By Elizabeth Kiem
Nowadays, promotion based on the number of weeks a book spends on the bestseller list generates about as much excitement as a flick advertised as a “blockbuster.” Literary types sniff; avid readers yawn. Sure, some novels with staying power at the top are truly good books– or they were plugged by Oprah. Or both. Let’s face it: Jonathan Franzen’s cynical response to immediate royalties was just an honest expression of many people’s bias against reading what everyone else is reading.
If you are among the anti-bestseller brigade, take an afternoon to peruse “Rave Reviews,” on exhibit at the University of Virginia library. The collection of best-selling fiction chronicles popular taste over the last century and a half and is a reminder that books are most influential when they’re immensely popular.
The first recorded American bestseller was Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, hardly a candidate for beach reading. The Jungle, The Awakening, and To Kill A Mockingbird were all bestsellers– and are as at home on a history syllabus as on the reading list for American Lit 101. Popular fiction had a bad rap even among the earliest American novelists. Nathaniel Hawthorne once accused “scribbling women” of monopolizing the market with romance tales, an amusing charge from one whose greatest work is essentially about illicit sex.
The items in “Rave Reviews” are drawn largely from the private collection of Lillian Gary Taylor, wife of a UVA alum and an avid book collector who acquired nearly 2,000 first editions of American novels dating from 1752 to 1950. Even more fascinating than the array of bestsellers is Taylor’s annotated inventory of the collection. Her leather-bound notebooks record scholarly bibliography (“the A.A.S copy is a second issue– and has no leaves before the title page”), wry criticism (“If 500,000 were sold, I wonder how many were read from cover to cover?”), and personal quaintness (“It was given me to read when I was a child and I have never forgotten the wicked drowning of Garty’s kitten.”)
Even Taylor, for all her devotion to popular fiction, raises the issue of mass appeal: “Popular as well as the prize winner,” she notes in her entry for the 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, So Big.
So take a look at what everyone is reading. Maybe everyone will still be reading it 150 years from now. Or maybe it will win the Pulitzer Prize and never be heard of again– So Big, indeed.
“Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America” is on display until June 10 in the McGregor Room of Alderman Library. Open Monday to Thursday, 9am-9pm, Friday and Saturday 9am-5pm. 243-8969. The exhibit is also online at www.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/rave_reviews.