BLAST FROM THE PAST We don’t have a crystal ball so we can’t look into the future to see what will be on the best-seller list in 2020. What we do have at the Book Review is the ability to look back — either in our library of bound issues dating back to 1930 or in TimesPast, a handy digital tool that takes us back to the eras when O. Henry was carousing at Pete’s Tavern and Dorothy Parker was holding court at the Algonquin.
I was curious to find out what mere mortals were reading and writing 100 years ago, so into the archives I went. In the books pages from the Jan. 4, 1920, edition of The Times, among ads for writing coaches and diet books (“Why Grow Fat?”) — some things never change — I stumbled on “What the New Year Will Bring in Books.” The unbylined article relied on the expertise of Sir Ernest Hodder Williams, president of the London publishing firm Hodder & Stoughton and vice president of the George H. Doran Company in New York, who declared “the coming twelvemonth” to be “‘the biggest year ever’ in the reading of books.”
“In these times that follow the war, people are reading fiction to ‘get away’ from the drabness of everyday existence,” said Sir Ernest. “I believe that fiction will mean more to the public than it ever has.” He described the most popular novels of the time: the “open air” story that took “city clerks and other busy indoor workers into a broad, open outdoor life” and the domestic one that dealt “with young people in a bright and pleasant way.” He also said, “The detective novel and the novel of sheer adventure are always popular.” As for futuristic fiction and stories of war, Sir Ernest did not have high hopes for their success: “People have lived so close to life, to bigness and reality in these past years that they are not interested in reading theories. They want facts.”
He continued, “One thing I do look for, and that is a tremendous flood of sex novels. I think that is inevitable. I think myself that the new candor will be, in the long run, a good thing for society. … The old secrecy in relation to sex can never come back. Moreover, the sexes are franker and more friendly with each other than they have ever been before. Men and women have worked and suffered side by side through all these hard years.”
What would Sir Ernest make of the fact that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was the best-selling book of the last decade in the United States? Hard to say, but interesting to think about. After all, everything old is new again.