We’ve moved!
Visit the new Library of America blog at our new website: www.loa.org/news-and-views

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The “death of the book” is greatly exaggerated

In spite of the barrage of reports proclaiming the imminent death of the book (not to mention the recent troubles at Borders), sales of The Library of America’s backlist catalog are booming. For the last six months, backlist sales are up 18% over the same period last year. In fact the holiday season was so robust (and the trend seems to be continuing) that we unexpectedly ran out of a couple of dozen titles and have been scrambling to keep the reprints coming fast enough.

Here’s a list of the titles with the most impressive increases in sales compared to last year:
  1. James Thurber: Writings and Drawings
  2. Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings
  3. William James: Writings 1878–1899
  4. Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
  6. Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations
  7. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose
  8. Saul Bellow: Novels 1956–1964
  9. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
  10. Willa Cather: Later Novels
    (tie) James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales: Volume One
A few of these are easily explained. Beginning last April, Keith Olbermann ended his Friday night broadcasts reading selections from Thurber, and the publication of Bellow’s letters almost certainly spurred renewed interest in his novels. Similarly, we’ve always seen an increase in sales of Grant’s memoirs whenever a new presidential memoir is published. But others on the list are, we confess, gratifyingly perplexing.

Related post: The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades


  1. Consider how many of the authors and titles reflect on early America and her origins and struggles: Cather's books on frontier life, Cooper's tales of frontiersman Natty Bumppo, Grant's memoirs, the early modernist poetry of Stevens and Pound, Hurston's works on African-American folklore: it's perversely ironic but reading habits in the popular marketplace are being steered by the strident political rhetoric in the current United States -- thanks in no small party to the "Tea Party", Pailin and Bachmann, and Glenn Beck's rewriting of American history on Fox News Channel five days a week; turn on the television or pick up a newspaper and somewhere, every day, you will find someone pontificating on The Founding Fathers and the struggles of the early Republic.

    In response to this dialogue, my own reading habits have changed in the last couple of months: I burned through Joseph J. Ellis's "American Creation", followed by his National Book Award winning study of Jefferson and all his contradictory faults and foibles ("American Sphinx") and next on my plate is another Ellis work, "Passionate Sage", about the character and legacy of John Adams -- oh, and I'm also reading the often-fascinating "After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture."

    The reason for this reversal in my personal reading materials from fiction to historical non-fiction is because so many people on the public stage are getting history wrong and I am refreshing my education to validate that suspicion (I'm 52, it's a long time since I've attended an institute of learning.)

    This is where the national discourse is focused right now and it only makes sense that reading habits would follow.

  2. Interestingly, I just read a passage in Ellis's "After the Revolution" that is both prescient given the terms of this discussion and reflective of the comment I posted earlier.

    In this passage, Ellis is writing about post-Revolutionary novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge and his optimistic belief that readership in America on a mass scale would increase when the "average man" desired to learn more about the new republic:

    "He envisioned a vastly expanded American readership comprised of farmers and artisans eager to 'obtain some knowledge of the history and principles of government.' The establishment of a republican government in place of monarchy, he reasoned, meant that 'the mechanic of the city, or the husbandman who plows his farm by the river's bank, has it in his power to become, one day, the first magistrate or his respective commonwealth, or fill a seat in the Continental Congress.'

    "In this new order of things, authors had the responsibility 'to conciliate the minds of the audience, and, in the words of Cicero, to render them teachable, attentive, benevolent ...' The stability of the American republic required that the great mass of Americans 'become more deep and solid scholars by reading systematic writers, and diving deeply into the fountainhead of classical information.' He saw himself as 'a republican author', a modern interpreter of the ancients who would enlighten the broad mainstream of the American populace, a writer whose publications would guarantee that 'the greater part [of the public] be moderately instructed' and enabled 'to speak with great propriety and fluency on any subject.' He explained that his 'language may appear romantic, but I have seen the case exemplified.' In sum, Brackenridge thought that the Revolution would usher in social and cultural changes that would make authors, as much as officeholders, representatives of the public interest and recipients of public support."

  3. I recently contributed to #10. Reading through the 5-volume Founders' Constitution led to Ted Morgan's "Wilderness at Dawn", which led to the old series "Original Narratives of Early American History" at Google Books, which prompted me to buy both volumes of Cooper's Leatherstocking tales from you (because you produce such beautiful and sturdy editions).

  4. de Tocqueville gets a new lease on life whenever supporting books are published. Leo Damrosch's account of the Marquis' journey along with Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier made me, and others, want to (re)turn to the source.

  5. I would venture a guess that Grant's memoirs also have something to do with the popularity of Mark Twain's autobiography this fall. The autobiography devotes a large part of the beginning to the process of publishing those memoirs.


Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature