A new history of the American bestseller

By | August 9, 2012

Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers, edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, offers a thorough and timely examination of American popular literature, from Charlotte Temple (1794) to The Da Vinci Code (2003). The first book of its kind, Must Read surveys the history of the American bestseller but also provides close critical readings of some of the popular texts that have captivated the American imagination since the nation’s founding.

Since being coined in 1889 by the Kansas Times & Star, the “bestseller” has fueled polarized clashes over its literary and cultural value. An agreement, it seems, is impossible to reach. In their Introduction to Must Read, Churchwell and Ruys Smith chronicle the history of the debate, and examine why exactly it is that some are so opposed to “popular” literature.

“A survey of America’s reading habits over the last 400 years reveals, against a backdrop of flux and churn in the production and consumption of books, a remarkable sense of continuity in the ways in which bestselling texts have functioned in American life. At almost all points, bestsellers have served as a perennial battleground in the theater of war that is popular culture, driving discussions about literary value and the landscape of the literary marketplace, and animating moral panics throughout the ages. Moreover, they have served as a site of profound tension, both between authors whose works sell and those who do not, and between consumers and arbiters of taste—what historian Jill Lepore has described as the ‘democracy of readers…against an aristocracy of critics.’”

Churchwell and Ruys Smith ultimately align themselves with Jane Tompkins’ contention that “it is morally and politically objectionable, and intellectually obtuse, to have contempt for literary works that appeal to millions of people simply because they are popular.” As Paul Gutjahr, the editor of Popular American Literature of the Nineteenth Century, writes, “Although the past two decades have seen a sizeable increase in scholarly interest in bestsellers in the American context, there remains a great deal of unexplored territory. Must Read goes a long way in addressing this deficiency by examining a tremendous range of such literature with great critical care, insight, and theoretical sophistication.”

Must Read takes into account bestsellers of all kinds, starting with the earliest American bestseller, the almanac, to chapbooks—mass-consumed books of “songs, riddles, jokes, anecdotes of pirates and highwaymen…tales of giants, monsters, and fairies” that were favorites of the Puritans—all the way to perhaps the quintessential contemporary bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. It includes contributions from critics such as William Gleason (on Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and literature of the temperance movement), Hsuan L. Hsu (on late nineteenth-century political fiction), Gideon Mailer (on Charlotte Temple), and Ardis Cameron (on Peyton Place and “blockbuster feminism”), and explores, among others, bestsellers such as Ben Hur, Tarzan of the Apes, The Sheik, Etiquette, The Godfather and The Kite Runner.

Must Read is available now in North America and will publish elsewhere in October.

-Hilary Reid, Editorial Intern

Early reviews:

Must Read breathes new life into the study of best-sellers, rescuing them from not only the enormous condescension of posterity but also from the flattering but often reductive readings of modern academics. For anyone with an interest in the countours of American print culture from the eighteenth century to the present, Must Read is itself a must read work.” – Leon Jackson, University of South Carolina, and author of The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America

“Although the past two decades have seen a sizeable increase in scholarly interest in bestsellers in the American context, there remains a great deal of unexplored territory. Must Read goes a long way in addressing this deficiency by examining a tremendous range of such literature with great critical care, insight, and theoretical sophistication.” – Paul Gutjahr, Indiana University, and editor of Popular American Literature of the Nineteenth Century

“This pathbreaking collection provides a unique contribution to the study of American literature. It is a valuable addition to literary and cultural studies. Must Read is a must read for students and scholars of American popular culture and American literature more generally.” – Lisa Botshon, University of Maine at Augusta, editor of Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s

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