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Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999 [Hardcover]

Michael Korda
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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From Publishers Weekly

According to Korda (Country Matters, etc.), it was only in 1895 that someone Harry Thurston Peck of the Bookman published the first bestseller list, and that listed only fiction. PW ran the first nonfiction list 17 years later. Today, bestseller lists galvanize the publishing industry, much as their cousins do the film and recording industries, among others. Of the several books written about bestseller lists (most notably, Alice Payne Hackett and James Henry Burke's 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1977), this is the most perceptive and not surprisingly, given Korda's literary abilities, which have led to his own run of bestselling books the most engaging. The engagement arises from Korda's erudite yet conversational tone, leavened with humor and smartly opinionated (e.g., the 1958 nonfiction bestseller list, he writes, "remained the kind of thumping, predictable bore it had been through most of the fifties"). The perceptivity arises not only because Korda, longtime editor in chief of S&S, knows just about all that's worth knowing about books, but because he approaches the lists as the subtitle indicates. Decade by decade, he examines the annual hardcover lists drawn from PW beginning with 1913 to see how the books people buy embody the cultural tenor of the times. "Like a mirror," he writes, "[the list] reflects who we are, what we want, what interests us...." Korda finds, for instance, that "[books about] better sex, more sex, plus tabletop cooking, says something about the priorities of Americans in the first year of Richard Nixon's presidency.... People were looking for domestic happiness, in retreat from the... conflicts of the sixties.... " As Korda charts changes in America via the bestseller list, he demonstrates that reading tastes haven't altered all that much; as background to that charting, he presents a useful, compact history of the publishing industry. Witty and deeply informed, this is a bracing, even essential, read for anyone who loves books. (On-sale Nov. 15).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Review of Recorded Books on Tape version Oct. 16 2002
This is not a book that lends itself to a good audio recording. Listening to the "text" portions of the books was fine - very enjoyable and very informative - however, it is impossible to listen to the lists of published books without getting bored. I ended up fast forwarding through the book lists and probably missed some of the text as well.
Yes, I recommend this book - but read it - don't listen to it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile for book-hounds June 23 2002
Although this "Cultural History of the American Bestseller" is somewhat light on actual text -- it's mostly full of the bestseller lists themselves, going back to 1900 -- it's an entertaining read if you're interested in books. There's a natural tendency to be sort of skeptical of popularity, and one of Korda's themes is that many books that have been popular have also been extremely good. (Literary fiction, etc, always has a place on the charts.) And actually what's most revealing is how the mix of what's on the big lists has really changed very little, or at least it comes and goes in regular cycles. Romances go out -- then they're back in. The sprawling historical epic rises, falls, rises again. There's always some Tom Clancy equivalent cranking out a book of year, and topping the sales rankings every time. It's too bad Korda's text sometimes veers toward the superficial, and a more careful edit would have removed some of his repetitions, but the book is still a fun way to fill a few hours -- and the list of lists alone is a thing worth having.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting As Far As It Goes May 6 2002
"Making The List", is an interesting book that piques the reader's interest rather than satisfying it. This 10-chapter book contains 195 pages, and more than half, 100 pages, are just the lists of the best-selling books for a given year.
Michael Korda provides informative, witty, and at times sharp edged commentary for the 10 decades of books that he comments upon. The analysis he offers is uneven, although it greatly improves once his observations originate during his tenure as a publisher. I have always wondered just how many books need to be sold to make the annual list. He does provide numbers occasionally, but they are the exception not the rule. Some of his remarks are readily apparent to readers who pay attention to the names of authors that routinely appear year after year. Being told that a short roster of names have virtually locked up the annual lists for almost 20 is not news.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing April 6 2002
By A Customer
Korda takes a potentially fascinating topic-an analysis of American bestseller lists in the 20th century-and gets in the way of his subject. He's desperate to remind readers of his own long-forgotten books and otherwise allows his prejudices to intrude far too much in the discussion. A more analytical, thoughtful and less subjective and breezy approach would have made for a much better book resulting in a four or five-star rating, rather than just two.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Another Wonderful Korda Book March 10 2002
My only complaint about this volume is that there wasn't more of Korda's terrific commentary to go along with each decade's lists. To not appreciate what Korda offers us in this book, and also his spectacular autobiography of his publishing career--Another Life--is to miss spending time with a most erudite, well-informed, opinionated, wry and incisive publishing professional. I'm already mourning the passing of Korda's generation of publishing legends. Once they're gone, I'm not so hopeful that there will be such larger-than-life characters to fill their shoes. I'm holding Country Matters in reserve because Mr. Korda doesn't write fast enough for me. I'm hoping we shall see several more volumes from him in the next few years. More Mr. Korda, more.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading March 10 2002
It was on May 22, 1946, that I finished reading and enjoying Fifty Years of Best Sellers 1895-1945, by Alice Payne Hackett. So when I saw this book I thought it would be fun to read, and it is. The author incivisvely comments on the best seller lists during the 20th century, and of course it is fun to see which books one read were best sellers. I was surprised to see that I had read 101 books which were number 1 best sellers in a year, either in fiction or non-fiction. This surprised me since I do not use, or at least I have not for many years, the best seller list to decide what to read. It is also interesting to see which great books never made the list. For instance, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, I have thought an outstanding book ever since I read it back in 1981, and it won a Pulitzer Prize, but never made a year best seller list! If nothing else, this book will open your eyes to how much poor choosing some people do when they decide to buy a book...
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1.0 out of 5 stars ridiculous Feb. 23 2002
By A Customer
I wonder how much of these listings actually profile the reader. Some readers would never touch a best-seller even with an iron tong. This is of course pointless snobbery - what can you do if you are good and the people love you? You write a best-seller. Provided of course you find a publisher willing to muscle in his PR resources. But first you got to find him. Some best-sellers are also holding the record for the highest number of manuscript rejections. Publishers know nothing, they are business people.

