Authors: James W. Hall
Tags: #Books & Reading, #Commerce, #Literary Criticism, #Reference, #Business & Economics
A Random House Trade Paperback Original
Copyright © 2012 by James W. Hall
Reading group guide copyright © 2012 by Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Hall, James W. (James Wilson).
Hit lit : cracking the code of the twentieth century’s biggest bestsellers / James W. Hall.
1. Best sellers—United States—History—20th century.
2. Popular literature—United States—History and criticism. 3. Books and reading—United States—History—20th century. I. Title.
Frontispiece and part title photo: © iStockphoto
Cover design: Pete Garceau and Thomas Beck Stvan
Cover photograph: Pete Garceau
y love affair with books began as most serious romances do, when I was least expecting to fall in love. I was ten years old, maybe eleven, and for years I had dutifully read the required books in school. But because they were required and because I was tested on my comprehension of them, I had decided that reading books ranked alongside long division and penmanship as simply one more bothersome educational duty.
Context is important here, for I was a young male in a southern town of the 1950s. In other words, that I would read a book just for fun was about as likely as my deciding spontaneously to knit a sweater for the football coach. It wasn’t done. At least not by any of the male role models who shaped my thinking at the time.
So when my mother deposited me at the public library that
fall afternoon to get me out of her hair while she went about her downtown errands, she might as well have dropped me off in the middle of Death Valley. The gloomy building was one of those WPA structures built in the heavily ornate style of the Old South. That creaky battleship was piloted by a wispy, white-haired woman in a dark dress and thick glasses, a living cliché who floated noiselessly up and down the stacks, replacing volumes in their proper slots and leaving the dry dust of tedium in her wake. As a young boy who aspired only to muscular achievements on hash-marked fields or gymnasium floors, I was mortified. Frightened out of my skin that I would be spotted by one of my friends in such a place.
To make myself as invisible as possible, I moseyed down aisle after aisle, studying the titles of those musty tomes, bored to death by the prospect of spending an hour or two in that dismal room. When the passing librarian seemed to sense my discomfort and began to home in on me, a fit of panic spurred me to nab a random book from a shelf, pop it open to the first page, and feign deep interest.
As my eyes ran down the lines of print, I was suddenly breathless. Though my vocabulary was no larger than that of any average ten-year-old boy of my place and time, I did know the word
. It was one of those special, cherished words, not quite a curse, but nonetheless a word loaded with magical potency. And lo and behold, that very word leapt out of the first page and seized my full attention. The fact that the word
turned out to be an adjective modifying the word
made my knees weak and put a wobble in my pulse.
I looked up, certain that the librarian was about to rip this smutty book from my hand, grab me by the collar, and toss me onto the street. By evening it would be all over town: “Little Jimmy Hall was caught reading that nude woman
book in the library.” But magically, the librarian melted back into the stacks and I was left alone with my first murder mystery novel.
For the nude woman was dead, and it was her corpse that had been found in a field by a man chasing butterflies. How did she get there? Who was she? Who would have done such a thing? I was mesmerized. Weak of breath and nearly fainting from a preadolescent tumult of emotions, I located a private corner near a window. I looked around and planned my getaway should my mother suddenly reappear and find me reading such filth. Then I sped through as many pages as I could manage before she returned and called me away.
So this was why people read! Books were about adult things. Strong emotions, extreme behaviors, the inside stuff of a world I had never imagined existed. In this, my first recreational book, I suddenly realized that novels could fill one with heart-pounding fear as well as lip-smacking lust. That they could, in fact, suddenly expand the boundaries of the hillbilly town where I had always lived and where I imagined I always would stay.
Tramping across the bogs of the English countryside in pursuit of the heinous killer of that nude woman, I was suddenly freed of my homebound life. I was set loose in the world and allowed to know every crucial thought of that droll British detective and was just as stumped as he, just as frustrated, and finally just as delighted when the logic of his deductions led him to the surprising culprit.
It took me several more surreptitious visits to the library to finish that novel. Surely my mother and father were deeply puzzled by this new enthusiasm, but they had the good grace not to ask where it was coming from. That might have quashed it all.
The day I finished that first novel, I looked up to find the amiable librarian staring down at me.
“You like mysteries?” she asked.
I gazed at the book in my hand as though it had just materialized there.
