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Perspective: The Top Ten of 1917

As we plunge headfirst into the new year, we can only guess which authors and titles will reach the height of popularity over the next twelve months. Some of the bestsellers will be from well-known authors, others may be first-time success stories. And a hundred years from now, we may remember them, or we may not. Most likely not. So just for fun -- and for some needed perspective -- let's take a moment to look back and remember the novels and authors on the U.S. bestseller list from one hundred years ago: the Top Ten of 1917.

This list is compiled by Publishers Weekly; how they set their standards for inclusion seems to be a mystery. But it does provide a glimpse into the literary interest and reading habits of Americans as we were committing ourselves to the first Great War in Europe. A few authors are recognizable, but many are not:

Bestselling novels of 1917

  1. Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

  2. The Light in the Clearing by Irving Bacheller

  3. The Red Planet by William J. Locke

  4. The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter

  5. Wildfire by Zane Grey

  6. Christine by Alice Cholmondeley

  7. In the Wilderness by Robert S. Hichens

  8. His Family by Ernest Poole

  9. The Definite Object by Jeffrey Farnol

  10. The Hundredth Chance by Ethel M. Dell

We are all familiar with H.G. Wells and Zane Grey, and a few of us may have heard the names Irving Bacheller and Ernest Poole. But Alice Cholmondeley? With the sixth bestselling book in the nation? Feeling shamed by my ignorance, I took a moment to do some basic historical research (thank you, Wikipedia) and broaden my understanding of these once-popular writers.

One noteworthy fact is that half of those authors listed are British. Whether this was the result of the preferences of American readers, or the successful marketing of British publishing companies, is probably something we'll never know (at least, it's beyond the scope of Wikipedia at this time). Also, all of these writers were remarkably prolific, authoring a minimum of twenty titles each, with a few publishing between fifty and a hundred works. And yet ... where have you gone, Jeffrey Farnol? Why are our shelves not graced with the leatherbound Collected Works of Jeffrey Farnol?

But back to the brief history lesson:

Eleanor H. Porter, author of The Road to Understanding, was better known for her 1913 novel Pollyanna and its 1915 sequel Pollyanna Grows Up, which might explain why her next novel hit the bestseller list.

Ethel M. Dell, who wrote The Hundredth Chance, was apparently the Nora Roberts of her day, panned by critics but adored by readers, averaging a book a year for thirty years, amassing a fortune and shying away from public attention.

Ernest Poole was a journalist who reported on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the novel His Family earned him the first Pulitzer Prize in 1918.

The author of Christine was born Mary Annette Beauchamp, later became Countess Elizabeth von Arnim, and used the pen name Alice Cholmondeley. In 1921 she wrote the novel Vera, a dark tragicomedy drawing on her disastrous second marriage which was described as "Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen." She's known to later audiences as the author of The Enchanted April, which became an Oscar-nominated film in 1992.

William J. Locke, author of The Red Planet, reached bestseller status five times during his life. His works have been made into 24 motion pictures, the most recent of which was Ladies in Lavender, filmed in 2004 and starring Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith.

And for those who aren't aware of the amazing literary output of H.G. Wells, most of the author's science fiction works were written during the 1890s. Wells then spent the next thirty years producing nearly 200 fiction and nonfiction works, covering everything from politics and history to social commentary and biology. His novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through was 1917's bestselling book not only in the U.S. but also in Britain and Australia. It was called a "masterpiece of the wartime experience in England," and writer Maxim Gorky called the novel "the finest, most courageous, truthful, and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war."

It is easy to forget or ignore the past. It is easy to believe that the here-and-now is more important or serious or threatening than anything that has come before. But when we examine the Top Ten list of 1917 as a historical document, we can see that it reflects aspects of a cultural time and place that we should strive to remember. The American readers of 1917 were looking for romance and escapism, but were increasingly concerned with their place in the world as the war in Europe became a World War. Lives changed dramatically and unpredictably in that turbulent time, and a century later we can only benefit from a glimpse through this window of time, reminding ourselves of where we've been and of the tremendous struggles we've survived. And we can keep reading. Always keep reading.

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