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.
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."
But despite the sameness of American interests, the author maintains that there is no way to tell what books by unknowns will make it big, given that reader curiosity is so unpredictable. That might explain how a volume called "The Specialist," about building outhouses, sold more than 1.5 million copies in the 1920s and was on display next to cash registers for years. Perhaps during the turbulent '20s, people had a desire to recall a simpler time, Korda suggests.
Other top sellers had their roots in the changing face of the country, like Emily Post's "Etiquette," also from the '20s. To a nation full of immigrants and people moving from lower to middle class, a primer explaining thank-you notes and seating arrangements was invaluable, Korda says.
Americans over the years often have turned to books to explain current events. One exception was the 1960s, when very few books about the civil rights movement or the Vietnam war made the bestseller list. Maybe activists were too busy to write at the time, or publishing houses were too shell-shocked or embarrassed about their own lack of minorities in decisionmaking roles to pick winners, Korda muses in his book. Still, he wonders if the omission on the lists shows "some sign that a lot of people were busy buying cookbooks while the house burned."
1. Coniston by Winston Churchill [an American novelist]
2. Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister
3. The Fighting Chance by Robert Chambers
4. The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson
5. Jane Cable by George Barr McCutcheon
6. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
7. The Awakening of Helena Ritchie by Margaret Deland
8. The Spoilers by Rex Beach
9. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
10. The Wheel of Life by Ellen Glasgow
1. Exodus by Leon Uris
2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
3. Hawaii by James Michener
4. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
5. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
6. The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick
7. Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
9. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
10. Poor No More by Robert Ruark
1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien; edited by Christopher Tolkien
2. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach
4. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
5. Oliver's Story by Erich Segal
6. Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins
7. Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
8. How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong
9. Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin
10. Daniel Martin by John Fowles
1. The Partner by John Grisham
2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
3. The Ghost by Danielle Steel
4. The Ranch by Danielle Steel
5. Special Delivery by Danielle Steel
6. Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
7. The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon
8. Pretend You Don't See Her by Mary Higgins Clark
9. Cat & Mouse by James Patterson
10. Hornet's Nest by Patricial Cornwell
11. The Letter by Richard Paul Evans
12. Flood Tide by Clive Cussler
13. Violin by Anne Rice
14. The Matarese Countdown by Robert Ludlum
15. Plum Island by Nelson DeMille