Books of the Century.

Recently I wanted to find out about a Book-of-the-Month Club selection from back when it was important influence on what Americans read, and I complained on Facebook that I couldn’t locate a complete list; the reliably knowledgeable Anatoly Vorobey responded with this link, saying “All ‘main selections’ (one book each month, I take it) up to 1977.” And it’s even better than that; here’s the self-description on the page:

The Books of the Century

This website compiles, by year, four different lists of books published during the twentieth century:

1. The top ten bestsellers in fiction, as recorded by Publishers Weekly.
2. The top ten bestsellers in nonfiction, also as recorded by Publishers Weekly.
3. The main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was founded in 1926.
4. Critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics’ and historians’ lists of important books.

Not every list is available for every year. Click here to learn more about the lists and for some caveats about using them. Otherwise, simply follow the links to the left to delve in. Happy hunting!

Here’s the “learn more” explanation for the Critically Acclaimed and Historically Significant Books list:

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.

I’m not sure why the BOMC lists end after 1977, but never mind — what a great project! Someone should do something similar for other literatures; it’s fascinating to see what was popular and/or considered important in previous decades. And the BOMC choices hold up, for the most part, far better than I would have expected. My most surprising discovery so far: the selection for June 1931 was M. Ilin, New Russia’s Primer: The Story of the Five-Year Plan! (The Marxists Internet Archive has put it online if you want to investigate it.) “M. Ilin” was the pseudonym of Ilya Marshak (1895-1953), and the Russian original was «Рассказ о великом плане» (1930). I’m not surprised it was translated and published in the US — people were, of course, curious about what was going on in Red Russia — but I would have thought the BOMC would have been more conservative in its choices.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    The BOMC list gives 14 selections for 1931 and 15 for 1932 (and similar more-than-12 numbers for various years in more recent decades). So they must have had multiple selections for certain months, or something?

    Note also one debatable methodological choice in their “critically acclaimed or historically significant” lists. For books not written in English, they seem to be assigning them to the year of first publication in the original language, not the year of publication of the (first) English translation, even though the latter would likely be more meaningful in terms of critical acclaim or historical significance _in the United States_, and their other three yearly lists are all U.S-centric. Example: they list Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” under 1967, the year “De la grammatologie” was published in France. But “Of Grammatology” (the title of Gayatri Spivak’s translation of that book into English) was not published until 1976 and the “significance” (not necessarily a complimentary word, as noted) of Derrida in American intellectual life didn’t really get rolling until his stuff was available in translation. From the other side of the Rhine, they list Habermas’ “Knowledge and Human Interests” under 1968, but the translation with that title didn’t appear until 1972 — all you could get in 1968 was “Erkenntnis und Interesse,” which I daresay was not very widely read in the U.S. that year.

  2. Excellent points. I guess one can’t complain after all the work they put in, but yes, it would have been more useful to use the year of translation.

  3. Рассказ о великом плане

    Reminded me that “план” used to mean marijuana some time ago. I wonder why.

  4. George Grady says

    The BOMC list gives 14 selections for 1931 and 15 for 1932 (and similar more-than-12 numbers for various years in more recent decades). So they must have had multiple selections for certain months, or something?

    The site explains:
    “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.”

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s another source they could have used: approx. 20 titles (pre-condensation) per calendar year for a number of decades & wildly popular. The home of my paternal grandmother (1903-1991) had shelves full of these volumes:

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    One weird anomaly a bit different from the year-of-publication-in-foreign-language v year-of-first-publication-in-English-translation one is that H. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer gets listed as “critically acclaimed or historically significant” *twice* – once for 1934 (first published, in English, in France) and then again for 1961 (when it was first published and openly sold in the U.S. at a time when a publisher was willing to gamble that the obscenity laws had loosened up sufficiently).

  7. “people were, of course, curious about what was going on in Red Russia”

    When the BOMC chose “New Russia’s Primer: The Story of the Five-Year Plan” as their book for June 1931, the US was over 20 months into the Great Depression. GDP had dropped over 10% since Sept 1929 and was falling like a stone, and the unemployment rate was shooting up from under 4% in Sept 1929 to 13% in June ’31 on its way to 25%. Businesses were cutting wages and hours, causing distress even among the employed and reducing purchasing power, leading GDP to fall even faster. Healthy young men, clearly willing to work, begged on corners and slept in rail yards. Children went to bed hungry while farmers dumped milk and buried the carcasses of hogs for which there were no buyers. Ordinary working people lived in daily fear of overnight impoverishment.

