The top books of 1923 and 1973, according to LibraryThing and Goodreads

Which of this year’s books will be remembered in 50 or 100 years’ time? I won’t be around to keep count, but it’s a question that we can ask of the books of 50 and 100 years ago. So, I have crunched the numbers for the books of 1923 and 1973, as tracked by ownership on LibraryThing and the number of people who have rated them on Goodreads. Obviously there’s an English-language bias there, but I’m pleasantly surprised that a number of translated novels make both lists.

For 1923, The Prophet by Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran is way out in front. I’ve read it and the next two on the list and will report back on them in the next couple of days. I am familiar at least with most of the others, and have read another four or five, but they all look interesting. There are works of poetry and a play here; neither genre appears on the 1973 list. None of these appears in the Publisher’s Weekly lists of best-selling books in the USA for any year in the 1920s.

TitleAuthorGR ratingsLT readersGenreLanguage
The ProphetKahlil Gibran285,63713,524poetry / philosophyEnglish
The Murder on the LinksAgatha Christie84,0574,181fiction (detective)English
Whose Body?Dorothy L. Sayers53,8974,732fiction (detective)English
Emily of New MoonL.M. Montgomery48,7413,888fiction (children)English
Zeno’s Conscience / La coscienza di ZenoItalo Svevo24,4623,425fictionItalian
The Inimitable JeevesP.G. Wodehouse25,9373,221fiction (humour)English
BambiFelix Salten35,4702,348fiction (children)German
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy EveningRobert Frost10,4462,334poetryEnglish
Leave It to PsmithP.G. Wodehouse10,8352,118fiction (humour)English
Saint JoanGeorge Bernard Shaw8,9992,208stageEnglish
CaneJean Toomer10,2011,806fiction (African American)English
A Lost LadyWilla Cather6,6221,537fictionEnglish
The Fatal Eggs / Роковые яйцаMikhail Bulgakov10,010723fiction (science fiction / satire)Russian
St Francis of AssisiG.K. Chesterton4,2841,583biographyEnglish
The Devil in the Flesh / Le Diable au corpsRaymond Radiguet5,9631,052fictionFrench
Sonnets to Orpheus / Die Sonette an OrpheusRainer Maria Rilke3,4091,021poetryGerman
Antic HayAldous Huxley2,2131,266fiction (humour)English
The Lurking FearH.P. Lovecraft2,201972fiction (horror)English
The Dark FrigateCharles Boardman Hawes2,364702fiction (children)English
My Universities / Мои университетыMaxim Gorky2,455298autobiographyRussian
Listed in order of the product of the GR and LT numbers.

I have read more than half of the 1973 list, and reread the second and third after crunching these numbers (reviews to come). There’s a distinct shift towards more popular literature, with more than a third of the list being fantasy or sf including The Princess Bride, top book by a long way, possibly due to having been later made into a hit fantasy film. Breakfast of Champions and The Hollow Hills both feature in the Publisher’s Weekly list for 1973, and both topped the New York Times Best Sellers list at different points that year.

TitleAuthorGR ratingsLT readersGenreLanguage
The Princess BrideWilliam Goldman876,63224,080fiction (fantasy)English
Breakfast of ChampionsKurt Vonnegut Jr.252,24915,739fiction (satire, possibly sf/fantasy)English
A Wind in the DoorMadeleine L’Engle125,47312,097fiction (children, sf)English
Gravity’s RainbowThomas Pynchon42,45510,403fictionEnglish
Rendezvous with RamaArthur C. Clarke158,9379,660fiction (sf)English
The Dark Is RisingSusan Cooper54,6818,088fiction (children, fantasy)English
Knowing GodJ.I. Packer55,7258,069religionEnglish
SulaToni Morrison88,2877,260fiction (African American)English
Time Enough for LoveRobert A. Heinlein34,8915,403fiction (sf)English
The Gulag Archipelago / Архипелаг ГУЛАГAleksandr Solzhenitsyn28,5724,918history / reportageRussian
How to Eat Fried WormsThomas Rockwell47,1784,516fiction (children)English
The Hollow HillsMary Stewart21,8294,025fiction (fantasy)English
MomoMichael Ende74,4093,789fiction (children, fantasy)German
CrashJ.G. Ballard24,5303,387fictionEnglish
Fear of FlyingErica Jong21,0263,364fictionEnglish
Rubyfruit JungleRita Mae Brown40,0583,111fictionEnglish
Summer of My German SoldierBette Greene16,8842,893fiction (children)English
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72Hunter S. Thompson22,0552,858reportageEnglish
Child of GodCormac McCarthy41,8442,852fictionEnglish
Sybil: The Classic True Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen PersonalitiesFlora Rheta Schreiber88,9192,799psychologyEnglish
Again, listed in order of the product of the GR and LT numbers.

So, a bit of compare and contrast:

  • 70% of the 1923 books are in English, compared to 90% in 1973.
  • 70% of the 1923 books are prose fiction, compared to 80% in 1973.
  • 25% of the 1923 books are for younger readers, compared to 15% in 1973.
  • 10% of the 1923 books are sf / fantasy / horror, compared to 35% in 1973.
  • At least 15% of the 1923 books are intentionally funny. I think only one of the 1973 books is meant to be humorous. (One could make a case for a few others.)

I might keep up this analysis for the next few years, and see what titles it throws up.