The List’s Seductions

I MADE MY ENTRANCE into this world in the wee hours of September 9, 1950, a future bookworm and editor, the American reading public whose taste and custom I would later have designs on was caught up in the machinations of the Catholic Church and the criminal-justice system, the convulsions of the recently concluded Second World War and the anxieties of the newly developing cold war, the settling of the West and the folkways of the Old South, the intrigues of the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It wanted to look younger and live longer, develop the power and maturity of its mind, peek into the nursery of the future Queen of England, escape to bohemian Paris and the Congo, entertain heretical ideas about the history of the solar system, and inform itself about the towering figures of American politics. If it was interested, however, in literature qua literature, traces of that interest are faint.

I know all this thanks to the online book-search service BiblioQuest, whose website allows you to call up the New York Times best-seller list for the week of your birthday (or any other day), back to 1950. When I first did so, I was expecting to find a tonier, more aspirational list than the dispiriting one we have today. After all, literary giants of the stature of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Greene, Welty, Waugh, and Mann still walked the earth, and such future postwar greats as Mailer, Vidal, and Bellow had already launched their careers. No such luck. Instead, we are firmly in the kingdom of the middlebrow. The only two novelists of real literary distinction are Robert Penn Warren, whose World Enough and Time, set in antebellum Kentucky, was the follow-up to his 1946 blockbuster All the King’s Men, and Alberto Moravia, the presence of whose Two Adolescents I am utterly unable to account for. Even as popular entertainment or instruction, none of these books, with the exception of one extreme outlier, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, was built for the decades; only nine of the thirty-two titles appear to be in print sixty years later, some of them tenuously.

In a famous essay, Gore Vidal read the top ten fiction best sellers of January 7, 1973, and reported wittily on his findings. I don’t have his stamina, and the only one of these books I myself have read is Giovanni Guareschi’s The Little World of Don Camillo, a novel of immense anthropological charm (not unlike that of the work of Alexander McCall Smith) that I highly recommend. With the admission that I am flying by instrument here, what might this snapshot of American reading habits really tell us? Well, to judge from the No. 1 status of Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, a big thumping roman à clef about Cardinal Spellman, the church excited the same sort of curiosity then that Dan Brown taps into today. The fiction list is dominated by the old-fashioned historical novel, with six books, by Warren, Gwen Bristow, Robert Henriques, Frank Yerby, Mika Waltari, and Slaughter, fitting that bill. Waltari’s The Egyptian is an interesting case: This novel of Very Old Egypt (fourteenth century BC) was the best-selling work of fiction of 1949 and was translated from, of all languages, Finnish. Three other novels, the Moravia, the Guareschi, and Hanama Tasaki’s Long the Imperial Way, a novelization of a Japanese soldier’s experiences in China, are translations, suggesting a greater cosmopolitanism than exists today. Unsurprisingly, World War II looms large as the subject of several novels, and others are set in the South, reflecting that region’s enduring influence on American literature and popular culture.

And what comparisons might one make with the best-seller lists of today? Unlike Vidal, who maintained that the best sellers of 1973 were mimicking in prose the movies the novelists had seen in their youth, I can offer no grand unifying theory of American popular fiction or culture. One notes that my birthday fiction list, middlebrow as it might be, is free of the tyranny of genre that reigns today; nine of the fifteen titles on the Times list of April 24, 2011, are either mysteries or thrillers, and in other weeks the fantasy/sci-fi or romance category might hold equal sway. Today’s readers want to know what they are buying in advance and require their imaginative pleasures to be familiar ones. On the nonfiction side, the death grip of celebrity culture is all too evident, with titles by Tina Fey (OK, I know), Ashley Judd, Jesse Ventura, Sammy Hagar(!), and Barbara Eden (oh, for God’s sake) riding high. Blame television, an appliance only beginning its living-room hegemony in 1950.

But if I might hazard a concluding generalization, my birthday list just seems more adult than the one we have today. The history of the recent and more distant past is of greater interest to the readers of the ’50s—no surprise, since they’d lived through a decade and a half of history of the most strenuous and trying sort. While neither litterateurs nor intellectuals, these readers show signs of an abiding curiosity about the world as it actually exists. Today, in contrast, we seem spellbound by our entertainments and the people who deliver them—an insight that informs the great novel Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace. As it happens, his posthumous work The Pale King just squeaks onto the fiction list at No. 15, providing the single spark of literary intelligence. Let’s blow on it and see whether we can get a fire going.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.