Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader

My recent reading of Dark Hester, published in 1929, was pleasurable for more reasons than just the delightful story (review forthcoming). The beautiful art deco dustjacket is still perfectly intact, and printed on the inside and on the back are a catalogue of Grosset and Dunlap’s bestsellers of the time, under the title of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’. This snapshot of what the average middle class person would have been reading in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s absolutely fascinated me. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of most of the authors; I doubt many of the novels on today’s bestseller lists will be remembered in 80 years’ time, after all. However, what did shock me, after some preliminary research, was how distinguished and highly acclaimed many of these authors had been at the time of their heyday. Many had won the Pulitzer prize, and still, had fallen spectacularly out of favour. The vast majority of the books listed in the catalogue have been out of print for decades, and the remaining copies are probably languishing unloved and unnoticed on many a second hand book seller’s shelf. A sobering thought.

On the back of the dustjacket, most prominently placed, are a mixed list of most recommended authors and novels. This list particularly caught my eye, a blend, as it is, of novelists both known and unknown to me. Listed are Booth Tarkington, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons I so enjoyed a few months ago, Julia Peterkin, another Pulitzer Prize winner who I had never heard of before, Louis Bromfield, whose Mrs Parkington I randomly chose from the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore, Jim Tully, once the most hated man in Hollywood and lauded by Ernest Hemingway no less, Upton Sinclair, Martha Ostenso, who apparently wrote beautifully about Minnesotan farm life, Phyllis Bottome, a prolific and brilliant Diplomat’s wife who taught Ian Fleming, Walter D Edmonds, a historical novelist of the same popularity as Margaret Mitchell in his time, Mazo de la Roche, Sinclair Lewis, Josephine Herbst, a radical, communist leaning feminist, Warwick Deeping, a British novelist best known for his novels of Edwardian England, Edna Ferber, who won the Pulitzer Prize and wrote the novel that became the musical Show Boat, Michael Arlen, whose The Green Hat was recently reprinted by Capuchin Classics, my beloved Dorothy Canfield, whose novels have been brought back to life by both Persephone and Virago, Philip Gibbs, one of only five official British reporters of WWI, and Elizabeth Von Arnim, whose beautiful novels are thankfully still in print courtesy of Virago.

A mixed bag, no? Some of these, such as Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, are considered canonical authors, and their books have never been out of print. Others have seen recent revivals thanks to feminist presses, or remain in print due to their ‘classic’ status, but have not seen the enduring success and wide readership of some of their contemporaries. Others have fallen out of favour and print altogether, and will perhaps never see the light of day again. However, at some point, they were all as widely read and respected by the reading public as the others. So what happened? Why did some endure and others fall by the wayside? What makes a book stand the test of time and makes another become so out of touch with the contemporary reading public that it is no longer considered of enough value to be read?

This dustjacket list of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’ has made me wonder what I am missing. If I have read and enjoyed half of the authors Grosset and Dunlap are recommending to me on the back of Dark Hester, then it surely follows that I’d enjoy the rest. These novels may not be easy to get hold of, but I’m going to try and track them down, slowly but surely. Much like Danielle’s admirable Lost in the Stacks project aims to do, I want to revive some of these novels and keep them in circulation. I am excited at the thought of how many lost gems there could be out there, waiting for me to discover them. No longer will I discard a dusty old hardback because I have never heard of the author; I’m going to be a more adventurous reader from now on. For every reprinted novel, there must be thousands of equally worthy ones waiting to be picked up and enjoyed again. What a literary adventure I could embark upon!

38 comments

  1. I LOVE reading publisher’s advertisements at the back of favourite books; you’re right it does lead you off on literary adventure. I picked up Mary Hocking because she was described as being like Barbara Pym in one such ad; she wasn’t, but I loved the book anyway. And I love the idea of “books for the discerning reader”; would Mills and Boon advertise for the undiscerning?!

    1. Me too! I love seeing what books were popular at particular times and what the average person would have been reading. I didn’t realise you’d found Mary Hocking that way – what a great find! Hmmm…not sure about Mills and Boon! I don’t think they’d feature on a discerning list of mine!😉

  2. Yes do revive them! Lost in the Stacks is my favorite blog project — in fact I’d toyed with the idea of stealing the name for my own blog! So I’m with you all the way here.

  3. Rachel, thanks for this list of authors. Like you, I hadn’t heard of most of them until you listed them, and some of them I hadn’t heard of until I started reading book blogs.

    I can recommend Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso. I think I recommended it to you before. It’s actually set in Canada. I thought I remember it being set in Saskatchewan, but Wikipedia tells me it is set in Manitoba. Overall, I thought it was okay, nothing phenomenal but worth reading. It’s very dark, and if you like that sort of thing, I think you would like it. I used to have a nice, old copy, but I just recently gave it away to a used bookstore because I needed to get rid of some of my books. Now, I wish I still had it, so I could send it to you. It is in print, though, being sold my McClelland as part of the New Canadian Library: http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771093944 .

