March 26, 2012

Are We Making Progress?

This last issue of Newsweek is fabulous!  It’s a double issue that is a throwback to 1965.  Everything in it is designed as if it were 1965 or about then or the difference between then and now.  All fascinating stuff, and don’t get me started on the delicious design of everything, most especially the advertising.  You should check out a physical copy of it when you get a chance.

I was especially interested in the Read All About It section, where they compare the Top 10 bestseller nonfiction and fiction lists of March 1966 with those of today. They list the books and tell a little bit about them, and then declare a winner, which presumably means the better book.

Some interesting things.  In March 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood topped the nonfiction list.  What a great book.  It was so stylish and well written no one cared that it was labeled nonfiction.  Barbara Tuchman, whom I love, was on the 1966 list, and Games People Play was number 5.  On the fiction list in 1966 was James Michener and Valley of the Dolls.

But what is even more fascinating is which books are declared winners.  On both nonfiction and fiction lists, seven of the 1966 titles were named winners, two 2012 titles, and one a tie or “reader’s choice.”  Now, I wonder why that is?  The only trends I could spot is that the books back then seemed to be bigger, about bigger issues or more about morality, while today’s books were very personal or self-help or, I don’t know, by zealots.  All of today’s fiction seemed to be about serial kills and CIA agents, while the 1966 fiction was about Nazi death camps or other big topics and/or very stylishly done.

So was 1966 the winner in these lists because people thought more deeply and more broadly and about bigger issues and thought about more than themselves?  Or is it because publishing has become more timid and narrow in their view of what they want to publish?  Or have writers been more concerned with what sells than about style?  Is the reading public getting dumber?  Or …? 

What do you think?  I'm really curious.


Dave said...

I went through the side-by-side comparison online. Conclusion: We're dumber now.Terrible thought. You would think that more people read for pleasure back then, so that the fiction would be trashier in 1966, whereas people who go for trash would be online in 2012. The only real trash in '66 is Valley of the Dolls. Who is bestselling today that is the equal of John O'Hara or Graham Greene?

Tamara said...

Hahahahaha! I like that. I'm hoping it's because of other trends myself ~ not that people are dumber, but having to do with publishing/market forces. Though, in the current political climate, I'm edging a little more in your direction!


Melospiza said...

As I read the Newsweek best seller list I kept stubbornly insisting to myself that THINGS AREN'T THAT BAD NOW I SWEAR. Not that I could come up with data for that assumption...but doesn't it seem like writers like Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, & Joan Didion regularly make the best seller list? Yeah, in any given week most of the stuff being shoveled out the door in massive quantities than grappling; but we still have Big Books mixed in with the rest. And on the flip side, TV is about a million trillion times more intelligent than it was in 1966. So it's not that we are dumber now, so much as more smart people watch TV instead of, or in equal quantities with, reading. Which is depressing in a different way, I guess. Hmm.

Tamara said...

Sorry I missed your comment earlier, Melospiza!

I'm like you. I want to believe that we're not getting worse! Very true about better TV, though I hadn't thought about that. There's still a lot of bad TV.

Maybe that's part of it too - a lot more quantity with fewer gatekeepers.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

~ Tamara