We're so embroiled in the fast pace of modern life, you almost never hear the phrase "turn of the century" applied to the 90s rolling over to the 2000s. Yet here we are, busily typing away on our smart thises and thats, losing touch with each other in a physical way while reaching out to the entire world electronically. When there's a war, we're there live. We see things as they're happening, rather than relying on trans-oceanic telegraphs to hit our shores, then papers to pick up, journalists to write and newspapers to print the stories. Now? Twitter is probably our main newsfeed, people on the front lines of things texting or sending photos for the rest of us to see. This is the age of the Techno Revolution.
I'm not saying that's a bad thing. When something awful happens these Tweets direct the world's attention; we momentarily glance away from Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong to note a bomb's hit a civilian building in Syria, killing untold numbers of people. Then, within seconds, we're back to talking about ourselves and our own interests, playing Angry Birds or any one of a million other pastimes.
Enough's been written about all that, books and books and more books about the impact the internet is having on our lives. I'm not competing with that; it's too far outside my immediate forte. What I'm interested in - this morning, at least - is how bestselling books from the turn of the last century compare with those in this. How does what we're reading reflect our new culture, thirteen years now into the new century?
I gave a half-hearted effort to find the New York Times's list of January 1913 best sellers, then decided the hell with it and took the list from Publishers Weekly. Just as reputable and easily found, two of my favorite terms.
Here's what was selling best in 1913:
- The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
- V.V.'s Eyes by Henry Sydnor Harrison
- Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter
- The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
- Heart of the Hills by John Fox, Jr.
- The Amateur Gentleman by Jeffrey Farnol
- The Woman Thou Gavest Me by Hall Caine
- Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
- The Valiants of Virginia by Hallie Erminie Rives
- T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
None of these books were holdovers from 1912 but three were still best sellers in 1914:
The Inside of the Cup (dropped to number 3 from number 1)
Pollyanna (rose from number 8 to number 2)
T. Tembarom (rose to number 6 from number 10)
And how many of these books have stuck with us? In the mainstream, none of them. They were, just like their counterparts today will one day be, largely forgotten.
The Winston Churchill listed here, by the way, is not the former British Prime Minister. He's a different person entirely, born in the U.S. and a writer known for his naturalist style:
"Naturalism was a literary movement taking place from the 1880s to 1940s that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character. It was depicted as a literary movement that seeks to replicate a believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment... Naturalistic writers were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They believed that one's heredity and social environment largely determine one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine "scientifically" the underlying forces (e.g., the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects."
And here's a description of the book, from Goodreads:
"With few exceptions, the incidents recorded in these pages take place in one of the largest cities of the United States of America, and of that portion called Middle West, a city once conservative and provincial, and rather proud of these qualities; but now outgrown them, and linked by lightning limited trains to other teeming centers of the modern world: a city overtaken, in recent years, by the plague which has swept our country from the Atlantic to the Pacific - prosperity."
Curious! The turn of the last century found prosperity a sea change from what came before. Like us, they faced the onslaught of new technology and weren't quite sure what to make of it. Unlike us, they were coming into a positive economic time.
Here are a few of the important events of 1913:
- William M Burton patents a process to "crack" petroleum (Search for alternative energy)
- British House of Commons accepts Home-Rule for Ireland (1999 for Scotland)
- Jim Thorpe relinquishes his 1912 Olympic medals for being a pro (Lance Armstrong?!)
- NYC's Grand Central Terminal opens
- 1st minimum wage law in US takes effect (Oregon)
- Federal income tax takes effect (16th amendment)
- 1st presidential press conference (Woodrow Wilson)
- Home of vaudeville, Palace Theatre, opens (NYC) starring Ed Wynn
- British House of Commons rejects woman's right to vote ("Hatred" of women?)
- Ida B Wells-Barnett demonstrates for female suffrage in Washington DC (")
- American Civil War veterans begin arriving at the Great Reunion of 1913
- Death Valley, California hits 134 °F (~56.7 °C), which is the highest temperature recorded in the United States (Global warming?)
- Arabs attack Jewish community of Rechovot Palestine (Sigh)
- Association for Study of Negro Life & History organizes in Chicago
- 1000s of women demonstrate for Dutch female suffrage
- Henry Ford institutes moving assembly line
- Pres Wilson says US will never attack another country
- 1st modern elastic brassiere patented by Mary Phelps Jacob (!)