    1. Thank you, Virginia! I’m glad you enjoyed it – and I hope you’ll get some good tips from it!

      Thanks for that info on Martha Ostenso – I knew I had been recommended it before by somebody! It’s a shame it’s just OK but I shall seek it out and see how I get on with it. That’s very sweet of you to think of me – let’s hope someone out there is discovering it as we speak!

  4. It’s so cool you’re going to do this. I was hoping others might do the same and look for these lost gems hiding on their library’s bookshelves! My library has a really good collection of books from the first half of the 20th century and I am constantly browsing the fiction stacks. I was just thinking today (as I choose my next lost in the stacks book for later this week) how the best seller lists were filled with really good literature. I think a lot of what appears on today’s NYT lists won’t be around. I’ve noticed how many of the authors on those older lists are authors who we consider classic authors, or at the very least well respected middlebrow writers. Phyllis Bottome is on my own list (by chance I added her today, too) and I’ve wanted to read Edna Ferber for a while. I’m looking forward to hearing more about these authors and their books. Unfortunately the books in my library no longer have their dust jackets so I’m missing out on those lovely booklists, but occasionally they will be in the back of the book and it’s a great place to discover new authors. I know it’s probably silly, but I’m so excited you’re going to try and get these books circulating again! (And thanks for linking back to me–very kind of you!).

    1. Thanks, Danielle! I’m so glad you approve of the project! Yes – the bestseller lists of the past were definitely full of better quality books than ours are, without a doubt. The more midcentury books I read, the more I think the standard of what got published then was far higher than today. It’s a shame.

      I really want to read Edna Ferber too – I looked for her this weekend to no avail. It’s a shame you don’t have the book jackets to peruse but you still get that wonderful library at your disposal! Can’t wait to see your next pick!

  5. I eagerly look forward to Danielle’s Lost in the Stacks, Rachel, and find myself seeking books that fill the bill at the libraries I frequent. You wonderful book jacket list adds to to the fun and purpose of reviving lost books and bringing them back into circulation.

    I have a nice collection of my dad’s books, mostly Book of the Month Club editions, with their book jackets intact. I treasure them, though I haven’t read all of them. I pull them off the shelves from time-to-time, and am amazed at the authors often listed on the back flap. I have actually read about one third of the authors listed on your flap, though not necessarily the books listed. Many were required reading. I, too, often wonder what best sellers will stand the test of time.

    Wonderful post and I can’t wait for your review of Dark Hester. The cover was an immediate attraction to me (yes, I do admit to judging a book by its cover).

    1. I’m glad you’re another fan of Danielle’s project, Penny! It’s so exciting to discover these lost classics, isn’t it?

      How wonderful – that collection sounds amazing! You must get so much pleasure from it – and I bet you have several of the authors on my dustjacket in your collection!

      Thank you – yes the dustjacket for Dark Hester is wonderful! I need to write that review!

  6. I thought the same thing when I looked at the back cover! Now if only some more of those lovely lost books would be waiting for me the next time I wander a used book shop….Been meaning to try Mrs. Parkington since you read it a while ago, shall have to begin my search there!

    1. I know, I’m having trouble finding them, but I can imagine they’re just the sort of books that turn up in those dusty second hand book shops in out of the way towns…I need to get out of the city and have a proper hunt! I hope you’ll find Mrs Parkington…I am sure you will love it!

  7. I love looking at publisher’s suggestions or lists of the other books they’ve publisher — I was reading a Modern Library edition of a Willa Cather novel today and naturally I had to look at the list at the back to see how many I’d read. One novel leads you to another, and another, and it never ends. I also love learning about what people were reading about years ago — I have a book about book groups that includes bestseller lists from each decade, which is so fun. Interesting to see how tastes change. And I look forward to your lost in the stacks theme, I might have to borrow it. Or maybe you should sponsor a lost in the stacks weekend, or challenge — there must be lots of bloggers who would participate with their favorite forgotten novel, or who would search the stack for a rediscovered book.

    1. Yes, I love how one book can lead you to another…I suppose that’s how people formed their reading pre internet – if you liked this, you’ll like this…ads in the back of books.

      What a great idea! Perhaps Danielle and I should discuss such a possibility!

      1. That does sound like a fun idea and I’d be happy to help out–isn’t it nice to see people get excited about these poor now-unread books that are sitting on library shelves or used bookstore tables?

  8. I’ve quite often bought (and sometimes even read!) books after seeing them mentioned in the publisher’s section at the back of other books – I love seeing the snapshot of what was being read. But it does make one realise how much is out there to be read; that the reprinted titles are only the tip of the iceberg!

    1. Well as always Simon you are ahead of the curve! I love that snapshot element too – it seems that people in the past read books of far greater quality than we do now!

      I know, it saddens me that I’ll never have time to possibly get through all of these fantastic books!

