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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Library of America’s Best-Selling Titles (2013 update)

Two years ago we listed The Library of America’s all-time best-selling titles, and we thought readers might enjoy seeing an update. Below are our current Top 15 titles, based on the total number of copies sold through all channels (including retail stores, book club sales, and our mail-order subscription program) since the first volume appeared in 1982.

LOA All-Time Best-Selling Titles
  1. Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984]
  2. Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982]
  3. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches & Writings 1832-1865 [two volumes, 1989]
  4. Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982]
  5. Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod [1985]
  6. The Debate on the Constitution [two volumes, 1993]
  7. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays [1995]
  8. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters [1990]
  9. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983]
  10. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988]
  11. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales [1984]
  12. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings [1995]
  13. Jack London: Novels & Stories [1982]
  14. William Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935 [1985]
  15. Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman [1990]
Readers comparing the old with the new chart will notice there hasn’t been much movement in the rankings—except for a noteworthy surge two years ago in sales of the Ulysses S. Grant biography. (In the new list, the two-volume Lincoln and Debate on the Constitution sets take up only one slot, since both were released at about the same time—and each volume in the set has sold similar quantities.)

Of course, the methodology of the above list favors titles that have been out longer; the most “recent” title in the top 15 was published in 1995. Readers might be interested seeing which “backlist titles” (i.e., volumes published prior to 2011) sold the most copies last year, in 2012. Here are the Top 15 titles:

LOA 2012 Backlist Best-Sellers
  1. The Philip K. Dick Collection [three volumes, 2007–2009]
  2. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau [2008]
  3. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988]
  4. Raymond Carver: Collected Stories [2009]
  5. H. P. Lovecraft: Tales [2005]
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America [2004]
  7. Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957–1960 [2007]
  8. Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels [1999]
  9. American Noir: 11 Classic Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s [two volumes, 1997]
  10. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings [1995]
  11. The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams [two volumes, 2000]
  12. Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984]
  13. John Muir: Nature Writings [1997]
  14. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters [1990]
  15. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays [1995]
All told, the 241 titles in the Library of America series now have 8.7 million copies in print.


  1. Happy to see Grant, Jefferson, Paine and Frost are still in demand, and tickled to see Flannery O'Connor has shot to #3--the single volume of her work is one of my 5 all-time favorite LOA books. Very surprised to see Twain has dropped off the second list, and somewhat amazed to see Philip K. Dick at the top.

  2. I am particularly pleased to see Muir in that list of LOA 2012 Backlist Best-Sellers. Muir's work transports the armchair enthusiast to a place so vivid that you might just think you were there with him. In the same list it is satisfying to see American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau [2008] so high up at No2. The incredible value of this compilation aside, it is a showcase of a pantheon of visionaries who could not only dream, but articulate that dream. Great stuff. Buy them both without hesitation!

  3. Odd to see Jack London's name on there. What makes him immortal among LOA readers, but not Melville?

  4. Rodney: "Melville: Redburn, White Jacket, Moby-Dick" falls in at #16 on the all-time list, followed closely by "Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches"

  5. The list of 2012 best-sellers is predictably disappointing. It is highly questionable whether Dick, Lovecraft, Hammett, and especially Kerouac belong among America's best writers -- so of course, here they are among the best sellers. Mediocrity speaks to the masses.

    LOA was inspired by France's Bibliotheque de la Pleiade. To date, the Pleiade has issued something like 520 volumes. If you date French literary history back to Chretien de Troyes in the late 1100s, France has at least 8 1/2 centuries of literary history to cover. And note that the Pleiade includes many non-French authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens in canonical French translations. I don't have the precise number handy, but I'd estimate the number of volumes devoted to native French authors to be around 400.

    By contrast, compare America with France. If you exclude the early colonial period when the population was negligible and more occupied with hacking their lives out of the wilderness than with writing, America has a literary history of about 250 years (1750-ish to date). Yet LOA has already issued 241 volumes, all devoted to native American writers.

