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Tracking what's tops started with books

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2002



Americans are fascinated by rankings. Nothing is off limits when it comes to separating the best from the rest in everything from sports to stocks to blockbuster movies.

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It wasn't always that way, though, and by some accounts the desire to rank dates back to the first bestseller list more than a century ago, which appeared before anyone had heard of Nielsen ratings or weekend box-office draws.

Since 1895, trade publications and other media have been tracking what books are tops with readers, shedding light on Americans' taste, or lack thereof. Diet books and cookbooks, crime novels and literary masterpieces - these have been the choices of the masses for the past 100 years.

"When you look at the bestseller list, you are, generally speaking, looking at the latest version of something that has been around for a very long time," says Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster. "When you get into the '20s and '30s, most of those books still, in one way or another, stand up."

How the list got started and what it says about America are the subjects of a new book by Mr. Korda, "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999," recently released by the publishing arm of Barnes & Noble.

Korda, an industry veteran and bestselling author himself, is well equipped to evaluate the rise of the bestseller list and its effects. It's not difficult, however, for the average reader to peruse the lists and observe that war books were popular during and after wartime and that the Bible is an American favorite.

The author draws from experience when he makes key points in the book and in a recent interview: There is no formula for producing a bestseller, and the list is not entirely full of trash engineered to sell, as critics contend.

The public made the novel "Cold Mountain" a hit all by itself, he says, but notes that the bestseller list represents a "realistic description of the kinds of things that people mostly want to read."

At first, fictional works were tracked by a trade publication called The Bookman, starting in 1895. Nonfiction bestsellers didn't arrive until 1912, when Publishers Weekly began its own list. It was another 30 years before The New York Times made its list a regular weekly feature.

Early in the 20th century, Americans expected literature to flow west across the Atlantic. Lists from that era featured many European writers.

Today, Americans often populate British bestseller lists, "which isn't any healthier," says Korda.

Early on, a tone was set for the types of bestselling authors and books that would follow. American Winston Churchill was the prolific historical novelist of his day, repeatedly coming up with bestsellers decades before a certain British politician made the same name famous, or John Grisham's tales brought courtrooms alive.

The 1906 bestselling novel "The Jungle" exposed an American industry (meatpacking), paving the way for nonfiction bestsellers like "Fast Food Nation" to question the status quo today.

In his book, Korda talks about topics that fuel the business, like education, which hit the list in 1912 with "The Montessori Method." He writes, "Hardly anything has been more remunerative to book publishers than the touching and deeply seated American belief that one's children are brighter than they seem and could be taught better than they are at school."

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