    Obviously something was wrong. Conservative free-market ideology seemed to have crashed and burned. Yet Hoover, Congress, and business leaders persisted in claiming that government had no role in solving the worsening disaster. As Hoover said in December 1930, “Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement.”

    More and more, people did not believe him. One model of possible action was the Soviet Union’s ambitious “Five-Year Plan,” begun in 1928, to convert a peasant agricultural society to a modern industrial one, not over generations but in a few years. It was Stalin’s effort to effectuate Lenin’s dictum, “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.” As such, the Five-Year Plan was openly an effort to force the adoption of American industrial technology through ruthless central planning. American engineers consulted on electrification projects; American companies like Ford built factories and supplied specs for trucks and tractors.

    Americans learned about this Plan from the pages of the New York Times, whose Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, wrote a Pulitzer-Prize winning series on the successes of the Five-Year Plan. Published in the early months of 1931, it caused many readers to wonder how the Soviet Union could be using American technology to climb from strength to strength while their own economy, the source of that technology, was collapsing around them. The problem, perhaps, was the free market.

    Duranty, unfortunately, was a fabulist and a hack. He uncritically accepted official (i.e. fake) Soviet statistics while suppressing evidence of the famine among farmers, particularly in Ukraine, that caused over three million deaths, and of the the Gulag, in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were worked to death on misbegotten projects like the White Sea Canal.

    Nonetheless, in 1931, it seemed to many Americans that central planning might be an alternative to their cratering economic system. The thirst for a way out of the Depression, and not mere curiosity in a far-away country, triggered their interest in the Five-Year Plan.

  8. A good explanation, but I still would have expected a commercial venture aimed at the general public to steer clear of anything that might get them in trouble with the conservatives who ran things. The Fish Committee, just at that time, “undertook extensive investigations of people and organizations suspected of being involved with or supporting communist activities in the United States” and “recommended granting the United States Department of Justice more authority to investigate communists, and strengthening of immigration and deportation laws to keep communists out of the United States.” Then as now, the desires of “many Americans” were not the primary motor of government behavior.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    “Five-Year Plans and New Deals / Wrapped in golden chains …” Thus J.C. Fogerty, bard of hat’s generation, in an early 1970 hit single.

  10. And I wonder, still I wonder:
    Who killed rock and roll?

  11. Stu Clayton says

    The home of my paternal grandmother (1903-1991) had shelves full of these volumes

    There were a lot of them at our house in the late 50s. I read quite a few, I think novels by Pearl “S.” Buck among them. Not a bad start in life. Then I discovered paperbacks at seedy stores, where I acquired an Angélique, a Naked Lunch and a Modern College Geometry.

    Also some trashy gay novel [as I would call it now], with a silly sentence I can’t forget, despite best efforts: “My ambition is life is to die between the thighs of a Royal Guardsman.”

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, this piece claims that the Fish Committee “merits the singular qualification [sic] of being the only anticommunist investigative committee in American history to have failed entirely to have a substantial political impact, either in terms of legislation or influence over public debate, begging the question why this particular dog did not bark when so many others did.” It put out its final report in January ’31 and then supposedly vanished into the mists.

  13. Huh! Well, I guess if you were going to publish a Red-friendly book, that was as good a time as any, then.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu: Presumably not an allusion to

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Probably not. When Snoopy vs. The Red Baron came out, I was at university leading a trashy life, with little time for trashy novels no matter how prescient.

  16. There is “my ambition is to be crushed to death between the thighs of a guardsman”, but it is not from a novel. What?

  17. The quote made me think of the “Guardsman’s Defense,” which I learned from Rumpole of the Bailey, as denoting a legal defense arguing that a defendant was defending himself against a homosexual advance. It was not clear how precisely the name originated, nor what exactly it denoted: pure self defense, mitigation, diminished capacity, or all three concurrent or consecutive*?