    Interesting statistic: To date, Pleiade issues 400 volumes to cover 8.5 centures, LOA issues 241 volumes to cover 2.5 centures. What does this mean?

    Possibly that the LOA is simply better funded than the Pleiade, and therefore able to issue more volumes faster.

    But what I think it means is that the LOA editorial board doesn't understand what a canon is. By definition, LOA is meant to include America's "best and most significant" writing. Would Edmund Wilson consider Kerouac or "the cool school" to fall into this category? I profoundly doubt it.

    We may never know who comprises the LOA editorial board, but evidently they are especially fond of the 1960s. That should tell you something.

    They don't understand that when making a canon, the great is the enemy of the good. If they properly invested in volumes by the indisputable masters such as Emerson's ***complete*** journals (not a mere two volumes), the notebooks of Hawthorne (which Henry James adored), the poems of Sidney Lanier or Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, or the philosophy of John Dewey or Charles Sanders Peirce, or the histories of George Bancroft or Henry Steele Commager or Perry Miller or William H. Prescott -- if the LOA had concentrated on these nearly unquestionably great writings, then the arguments about Dick's or Kerouac's worthiness would simply fall by the wayside, and LOA would never get around to canonizing them, and rightfully so, because those writers are not worthy of canonization.

    With their adoration of the 1960s, the left-leaning tendency of LOA's editors is clear. And the problem is that good lefties don't make good canonizers because any standard of good writing or any judgment of aesthetic value is seen as "exclusionary" or "elitist" instead of the product of an educated taste. For this reason, LOA will doubtless go on canonizing truly questionable writers. And why should this bother anyone? As long as my have my Whitman and Faulkner, why should I care? Because the great is enemy to the good, and the young in particular are ill served by being proffered the good in place of the great. In this sense, LOA continues to disappoint.

    1. While I don't agree with all of rlan's judgements--Henry Steele Commager was as "non-great" as Jack Kerouac--I second the recommendation for Perry Miller.

  6. Canons are, in my opinion, about as necessary to the appreciation of literature as cannons are to the furthering of peace--they usually fail to do what they are supposed to do. It is as unlikely that a proliferation of artillery will keep nations from going to war (the historical evidence seems to bolster the opposite view) as it is to think setting up a list of what any editorial board or critic or academy considers "great" will have any lasting influence on public taste over the course of time.

    Sidney Lanier, and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, to my mind, cannot be classed "great" if you also consider Whitman and Dickinson "great." Besides, literature, art for that matter, is not a sporting events, and trying to establish a Win, Place, Show ranking is irrelevant at best, and obstructive at worst.

    1. If forming the public taste is so hopeless, then why have the LOA at all? Why state its mission as to preserve the "best and most significant writing" if it's so impossible and "obstructive" to do so?

      I recommend David Hume's essay "On the Standard of Taste" --


      Hume makes two points: (1) there IS a standard of taste, and (2) some tastes are better (more authoritative, more discriminating) than others.

      The concept of "taste" and an "educated taste" needs to be revivified. Some writers and some books ARE better than others. There is nothing "obstructive" about reading the best, and yes, it is detrimental to promote the mediocre (Dick, Kerouac) as if it were the best.

      BTW, your "wordplay" (to be generous) on canon/cannon is silly or stupid or beside the point, take your pick.

    2. Well, as I suspected, you entirely missed the point of the post, as you also missed the point of the stated LOA mission. Preserving the "best and most significant writing" does not necessarily mean establishing canons of taste or quality. The inclusion of "significant" writing, which may or may not be necessarily of the highest literary quality but which has proven influential or as representative of a specific period of our history. The LOA serves the important function as a conservator of America's intellectual and cultural history, just as an art museum not only preserves significant masterworks, but cultural relics that give us insight into past cultures.