- President Woodrow Wilson signs Federal Reserve Act into law
Of course, lots more happened and I would double-check the facts on some of these I took from HistoryOrb.com, just to be certain. But overall, I find some of the parallels interesting.
And what of literature itself, and literary movements, in the 21st century?:
"The 2000s (decade) saw a steep increase in the acceptability of literature of all types, inspired by the coming-of-age of millions of people who enjoyed the works of writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien in their youths. Neil Gaiman, for instance, one of the decade's most popular writers of speculative fiction, cites Tolkien, Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton as his three biggest influences growing up. J. K. Rowling admits to being heavily influenced by Lewis as well. Philip Pullman's gritty and controversial young adult His Dark Materials trilogy, written and published in the late 1990s, increased in popularity and was more widely read during the 2000s (decade). The popularity of Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling was spurred on by movies which proved to be some of the biggest of the 2000s (decade).
The 2000s (decade) also saw the popularization of manga, or Japanese comics, among international audiences, particularly in English-speaking nations. Many famous books like Harry Potter series were converted into movies. Books on wars, guides for exams, myths, etc. were frequent sellers in this decade. Some books were written in simple English and works of old writers were translated into language that was easier to understand. Mythology was converted into graphic novel form to build interest among young readers."
Not mentioned (in this article) is the growing popularity of vampire and zombie themes, which must indicate something about our times. Fear, perhaps? Negative thoughts about the future? And, of course, the pastiche, borrowing from classics and adding supernatural/horror elements. Is this saying those were the good old days, look how terrible things are now?
As far as literary styles, everything goes. Out go the strict rules of grammar, in comes text-speak. Out go many professional journalists and critics and in come bloggers. The opinions and rumors of everyday people displace real journalism and threaten to outweigh the facts. Writing is given away for free, lessening its value.
One last thing, compare the list of 1913 bestsellers to the top ten this year:
|1||1||GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn. (Crown, $25.) A woman disappears on her fifth anniversary; is her husband a killer?||31|
|2||EMPIRE AND HONOR, by W. E. B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV. (Putnam, $27.95.) An O.S.S. agent’s plan to help his German intelligence counterparts reach Argentina encounters trouble; Book 7 of the Honor Bound series.||1|
|3||2||THE RACKETEER, by John Grisham. (Doubleday, $28.95.) An imprisoned ex-lawyer schemes to exchange information about a murdered federal judge for his freedom.||11|
|4||7||THE FORGOTTEN, by David Baldacci. (Grand Central, $27.99.) The military investigator John Puller, the protagonist of “Zero Day,” probes his aunt’s mysterious death in Florida.|
|5||5||THREAT VECTOR, by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney. (Putnam, $28.95.) As China threatens to invade Taiwan, the covert intelligence expert Jack Ryan Jr. aids his father’s administration — but his agency is no longer secret.||5|
|6||9||THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE, by Ayana Mathis. (Knopf, $24.95.) Fifty-some years in the life of an African-American family, starting with Hattie Shepherd, who leaves Georgia for Philadelphia in 1923.|
|7||6||CROSS ROADS, by Wm. Paul Young. (FaithWords, $24.99.) A comatose businessman encounters Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God; from the author of “The Shack.”|
|8||SHADOW WOMAN, by Linda Howard. (Ballantine, $27.) A woman’s inexplicable strange memories and altered appearance result from a far-reaching conspiracy.||1|
|9||8||NOTORIOUS NINETEEN, by Janet Evanovich. (Bantam, $28.) The New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum tracks down a con man who disappeared from a hospital.||7|
|10||*||4||THE CASUAL VACANCY, by J. K. Rowling. (Little, Brown, $35.) The sudden death of a parish councilman reveals bitter social divisions in an idyllic English town.||15|
Just as the vast majority of authors writing in 1913 are unknown now, how will these authors fare in 2113?
I'd love to take these book by book but I simply don't have time right now. Here they are, though, if you'd like to do so.
I like this turn of the century topic. Maybe I'll revisit it one day. I love literature and I love history. Perfect.