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What Makes a Bestseller?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Some books are great and almost no one reads them. Some books are horrid and almost everyone reads them. And between these extremes--every possible combination. As a writer, I read books both for pleasure and to find out how they work. But remember that I'm also an anthropologist, and sometimes I've also read books to figure out what they say about the people who read them.

And so I've decided to take on a new project. We'll be straightforward and call it the New York Times Bestseller Project.

Over the course of what will be at least half a decade (optimism font), I will undertake to read all of the number-one bestselling fiction from the first fifty years of the New York Times Bestseller List. According to my math, which may be shoddy and which was definitely not double checked, this adds up to 241 novels. (I found a list here.) Essentially, I’m snooping the bookshelves of our ancestors and ourselves, trying to figure out if what we read says anything about who we are, while trying to figure out at the same time what made each book so popular.

Why stop after fifty years? Honestly, because the lists for each year seem to get longer over time. 1942, the first year of the national list, only four selections made the top spot. In 1943, there were only two. In 2012, there were 35. Also, today there are multiple lists. I count 11 that fall under the banner of fiction. I’m not going to live forever, I hope to read other things from time to time, and I have plans to one day write a book or several myself. So I cut things off before they got too crazy. Also, I was born in the early ‘80s so reading past 1991 would be more like snooping my own shelves. I was reading Michael Crichton novels by middle school. It seemed like a good place to stop.

Why this list? Why bestsellers? Look, I know there are problems inherent in any list. The Wikipedia entry on the New York Times Bestseller List goes into great detail concerning the many criticisms levied against it. But I’ve grown up seeing “New York Times Bestseller!” splashed across mass market paperbacks until it practically becomes one long German-inspired word, newyorktimesbestseller. Sure, there are lots of lists of the best books of the twentieth century, but focusing on those would be more of a literary exercise. This project is the opposite: I’m more interested in trying to learn about the readers’ minds than the writers’.

First stop: 1942. (Fingers crossed that the list of bestselling books of the mid-twentieth century and the much longer list of books published in the twentieth century and unavailable because they're out of print won't overlap too much!) As I read I'll be posting thoughts about each book and perhaps bits of historical information about the year in question.

And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field (MacMillan) - August 9, 1942

The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel (Viking) - August 16, 1942

Drivin' Woman by Elizabeth Chevalier (MacMillan) - September 6, 1942

The Robe by Lloyd Douglas (Houghton Mifflin) - November 22, 1942

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