  9. Oh this is great! This makes my imaginary life in the 1920’s even more real. I’m so glad Capuchin re-did ‘The Green Hat,’ I remember looking for it before and there was nary a copy to be found at a single library in the state of Rhode Island! That’s actually not saying much, but that’s beside the point. I’m so excited about your project, and I think you are already very influential. I’m searching for ‘Illyrian Spring,’ and can’t wait to read it after your review (and Simon’s)!

    1. Daniel, you make me laugh! All you need is a stash of books from this list, a smoking jacket and a cigar and you are good to go!

      Well aren’t I flattered?! My one woman mission to get Illyrian Spring the recognition it deserves will never end…I hope you find it very soon and love it – I know you will!

    1. Nan that website is FANTASTIC, thank you so much! I am going to have some fun looking through all the decades!!

      Yes they did get married at his farm – he and his wife were quite the socialites, so I have read!

  10. Great project – and I agree with Karen K, it would be fun to get lots of us to read books from an old bestseller list. I bet some would be badly dated, but we’d surely rediscover some great books to pass on to each other.

  11. It’s amazing how quickly even those considered “giants” of literature now fade from the scene. Consider Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow, for example: both dead for less than ten years and is anyone reading them anymore? Anyway, I don’t think I could sum up how reading has changed in less than 100 years better than John Updike did in the following quote. It’s long, but I think it covers a lot of territory:

    “When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher’s shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don’t feel that now. I don’t feel that we have the merger of serious and pop–it’s gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they’re less comfortable with the written word. They’re less comfortable with novels. They don’t have a backward frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony and allusions. It’s sad.”

    The quote goes on to blame movies, television (“like turning on a faucet, you can have it whenever you want”), internet, on-line gaming, etc. By and large, people simply don’t have the time (and don’t want to make the time) to do a lot of reading. So all those novels that people used to spend their time reading….well, now people have found other things to do.

    1. I know, it’s quite scary how people drop from view, isn’t it? I LOVE that quote and I entirely agree – modern technology, as much as it has made life easier and richer, has also removed a lot of the old ways we spent time…that were probably far more productive and worthwhile.

  12. My exact thought as I was searching through the books at the reuse centre the other day. How many of these books are stunning reads and just left here to die a lonely death? I wanted to know all about each and every one because I am a curious so-and-so! And some of the authors’ names from that era are just too fabulous.

    The authors you’ve highlighted would be thrilled beyond measure to know they intrigued such a woman in 2011.

    1. I know, it’s so sad isn’t it? And I know I am guilty of not wanting to take chances on a novel that I haven’t heard of. Oh yes – the names are fantastic aren’t they?!

      I hope they would be! Poor things, all dusty and neglected!

  13. Wonderful! I so love the old-fashioned phrases used in these old adverts! ‘For the discerning reader’! Makes me squidge up inside!🙂

    One name particularly caught my eye: Mazo de la Roche. I gobbled up her books when I was young. They were a family saga told throughout several volumes. There is so much rubbish being published these days that is bound to nudge the old books out. I hate the phrase ‘not relevant to today’s readers’. What??? What criteria do they use to come to that opinion? I’ve heard it said (with ‘viewers’ substituted for ‘readers’, of course) about classics on television. I despair… (Rant over. For now…🙂 )

    1. Hehe! I know, I love reading old newspapers for the exact same reason!

      I had heard of Mazo de la Roche before but I’ve never read anything by her. You have intrigued me! I know, it’s disappointing that publishing houses make these decisions…and foist utter rubbish on us instead. Thank goodness for people like Nicola Beauman!

  14. I hope you share any gems that you find with us. Finding a forgotten near masterpiece is always so exciting! I work in a used bookstore, and it’s always hard knowing which odd-ball oldies to put out. Shelf space is valuable.

    I’ve done more of this kind of exploration of obscurities in music than in literature, and I’ve found that while many minor figures are capable of really distinguished short works (an art-song, a piano piece, an aria or even a scene in an opera), by and large, in the larger forms “the test of time” has shaken things out fairly accurately. There is a reason that Donizetti is better known than Mercadante, and yet there are terrific moments in Mercadante. And as for those 10s of thousands of classical period symphonies that were written … Anton Filtz was enormously talented, but he was no Haydn.

    1. I’ve been thinking further about this. I like to buy anthologies of “contemporary” poetry from past decades. Not only is it fascinating to see who has disappeared, but it is very interesting to see how now canonical figures looked at early stages of their careers. I don’t often find unknown poets I crave to read more of, but frequently get a more positive skew on figures who have become marginalized or regarded as period pieces (e.g. Longfellow and Teasdale are certainly better than their current reputation).

      1. Hi Steve, thanks so much for your thoughts! I will definitely be sure to share any more discoveries with all of you!

        How interesting about the composers and poets…I hadn’t thought about those angles before. I think you’re right about early work…it gives you a totally different angle on them and their inspirations, and it’s also heartening to see that everyone starts somewhere, no matter how great they become eventually.

        It’s a shame that so many only slightly lesser than great people’s work falls out of view. It’s still worth appreciating!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s