Many readers buy nothing but best-sellers. Not a good policy either. The percentage of good books presented in best-seller listings, is just as small as the percentage of good books in the total of books ever printed. LetŐs not forget, most of the real good books are out of print. The discerning reader - a rare breed - doesnŐt care how the PR industry labels a book. And thatŐs the way it should be. There are still differences. Good books can be best-sellers, best-sellers are not necessarily good books.

No doubt, the avid reader of best-sellers is getting a fair representation in those listings, and I am quite willing to concede that those readers may represent a majority. Still: what about the others? ItŐs really like this fast food thing: McDonalds is a huge enterprise, and not without reason. But does this make connoisseurs of French cuisine yearn to ÒreallyÓ rather eat at McDonalds? KordaŐs argument is ridiculous. In matters of culture and taste, there is no such thing as democracy and egalitarianism.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Not destined for any list
Michael Korda is destined to get many pats on the back from his literary buddies for this book and why not? He whines about how things aren't what they used to be. Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2002 by Brian M. Ayres
4.0 out of 5 stars Literary History
Making The List does jut what its title suggests; it takes the best seller list since the early 1900 up until 1999 and analyzes them in order to make meaning out of the tendencies... Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2002 by Sebastien Pharand
4.0 out of 5 stars By someone who�s been there and done that
Michael Korda's easy and agreeable style is the heart and soul of this very pretty and interesting recollection of one hundred years of book biz top dogs. Read more
Published on Jan. 30 2002 by Dennis Littrell
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful, Cultural Insight
Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, has collected lists of the bestselling books (fiction and non-fiction) for the entire 20th Century. Read more
Published on Dec 26 2001 by John Knight
Michael Korda is not sanguine on the turn best-seller book publishing took in the 1990s. "At the end of the day,"Korda writes " the bestseller lists of the nineties... Read more
Published on Nov. 18 2001 by Barbara Seaman
3.0 out of 5 stars Warm, Witty Wisdom Wreathes Winning, Wonderful Writers!
Mr. Michael Korda is the perfect person to write this book. He brings to the project an enormous sense of perspective from his many decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster,... Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2001 by Donald Mitchell
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