Blogger: Michelle Ule
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Conventional wisdom tells us that during the Great Depression (1929-1939), Americans flocked to the movie theaters to escape their drab lives through the music and dancing magic of Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers.
True, but those films weren’t exactly happy tales void of difficulties. When my family and I watched all the Shirley Temple films one summer, we joked at the start of each one, “How do you think her parents will die this time?” She may have had a happy ending, but Shirley usually had tragedy in her past. And Ginger? Always a broke store clerk or a woman down on her luck. Things turned around when Ginger found Fred and twirled away on her very high heels. And they all lived happily ever after.
But while moviegoers sought escape in song and dance, what types of books did the readers buy? The best-selling novel of 1931 and 1932 was Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, the story of a poor Chinese farmer during turbulent times. The 1931 nonfiction list included books about games, biographies and several political and/or current event books. (These best-selling book lists come from a 2006 class taught by Professor John Unsworth at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Services, “20th Century American Best-Sellers.”)
One of the best selling writers during the Depression and World War II era was the Lutheran pastor, Lloyd C. Douglas. Among his novels written during this time period were Magnificent Obsession, Green Light, White Banners and The Robe. The Robe, which examines events connected to the cloth Jesus wore at his crucifixion, was on the best-seller list for three straight years during World War II.
On the nonfiction list, one of the big sellers in 1933 and 1934 was 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics by Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink. See? There’s nothing new under the sun. Biographies and narrative nonfiction-type stories fill the ranks, with books about war clouds growing in Europe appearing with greater regularity toward the end of the decade.
Another big fiction seller during the Depression was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind–an historical novel set during the Civil War, which emphasizes Scarlett O’Hara’s pluck and opportunity-grabbing ability. Plenty of escapist literature appeared on the list: Anthony Adverse, a swashbuckling story that topped the list in 1933 and 1934; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s true tale of adventure: North to the Orient; and Clarence Day’s domestic comedy: Life with Father. A.J. Cronin medical dramas appear almost yearly.
The fiction lists generally hold at least one mystery (often by Mary Roberts Rinehart), romantic suspense novels, tearjerkers, American historical fiction and usually one humorous book.
What sort of conclusions, if any, can we take from lists like these? Is it possible to take historical information and apply it to today?
During times in my life when things aren’t going well, when death or fear drags me down, I don’t want to read heavy stories. I read to escape from my turbulent life into a place that may also be unruly, but at least is guaranteeing me a happy ending. That may be why I always read the last chapter of the murder mystery . . . before I should.
Which brings us to today.
In a time of pressing financial need, chaos around the world, frustration with government and sagging moral institutions, what type of book do you want to read? What would be the felt need for a large enough component of the reading public to make book sales soar?
Or, what type of book do you NOT want to read during trying times?