Yearling (Rawlings)
1938 The Late George Apley (Marquand)
1937 Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1936 Honey in the Horn (Davis)
1935 Now in November (Johnson)
1934 Lamb in his Bosom (Miller)
1933 The Store (Stribling)
1932 The Good Earth (Buck)
1931 Years of Grace (Barnes)
1930 Laughing Boy (Lafarge)
1929 Scarlet Sister Mary (Peterkin)
1928 The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)
1927 Early Autumn (Bromfield)
1926 Arrowsmith (Lewis)
1925 So Big (Ferber)
1924 The Able McLaughlins (Wilson)
1923 One of Ours (Cather)
1922 Alice Adams (Tarkington)
1921 The Age of Innocence (Wharton)
1919 The Magnificent Ambersons (Tarkington)
1918 His Family (Poole)

sources of Pulitzer list:


  1. I would prefer the Pulitzer list because of the diversity of the authors on it. The bestsellers, though, would be so interesting - and it's worth noting how they rarely cross, even in the early 1900's. I did love Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple...but I also loved some of the bestsellers. And, of course, there are the ones that you loathe like Hemingway (I cannot read Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea is one of the few books I hate so viciously.)

    I wish I could just read the most obscure people from each list and see what people are missing. That's what's so fun about looking at the history of bestsellers and awards.

    1. Hemingway is mixed for me. I liked The Sun Also Rises, but not A Farewell to Arms. I like some of his short stories.

      One lesson I took from these lists re the longevity of an author's reputation: if you want to be remembered, try to get your book made into a movie!

      But like you, I also enjoy discovering (or rediscovering) gems from the past. Tin House magazine has a column called "Lost and Found" where they do just that sort of rediscovery.