A unique and captivating literary history of the twentieth century drawn from the first sixty years of the Book-of-the-Month Club
From The Sun Also Rises to The Accidental Tourist, the judges, editors, and reviewers of the Book-of-the-Month Club help readers all across America find their next favorite book.
In this comprehensive anthology compiled from the Club’s monthly News, astute reviewers praise and critique a diverse array of authors including Dashiell Hammett, Barbara Tuchman, Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, Margaret Mitchell, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Evelyn Waugh. Harper Lee affectionately profiles Truman Capote, poet laureate Robert Penn Warren praises his friend Bill Styron, and Gore Vidal interviews himself. John le Carré shares why it was particularly hard to write A Perfect Spy, and E. L. Doctorow reveals the intentions of his masterpiece, Ragtime.
A celebration of the life-affirming power of the written word and a treasure trove of reviews, essays, and author portraits related to classic books we all know and love and less famous titles well-deserving of rediscovery, The Book of the Month is a must-read for bibliophiles everywhere.
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The Book of the Month
Sixty Years of Books in American Life
By Al Silverman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Book-Of-The-Month Club, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A first novel by a thirty-three-year-old British poet, a woman, was the first Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in April 1926. Lolly Willowes was the title and Sylvia Townsend Warner was the author. Henry Seidel Canby, chairman of the "members of the Selecting Committee," as the judges were then called, felt the book was probably too special and too literary and that the "proprietors" of the Club "might lose their subscribers and their collective shirts." It did not happen, though Lolly Willowes made no bestseller list. Sylvia Townsend Warner did go on to enjoy a long and respected literary career, including seven novels, twelve collections of short stories, five of poetry, and a biography of her great friend, T. H. White. In 1976, on the occasion of the Club's fiftieth anniversary, David Willis McCullough wrote to Ms. Warner to ask her recollection of that 1926 experience. She answered McCullough, who was then writing a column for the BOMC News, saying, "When I learned that the Book-of-the-Month Club had selected Lolly Willowes for its first choice I was astonished, delighted and confident that any organization daring enough to pick an unknown author would be a valuable asset to contemporary literature." Ms. Warner died two years later at the age of eighty-five.
Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner
It will be of interest to our subscribers to know not only why the members of the Selecting Committee choose the book that is sent to subscribers each month, but how they arrive at their choice. The qualities that make a book readable and enjoyable are many, and qualities that will delight one person may not appeal greatly to another. It would be too much to hope that any five individuals, of different tastes, should always independently conclude that a certain book is the "best" among a great many good books. Only rarely may it be expected that a book will tower above all others so clearly that the five members of the Selecting Committee will unanimously agree upon it.
The object of the committee's choice is not to deliver an ultimatum as to the "best" book each month, but to find a book that will appeal most winningly and forcibly to widely differing tastes. Difference of opinion among judges is, therefore, not only inevitable but desirable, for it is clear that if ever they independently agree to recommend the same book, it will certainly possess an exceptionally high order of merit.
The method of choice decided upon, therefore, was as follows: Out of a list of about fifty current books submitted by publishers, the choice was narrowed by a process of elimination to twenty. Each one of the judges independently read these twenty books, and chose six — ranking them in the order of their preference. In this ranking, Lolly Willowes emerged with a markedly higher rating than any other. Three of the judges actually rated it first, certainly an unusual tribute in view of the many excellent books that were being considered.
The comments of the judges upon Miss Warner's book (in indicating their preferences, each one gave reasons for his choice) all seem to agree upon one point: that it is, as one of the judges wrote, "one of those wise simple books, charmingly written, that are so easy to read and so true to human nature that the reader does not at first realize how much quiet humor and how much rare life he is encountering." Another one refers to it as "an enchanting book," and another says: "It is more than a simple idyll of English country life. It is the story of a woman who seemed just like a thousand other unmarried women — a little prim, a little eccentric — but inside she was different, and there were many others who inside were different as she was, who sought self-expression in their own way, who were willing to risk their souls and even their respectabilities to get it ... It is a simple story that changes imperceptibly and delightfully into an intriguing fantasy."
Sylvia Townsend Warner, the author of Lolly Willowes, heretofore has been completely unknown to American readers and has been almost so in England. This is her first book of fiction, but she has published (as might be guessed) poetry. One who met her recently described her as "not an imposing figure, but with an animation and whimsicality that springs from within and is not assumed. Her portrait makes her, 'almost as aquiline as the American eagle,' she says. She has quite the least forced humor I have met in many a day. She can and does discuss architecture and literature and music soberly, but even then there is a quality of liveliness, a sparkle, that removes any possibility of dullness. Her imagination is constantly active ...