      This function is at least as important, some would say of greater importance, than including only writings which the "educated taste" of a cultural elite may deem "great." Taste notoriously is fickle and changeable--at one point the novel itself was dismissed as being a literarily inconsequential form of writing. Each generation, when it is fortunate enough to have earlier materials preserved, re-evaluates and draws its own conclusions.

      By quoting David Hume, you may think you have settled the question of taste, but I side with the scholastics:de gustibus non est disputandum. At any rate, I prefer an egalitarian rather than an elitist approach to determining what is best and don't care to have you or anyone else tell me what is good for me to read; I may not think Kerouac and Dick are the "best" writers, but I don't doubt their influence, and frankly I find reading "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" more stimulating than "The Marshes of Glyn."

      Incidentally, though my "wordplay" may indeed be silly, it is most definitely to the point, which point you are incapable of seeing. "An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own."

    3. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is the classic instance of "significant" writing that is clearly not "the best" -- the novel is sentimental dreck, yet Lincoln said it caused the Civil War. Clearly significant and worth including in LOA.

      Have the writings of Dick or Kerouac been as "significant"? No. Or at any rate, it's too soon to tell. Are they palpably bad writers, on a sentence for sentence level? Yes.

      Kerouac admired the novels of Thomas Wolfe and the poetry of Ezra Pound -- both wretched writers. Indeed, Pound deserves the MOPC award -- the "Most Overrated Poet of the Century" award, of any nation or language. Mediocrity begets mediocrity. By canonizing first Pound and now Kerouac, LOA is simply perpetuating, validating, and even institutionalizing mediocrity -- all at the whim of an anonymous LOA editor. You are probably him, actually, here trying to defend your egregious lack of literary taste.

      I just spent some time browsing the Bibliotheque de Pleiade site for the first time in a long while -- a very salutary experience. (http://www.la-pleiade.fr/Le-catalogue/Par-epoque) The Pleiade catalog bespeaks a deep and abiding respect for the classics and a sense of real intellectual and aesthetic values. The whole project has almost an air of moral seriousness. The inclusion of such XX-century non-French titans as Bulgakov, Paz, Faulkner, Celan, and Rilke contrasts with LOA's inclusion of such XXth-c. Lilliputians as Joe Brainard, David Goodis, Shirley Jackson, John Kerouac, William Maxwell, Broadway shows, Cole Porter, or the Cool School. The Pleiade enshrines a concourse of titans; LOA preserves a museum of dry-as-dust period pieces, or, as you call it, "America's intellectual and cultural history."

      "Cultural history" is merely a euphemism for "period pieces." You advocate "egalitarianism" and "cultural history." What this really means is that you are not amenable to canons because they embody real standards and values and, yes, judgments -- and we all know that good lefties deplore value judgments of any kind. We wouldn't want to hurt anybody's feelings by calling the good "good" and the bad "bad"... Much better to eschew judgments of any kind and embrace mediocrity in the name of "egalitarianism."

      But Kerouac and Dick and Pound and Berryman are bad writers. If you're unable to recognize this, and if you're unable to appreciate Lanier (of whom John Hollander edited a superb edition), then it's because your literary taste is uneducated. It wasn't formed by reading the best (Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, whoever), so it's unable to recognize the best. By "educating" young readers in Hammett, Goodis, Dick, and Kerouac (instead of say the complete poems of Conrad Aiken, which must run to a thousand pages), LOA helps to ensure that future generations will hail mediocrity as works of "cultural significance."

    4. To paraphrase a great poet "it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Academic canons," but as long as you insist on upholding standards of correctness, you should follow grammatical rules on the correct use of the nominative and objective case; ergo "you are probably he" rather than "you are probably him" (and I'm not--I'm just a subscriber who is very happy that you are not on the editorial board."

  7. Pedantry: a gift from France to the world.

    1. Tant pis. If it weren't for their champagne and cheeses, none but like-minded pedants would pay any attention to the French at all. Well, they also made some great movies in the years before La femme Nikita


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