9th March, 2013
"A Best Seller was a book which somehow sold well simply because it was selling well." S. Boorstein.
This quote resonates enough that it must tell at least part of the story. Consider the books that have made this list during their day and then fallen quickly into obscurity (I happen to like John Fowles, "The French Lieutenant's Woman," on the list in 1970, but you never hear anything of it these days.) You have to hope that there's more to it than that. Something in us wants to believe that the cream rises to the top.
So, let's look at the ten best selling works of fiction of all time:
(1) A Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens. That's not too surprising, but I'd have guessed A Christmas Carol would have outsold it.
(2) The Little Prince. Big surprise. It's a nice story and everything, but who would have thought it would have that wide world and enduring appeal?
(3) The Lord of The Rings. I would have expected to find Tolkein here, though I could never get into those books myself.
(4) The Hobbit. Ditto.
(5) The Dream of the Red Chamber. It was written in the 18thC, and I really ought to read it, now that have heard of it.
(6) And Then There Were None." Agatha Christie. I have never read anything by Christie, but they must be good!
(7) The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. CS Lewis. I loved this as a child, but it's a children's book, isn't it?
(8) She by Henry Rider Haggard. Another book I haven't heard of.
(9) The DaVinci Code. I read this one, but as literature it barely squeaks by.
(10) The Catcher in The Rye." Well, it's somethingof a classic and perhaps the reason John Lennon is dead. It was given to us to read in High School in rural Scotland, and my guess is I wasn't the only one who couldn't make heads or tails of it.
It is widely accepted that the best seller list connotes neither academic value nor literary worth, so what's it there for? What does it mean in the long run that a certain book, say any of the three romance books that are currently on the best seller list, sold this or that number wihtin this certain period? Perhaps S. Boorstein is right after all.
A sobering thought is that 500,000 books are published a year and over 98% of those will sell under 500 copies. The Harry Potter series has sold 450 million copies, and The Berenstain Bears 260 million. The figures dance and swirl in a kind of nightmarish field of possibility. The Bridges of Madison County, a phenomenally badly written book, sold twelve million, and Goodnight Moon 16 million. The Malleus Maleficarum, a manual for hunting and executing witches, was a best seller in its seventeenth century day, even outselling the Bible. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows sold 44 million, just above "Jonathon Livingston Seagull."
The more I go on, the more I suspect Boorstein is right and being on the Best Seller List doesn't mean much except for the ch-ching of pennies dropping into your bank account. But, come to think of it, a person could fall asleep listening to the sound. The New York Times Best Seller List is like the Oscars - you really don't want to watch it, but you end up in front of the TV from the moment the stars hit the runway. Flim flam, all. Yet something there is in us that loves it.