"She hasn't traveled abroad since childhood, but she loves to explore England, touring the country afoot. Evidently she has the instinct of an archaeologist — she speaks almost with affection of a bit of mortar, or the like, at the museum in Newcastle which bears the impression of a Roman hand.
"In writing Lolly Willowes she herself went out into the country as Lolly did, leaving no clue as to her whereabouts. She is evasive about a personal meeting with the devil but it may be surmised — well, who that reads 'Lolly' can believe it to be entirely a product of the imagination!"
The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant was published in 1926. Today it sells almost as mightily as it did in the beginning. The Story of Philosophy led to the fulfillment of a dream: Durant would write "the story of civilization." Volume I was published in 1935. "I wish to tell as much as I can," wrote Durant in the preface to that book, "in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind.... I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is ... and have made it clear that no one mind, and no single lifetime, can adequately compass this task." Yet Will Durant, with the help of Ariel, his wife of sixty-eight years, worked through eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization, completing the last volume, The Age of Napoleon, when he was ninety years old.
The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
If it had not been outlawed from consideration by its price, it is quite possible that the Selecting Committee would have chosen this remarkable work as the "book-of-the-month" for its subscribers, in spite of the high merit of Mr. Galsworthy's novel. It is an exceptional book and the members of the Committee strongly recommend it to our subscribers. Philosophy, to the average person, has always been a forbidding subject. Only now and then, when a man like James or Bergson elucidates its mysteries, does it come into its own for brief periods. Professor Durant's book is apparently due to initiate another period of widespread interest in philosophy, such as William James was responsible for through his brilliant lectures. To the surprise of many people, who underestimate the underlying seriousness of mind of the American public, almost at once this book has become a "best seller."
The book is, in a way, a summary of the views of the great philosophers from Socrates to John Dewey; but it is in no sense a scholastic summary. A good deal of the best sort of biography is in it. One of the Committee gives this report of it:
"There have been dozens of histories of philosophy, in all of which there is an attempt to present the chief ideas of the great philosophers. Mr. Durant's differs from them all, and in more than merit. He has, in the first place, the ability to explain with crystal clearness and make an abstract of a great philosophic system which sacrifices neither the meaning nor the richness of the original. But best of all is his method, which must be the result of a long experience in teaching, lecturing, and studying philosophy. Philosophy cannot be 'harsh and crabbed' when it is presented first as the ripening experience of remarkable men, next as an idea, and finally as a position freely to be criticized in the light of all we know. Spinoza in these pages becomes a man again. Giants like Aristotle and Kant become human, and Voltaire, in a brilliant chapter, is a dazzling personality who quite explains the worldwide power of his thought. Only the great are discussed in this book, and this is perhaps why it seems more like a symposium of the meaning of life, made relevant to us and our time, than a historical record. It is good reading for the least philosophical of nations."
The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant
This monumental literary enterprise of Dr. Durant has pretty much the same general intention as Mr. Wells' popular Outline of History, but it is apparent that he will cover the subject with considerably more particularity than did Mr. Wells — and, in fairness it should be added, with a more scholarly conscience. For twenty years this has been the magnum opus of his dreams; for the last eight years he has been actively engaged upon it, and this present volume represents the first completed structure in the plan, carrying us down to the death of Alexander. He begins with the Orient, because, of course, Asia was the scene of the oldest civilizations, and we shall be surprised to learn, says the author — and he is right — "how much of our indispensable inventions, our economic and political organizations, our science and our literature, our philosophy and our religion, goes back to Egypt and the Orient." That the book is highly readable it is hardly necessary to report to those who have read The Story of Philosophy; and while Dr. Durant worked solo, he and his publishers have had its contents carefully checked by scholars in many fields, and its reliability also may therefore be counted upon. In small space like this, perhaps the best general descriptive note that can be given is that supplied by the author himself, at the very outset, in his Preface: "I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind — to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy, and the achievement of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, nor how immodest is its very conception; for many years of effort have brought it to but a fifth of its completion, and have made it clear that no one mind, and no single lifetime, can adequately compass this task. Nevertheless I have dreamed that despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try to see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time, as well as to seek them through science in space."
