|The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini.|
A bestseller in 1923.
Does anyone read the work of these authors today? Linda Aragoni does. Since 2007, Aragoni has been reviewing long ago bestsellers for her blog Great Penformances. Aragoni addresses only books written after 1900 but none less than fifty years old. She crafts her pithy reviews in terms of how the story would appeal to today's readers.
"In some ways, reading older fiction is like reading history only it's history on the personal level," Aragoni explained to The Committee Room. "Vintage fiction takes us back to another time, gives us not only facts about what happened and how people lived, but what mattered to them and why it mattered."
An editor, writer, and writing instructor based in Upstate New York, Aragoni reviewed older novels for a local weekly newspaper. "I just picked up whatever was handy at the library and that was the book I reviewed," Aragoni told TCR. After starting Great Penformances she began to read more systematically.
|A bestseller of the late 1930s that|
is still good reading.
Bestseller lists of the past aren't entirely made up of books that are little read today. Sinclair Lewis' Main Street and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence both made the Publisher's Weekly list in 1921. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was a top seller in 1958. Zane Grey, Booth Tarkington, Daphne Du Maurier, Herman Wouk, and Mary Roberts Rinehart, the mystery novelist said to have coined the phrase "The butler did it!," are examples of big selling authors of the past whose work still finds an audience. For the most part, though, bestsellers of the past have drifted into obscurity and are long out of print.
|Linda Aragoni of|
Film buffs might mistake the bestseller lists of the 1930s through the 1950s for a Turner Classic Movies programming schedule. Anatomy of a Murder, No Time for Sergeants, Giant, From Here to Eternity, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs Miniver, The Song of Bernadette, Gentlemen's Agreement, Father of the Bride, Goodbye Mr. Chips. This is just a sampling of classic movies that were bestselling books first.
Aragoni doesn't believe that popular fiction necessarily lends itself better to movie adaptation than more "literary" fiction does. "But I do think often popular fiction adapts better because it has fewer layers to leave out," Aragoni told TCR. "The viewer ends up with an experience that's different from the experience of reading but which is not substantively different from a reader's take-away. A film version of a popular novel is a visual Cliff Notes with emoticons. The viewer gets the facts plus the emotional content without the work of reading. By contrast, a novel by John Galsworthy or Anthony Trollope, to pick two authors who I think qualify as highbrow or classic writers, even when skillfully adapted for film leave anyone who read the novel first with a desire to go reread the book to fill in the gaps in the screen version."
|The Enchanted April by Elizabeth|
Von Arnim, a "wise and reflective"
and funny bestseller, 1923.
She also notes that the passage of time doesn't always make a book out of date."Years don't determine whether a book is contemporary any more than years determine whether a person is young or old," Aragoni says. "A book is contemporary when it can take its readers into a different time and make those readers understand intellectually and emotionally what happens in that book as they are reading it."
Titles that Aragoni has praised in Great Penformances include The Enchanted April (1923 list) by Elizabeth Von Arnim, a "wise and reflective" novel about a group of Englishwomen on a life changing visit to Italy, which Aragoni says "made me laugh out loud;" Little Man, What Now? (1933 list) by Hans Fallada, the story of a poverty-stricken young couple in pre-Nazi Germany, which she calls "inspirational and terrifying;" and The Sand Pebbles (1963 list) by Richard McKenna, a tightly-plotted historical adventure about U.S.sailors caught up in the Chinese revolution of 1926, which Aragoni says offers insight into Chinese culture and "cleanly drawn, utterly believable, bewilderingly human" characters.
|A 1963 bestseller and insightful|
The demands of Great Penformances leaves Aragoni with little time for contemporary fiction. The only recent novel she has read is the mega-bestseller The Help (2009 and 2010 lists) by Kathryn Stockett. "I don't think [it] is likely to become a classic," Aragoni says.
Kathryn Stockett, meet Gene Stratton Porter.
The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.