The history of popular fiction fascinates me. I love to look at what people were actually reading ten, fifty, or a hundred years ago. Often the most interesting titles aren’t the classics which have lasted to this day, but the trendy bestsellers none of us remember now. (And of course, often the only place to find these half-forgotten, probably out of print titles is your local library.)
Books date just as much as fashion. If you’ve ever read a North American book first published in the 1920s or 30s, you know what I’m talking about. The “modern girls” and femmes fatales who slink through those pages – whether they play the heroine or villain – are signs that women’s roles were changing, and society wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
If you’re interested in a little literary time travel, the BibliOz.com website has created an online toy which tells you the New York Times bestsellers for the week of your birth. My list definitely gives away that I was born in the early 1970s: Love Story, Leon Uris, Irving Stone, Alvin Toffler… not too many of those are still read today.
Of the entire list, I’ve read only two: Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business (a Canadian classic I was pleased to see on the list) and the ground-breaking history of the American West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
In a couple of decades, will Lisbeth Salander be the answer to a trivia question or a female pop culture icon like Scarlett O’Hara? Will the current crop of doorstopper-sized fantasies still be read alongside Tolkien? I have my own nominees for authors still likely to be read in thirty or a hundred years –Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin would be at the top of that list — but as John Sutherland, who wrote a history of British bestsellers (Reading the Decades) points out, the odds are very good that I’ll be wrong.
If you’d like to do your own research on current bestsellers that might have staying power, the lists from the Globe & Mail and McNally Robinson are all in the WPL catalogue under the “Bestseller Lists” button. It must say something that the dominant subjects of popular fiction in our time seem to be serial killers and vampires — I’m just not sure what.