Will Durant (1885–1981) and Ariel Durant (1898–1981): An Appreciation by Clifton Fadiman
In 1926 Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy was published — almost hesitantly, for who cares to read about philosophy? It proved shockingly popular and has since run up an immense trade sale. The Book-of-the-Month Club alone has distributed well over 300,000 copies.
The following year was marked by a less sensational event. I got a job with Simon and Schuster, the house that has been the Durants' publisher for 55 years. During the next decade I had occasion to work with Will and even to help in a small way with the preparation of the early volumes of The Story of Civilization. Thus I came to know him as a friend and to admire him as a historian. Later, over the years, reviewing for BOMC many of the successive volumes, I tried hard to separate affection from judgment.
This was not easy. As a human being Will Durant was tolerant, good-humored, skeptical, nonmystical, intellectually receptive, a lover of clarity, a hater of obscurantism and a champion of the long view. He would have been at home with Voltaire and Hume, and mildly amused by the Moral Majority. He was, to use a term as perennially noble as it is now transiently traduced, a humanist.
But these personal qualities, which I admire, are precisely the qualities that animate the 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization, including the later volumes that also bear the name of his wife, Ariel. That is why I found it hard to separate affection from judgment.
As the years passed and the vast volumes kept appearing, my conscience was eased. Those for whom the Durants wrote have validated the seemingly impossible task to which they dedicated their energies over almost half a century. BOMC has distributed 767,789 sets of The Story of Civilization. Our grand total of individual Durant titles (also counting The Story of Philosophy and The Lessons of History) comes to 9,064,688. More to the point, each volume has been greeted with pleasure and, as far as such matters can be ascertained, read with profit.
This biography of civilized man was written for, but never written down to, the common reader. Scholars have faulted details and quarreled with specific interpretations. Some of them have also been made uneasy by certain gifts that the Durants, especially Will, brought to their narrative — gifts of wit, humor, vividness and, above all, lucidity. Just as some philosophers have cried down Santayana because he wrote too well, some historians have been fazed by the Durants' ability to make history dangerously readable.
The common reader, however, has not objected to readability. Hundreds of thousands, all over the world, have enjoyed what no other single book or series of books now available can give them: a leisurely large-scale, understandable narrative of the human adventure over the last 5000 years. Faithful readers of all the volumes have received something in the nature of an education, insofar as books alone can educate us.
At the Book-of-the-Month Club we take quiet pride in our association with the Durants' achievement. It is a pride quite without fatuity, for it is based on the continued good judgment, over many decades, of our members. It is you, and more than one generation of you, who have sanctioned our own admiration for the lifework of two great educators.
Sinclair Lewis dominated the bestseller lists of the 1920s. His novel Main Street sold 295,000 copies in 1921. Babbitt, published in 1922, introduced a new word into the American language. Arrowsmith, published in 1925, picked apart the medical profession. In 1927 Elmer Gantry became the number one fiction bestseller of the year. In 1930 Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
As explained in our Preliminary Notice, which subscribers received a month ago, this book was given the highest vote by the entire five members of the Selecting Committee — the first time this has happened. All of the judges gave the same reason for choosing the book; it is a book which will unquestionably result in widespread controversy; it will be praised highly and condemned bitterly; it will perhaps be a topic of discussion for months, not only in pulpits and editorial columns but among intelligent people everywhere. For that reason all of the judges, voting independently, felt that it should be sent to subscribers. It is chiefly "outstanding," in other words, because of its high current interest, not so much for its literary merit. Of course, Lewis is one of the best living novelists; he knows how to tell a story as well as how to raise a social issue; but the general opinion of the judges seemed to be that Elmer Gantry is not quite so good writing as Babbitt, and that it is less novel but more interesting than Main Street. Dr. Canby's characterization in his final report seems to us a fair summary: "Many will be shocked by it, but everyone will wish to read it. Let it be read as special pleading by one of the most skillful reporters now alive."
The title and the coauthors — stalwart preppies of The New Yorker in 1929 — tell all.
Excerpted from The Book of the Month by Al Silverman. Copyright © 1986 Book-Of-The-Month Club, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: Ernest Hemingway A Book-of-the-Month Club Connection,
DECADE ONE: 1926–1936,
DECADE TWO: 1937–1946,
DECADE THREE: 1947–1956,
DECADE FOUR: 1957–1966,
DECADE FIVE: 1967–1976,
DECADE SIX: 1977–1986,
About the Author,