    However, it was evidently only a colloquial term in the British legal community anyway. Rumpole denies knowledge of the term in Rumpole’s Return, as an indirect way of mocking the loathed Judge Bullingham. (I am actually not sure whether the exchange happened in the television version or just in the novelization. When we got the complete Rumpole DVDs from the library, the copy of the feature-length Rumpole’s Return was too damaged to watch. So while I remember watching it when it was first shown in the United States on Mystery!, most of what remember of Rumpole’s Return is from the written version. However, in general, John Mortimer’s prose versions of the Rumpole stories are decidedly inferior to the television versions. I suspect that the difference in quality has little to do with Mortimer’s scripts being better than his adaptations, and more to do with the excellent casting and direction of the teleplays, especially in the first couple seasons.)

    * Just as for love, blood, and rhetoric. “They’re all blood, you see.”

  18. David Marjanović says

    Conservative free-market ideology

    I can’t resist pointing out what an American thing it is to call libertarian economics “conservative”. It’s a consequence of the two-party system. Elsewhere, where conservatives and libertarians tend not to be in the same party, conservatives have often been fine with the state owning some particularly important means of production (a steel plant for example) for fear it might slip out of control in times of dire need.

  19. To make things messier, America is the most recent propagator of the term “neoliberalism”, which is something most American liberals certainly are against.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes.

  21. But I also note that European conservatism has become more similar to the American sort, especially on the extreme fringes. As DM said, European conservatism used to be strong-government in many areas and ways that are extremely alien to American conservatives, because historically two important bases of conservatism were a military and a bureaucracy whose top positions used to be dominated by the aristocracy, and the established churches. But nowadays, you find extremist parties like the AfD issuing a lot of small-government, pro-gun rhetoric that sounds like translated from American websites.

  22. David Marjanović says

    I haven’t seen the AfD call itself conservative, though.

    Admittedly, it has called itself bürgerlich, a vague concept that doesn’t translate but is similar. But then, the FPÖ could do that, and it hardly ever does.

    What is obviously US-influenced is Sarkozy’s decision to abolish France’s conservative party once again and refound it as Les Républicains, along with giving it primaries. I think this came with a shift to more conservative policies, but I haven’t followed that because fortunately it hasn’t been relevant.

  23. I think the reason the BOMC lists end in 1977 may be that at some point, perhaps in 1977, they stopped sending every member the same selection (unless they sent back a postcard opting OUT) and started sending out a list of multiple (5-7 currently) books each month, with members opting IN by choosing one or more books. The member’s obligation simply became to order at least four books per year, out of 60-80 annual selections. So the canonical list of 12-15 per year ended. BOMC was acquired by Time Inc. in 1977, maybe they were behind the change.

  24. Ah, that makes sense. Thanks!

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    Gud, Konge og Fædreland! was reputedly the motto of the original Conservatives in Denmark (The successors to our original right wing party [Højre] which before universal franchise and proportional representation consisted mostly of landed gentry). Venstre is the liberal (devil-damn-the-hindmost) faction of the original large freeholders’ party. (Workers and peasants, what is that?)

    Both the Conservatives and the Radicals (Det radikale Venstre) used to have much more regard for civil liberties and social welfare than the Liberals, but now it’s all a race to the bottom mire of xenophobia. (Inger Støjberg who was sentenced in the State Court (Rigsretten) for giving illegal and human rights violating orders as a minister has just created a “Danish Democratic Party” on the model of the Swedish one — since even the official xenophobic party didn’t want her. Everybody from the centre-left and rightwards is expected to become even more anti-immigrant and islamophobic in response).

  26. I haven’t seen the AfD call itself conservative, though.
    Here for example. But you’re right that they emphasize the Bürgerlich label more. My impression is that in German politics, konservativ is more often a label given by outsiders or maybe used in theoretical intra-party discourse than a label used for promoting parties; that seems also true for the CDU/CSU.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Ah, interesting – so Chrupalla and presumably his faction in the party want to replace the CDU instead of being on their right.

    That’s quite different from the FPÖ. The FPÖ never had the AfD’s identity struggle; by the time it had to be taken seriously (early 80s), it had become a liberal party in the non-American sense (indeed freiheitlich is calqued on liberal), and then Haider staged a hostile takeover in 1986 and turned it into the soziale Heimatpartei, because soziale Nationalpartei would be way more obvious than needed.

  28. Well, parts of the AfD have positions that wouldn’t have been out of place in the CDU in 1960 or even 1980; it’s just that society has moved on since then and the CDU has moved with the times – thanks to quite a big degree to Merkel, which is why the AfD hates her so much. It’s these elements in the AfD that provide the bürgerlich fig leaf to the fascist wing.

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