“Yes, that. That book you’ve been reading these last few weeks.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Well, so do I.” She beamed. “I just love a good murder story.” And she gave me a conspiratorial look that still floats into my mind whenever I am feeling isolated from the human race. For as I have come to understand, reading is at once a private and communal act. While books are savored alone, they grant you membership into the most fascinating club I know: fellow readers. Fellow voyagers into the vast uncharted waters of imaginative literature.
That afternoon, the librarian gave me a private tour of that big dusty room and she showed me the best mysteries in the house. Hard-boiled, cozies, Sherlock Holmes. She made a pile, got me a library card, helped me fill it out.
“Tell me what you think,” she said.
“Okay,” I said uncertainly.
“Oh, don’t worry, this isn’t school,” she said. “There’s no test when you bring them back. I won’t take your library card away from you if you don’t read one all the way through.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m smart enough to read all these.” I patted the stack of books.
“Oh, my,” she said. “No one starts out smart. That’s why we read.”
Over the next few years, I gradually expanded my reading
list with Dickens and Hardy, and later I fell in love with Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, and John Fowles, Faulkner and Steinbeck, and the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Robert Frost. It came as a shock to learn that sports and reading were not mutually exclusive. In fact, when I discovered Hemingway and began reading about his intense competitive exploits, I started to picture the unspeakable—that I might someday learn the craft of writing well enough to create the very things I so dearly loved to consume.
Though that creaky library no longer exists in my small Kentucky hometown, and though I have fled her narrow streets and scrubby fields forever, the largest part of what I am today and what I know about the world and about the affairs of the human heart springs from that one autumn afternoon when I plucked a book from the shelf and encountered that nude woman lying in the grass and I began this long journey, year after year, filling myself beyond the brim with the great accumulated wealth of books.
School year led to school year until I’d accumulated all the degrees there were to be had in my chosen field, and in the process, the reading of books became not just my private passion, but my profession. As so often happens in any career, I began to specialize.
In graduate school, a certain kind of novel that was considered avant-garde caught my fancy and later became my area of concentration when I began to teach at the university level. Call them metafiction or postmodernist, these novels are experimental, fresh, and exciting, and best of all they require someone like me to help the uninitiated student fully comprehend and appreciate their esoteric beauty.
For the first ten years of my teaching life, I held up these challenging novels as the gold standard of literary achievement,
and I touted them as superior in every regard to novels that still employed such old-fashioned techniques as plot and character development.
Then one afternoon I was exploring the reference stacks of the university library, trying to devise the course I would teach the following semester, when I happened on a collection of year-by-year lists of bestsellers from the past. I paged through the book with growing fascination as I came across novel after novel that I had read long ago, books that set off starbursts of nostalgia. And there were many more books on the lists that I’d always meant to read but had put off because of my academic studies.
Maybe it was time to take a break from my specialty. Oh, why not.
So I put together a course in popular fiction, and not just any popular fiction. For that initial class, I chose ten books that were the bestselling novels of their decade. These books were big. Bigger than big.
Though teaching such a course started out as little more than a whim, it proved to be the watershed moment in my intellectual and artistic life, and the truth is, I’ve had a lot more fun ever since.
We started with
Gone with the Wind
. I’d seen the film but never read the book, so I was unprepared for the full-bodied Scarlett O’Hara and how deeply she would move me. She was maddeningly silly, yet totally captivating. I was bowled over. Scarlett’s tale engaged me emotionally in ways I hadn’t experienced since my early days of reading. There was nothing to deconstruct, nothing to decode, nothing to distract the heart. Just fascinating people caught up in a rousing tale.
In the second week, we began to discuss
From Here to Eternity
. Same thing. Once again I was deeply stirred by the
book. The novel’s scope and primitive power and its fabulous characters swept me up and took me to an emotional land I’d almost forgotten existed after all those years of cerebral study. I was a kid again, encountering Dickens and Hardy and Austen for the first time, mesmerized by these robust characters who magically migrated from the page and took up residence inside me, who became as real and gut-wrenching as any humans I’d ever met.
Without intending it, I had rediscovered the excitement I’d felt in that creaky old library in a small town in Kentucky, when I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, when I disappeared into worlds more real than the one around me. I had returned to the wellspring of one of my great passions.