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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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Product Description

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
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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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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3.0 out of 5 stars Not destined for any list Feb. 9 2002
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. He shovels dirt on the works of the "big book" writers like Clancy, King and Grisham. And throws in just enough French phrases to earn admission to any cocktail party he wants.
All this book is, in sum, is this: Korda lists books in paragrah form then does it again in list form.
This is meant as a cultural history of what books Americans bought throughout the century, but it really is a brief history.
These pages would have been better served had he spent more time analyzing why we read what we read. Rather, he says in effect, "We are in World War II, so there are a lot of war books on the market."
And the 1980s was filled with "get-rich-quick books" that Korda said were popular among top executives but did nothing for "underlings" to rise to the top. Wouldn't he surmise that because these books were in fact bestsellers (read by millions of people), that maybe some "underling" read one and made it big. Of course not because Korda whole-heartedly admitted early on that editors and writers are liberally biased.
In reality, Korda spent 200 pages waiting to throw in the comment that, "In 1981, I was the editor of four of the year's bestsellers (not a record -- I believe the record is seven, which I think I hold -- but still not bad)." If Korda is such a reknowned editor, why is he using phrases like, "I think," which he does more than once. Why not check it out?
Overall, I enjoyed looking over the lists but grew tired of Korda's commentary on how no real literature is out there. Although the structure of the book business has changed, the same market principles are still place: If you have a product people want, it will sell.
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4.0 out of 5 stars By someone who�s been there and done that Jan. 30 2002
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. Korda, who is intimately connected with the list, having been there both as a writer (nonfiction: Power! How to Get It, How to Use It (1975) and a novel from 1985: Queenie) and as an editor with Simon & Schuster (Jacqueline Susann The Love Machine, and others, including books by Irving Wallace, Richard M. Nixon and Carlos Castaneda), presents the lists from Publisher's Weekly by decade. He introduces each decade with a modest essay, focusing on some of the books and authors, and--most characteristically--noting trends and how the business has changed from decade to decade. The prose flows as smooth as graphite (I read the book in a single setting) partly because Korda is a very good writer and partly because the type is double-spaced throughout (which I think might represent a trend he does not mention, namely that of publishing attractive hard cover books with fewer words per page).
Originally just the top ten fiction titles appeared on PW's list. It is only in recent decades that both the top 15 fiction and the top 15 nonfiction titles appear. Nonetheless, perusing these lists really does, as Korda asserts, provide a kind of insight into the American psyche and how it has changed over the last hundred years--or, more saliently, how it hasn't. Korda identifies cyclical trends, with, for example, the popularity of the women's novel, ebbing and flowing, as has the historical romance. And in nonfiction Korda identifies the nearly constant popularity of self-help books, especially diet books and cook books.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Review of Recorded Books on Tape version
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,... Read more
Published on Oct. 16 2002 by Cheer Mom
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting As Far As It Goes
"Making The List", is an interesting book that piques the reader's interest rather than satisfying it. Read more
Published on May 6 2002 by taking a rest
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
Korda takes a potentially fascinating topic-an analysis of American bestseller lists in the 20th century-and gets in the way of his subject. Read more
Published on April 6 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Wonderful Korda Book
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. Read more
Published on March 10 2002 by J. Durepos
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading
It was on May 22, 1946, that I finished reading and enjoying Fifty Years of Best Sellers 1895-1945, by Alice Payne Hackett. Read more
Published on March 10 2002 by Schmerguls
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
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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