About the lists

By Decade

All in one page

This website was compiled by
Daniel Immerwahr

The Books of the Century

Bestsellers Lists

"The bestseller list," writes Michael Korda, "presents us with a kind of corrective reality. It tells us what we're actually reading (or, at least what we're actually buying) as opposed to what we think we ought to be reading. . . . Like stepping on the scales, it tells us the truth, however unflattering." Publishers Weekly began releasing lists of hardcover bestsellers in fiction in 1900 and nonfiction in 1912 (although it did not release nonfiction lists in 1914-1916 and its 1917-1918 lists were oddly split into "war" and "general" nonfiction). It compiled its lists by asking book stores in major cities which books were being sold and in what quantity. Some technical improvements aside, that is roughly how PW counts book sales to this day. Determining bestsellers by asking booksellers is considered a more reliable method than asking publishers, who have an incentive to inflate numbers or to count books that have been shipped to book stores but not actually sold. Nevertheless, counting by tallying sales in book stores does not yield a perfectly accurate count of all books sold in the United States, because large quantities of books are sold through clubs (the Book-of-the-Month Club, for instance), special distributors, or news stands and grocery stores.

The fact that PW counts hardcover books rather than all books introduces another difficulty for those seeking to know which books were the most popular. Before the Second World War, most books sold in the United States were sold in hardcover at book stores. In 1939, however, Robert de Graff's company, Pocket Books, became extremely successful by selling cheap paperbacks, many of which were sold with magazines at news stands rather than with hardcover books in book stores. While hardcover sales are often representative of paperback sales (a book that does well in one format is likely to do well in the other), that is not always the case, and it is notable that two of the greatest publishing triumphs of the immediate postwar era, Dr. Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels (1947-on), were paperback sensations only and do not appear on the hardcover bestseller lists at all. Readers interested in the PW lists should consult Michael Korda, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999 (New York, 2001), which discusses publishing practices and offers decade-by-decade commentary on the bestsellers. Korda's book is the source of most of the information in the above two paragraphs.

The Book-of-the-Month Club

The Book-of-the-Month Club, founded in 1926, offered books by subscription to hundreds of thousands of readers in the United States. Each month, the Club would send its "main selection" to members. The selections were made by a jury of well-respected literary critics, and most were made before the books were actually published. Members dissatisfied with the main selections could receive "alternate selections" instead (these are not listed here), and members would also receive additional books as "dividends" (also not listed here). Often, the Club is described as a "middlebrow" institution, because it steered a course between high culture and mass culture. During many years, more than twelve books were sent, because during some months the main selection was actually two books and because the Club also sent "midsummer" and "midwinter" selections.  Although the Club still operates today, this website only lists its main selections up to the 1970s, when data were last available. Readers curious about the Club should consult Charles Lee's The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club (New York, 1958) and Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997). Lists of Club selections up to 1957 can be found in Lee's book. Selections for additional years were transcribed for this website from the Club's annual stock reports.

Critically Acclaimed and Historically Significant Books

This composite list was made by consulting numerous sources, including the Modern Library's list of the hundred best novels and nonfiction books of the century and the chronology of historically significant books listed in the back of David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. 2 (New York, 2006). The last source is particularly useful, as it lists significant academic works written by specialists in addition to more general works. I have also added my own selections. It should be noted that "critical acclaim" and "historical significance" are two very different measures of a book's import. One is a term of praise, the other is not. A book may be considered historically significant without being thought good, and, indeed, there are many different ways in which a book might become interesting to a historian. But all of these books command our attention today, whether it is because they are well-written, innovative, representative of an important historical episode, or causally significant. Although not all of the books on this list were written in English or published initially in the United States, the books that are included are ones that have been important to U.S. audiences.

How To Use These Lists

The lists on this site, obviously, can be used for any number of purposes, by historians, publishers, students of literature, and curious readers. This site is designed to make it easy to compare the different lists within a given year, and to remind ourselves that the books we remember today were often not the books that were most popular in the past (in 1925, the year The Great Gatsby was published, the fiction list was topped by A. Hamilton Gibbs's Soundings). It is also interesting to observe changes in the same list over time, to see, for instance, the rise and fall of the "diet book" on the nonfiction lists.

Works published before 1923 are public domain and can usually be read and downloaded for free on Google Books or Project Gutenberg. Because of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1988, however, books published in 1923 and after will not enter the public domain until 2019.

Other Lists

Other publishing and bookselling institutions provide some insight into U.S. reading habits over the course of the twentieth century.
  • The United States government published and distributed an Armed Services Editions series during WWII, from 1943 to 1946. The books were printed cheaply and given away to armed services personnel. Titles ranged from Plato's Republic and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Return of Tarzan and Frank Spearman's Carman of the Rancho. Overall, 1,322 titles were published in the series and over 120 million copies were distributed. A complete list of the ASE titles is here.
  • Between 1950 and 1997, Reader's Digest produced 232 anthology collections under the series title Condensed Books, each containing several abridgements of bestselling books, usually novels. Over a thousand books appeared in abridged form in this series. A list is here.

"Come hither, you pleasant, you witty, you clever books."
- Friedrich Nietzsche