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Literature of then and today: What bestsellers say about society

Nicholas Sparks's 'Dear John' tops the NYTimes Bestsellers along with his new novel 'The Last Song'
Nicholas Sparks's 'Dear John' tops the NYTimes Bestsellers along with his new novel 'The Last Song'

So what sort of literature do people turn to when faced with economic hardships? According to the New York Times Bestsellers list this week, romances and thrillers are people’s fictitious books of choice.

In hardback fiction, crime thrillers hold nearly all the top positions while romance novels dominate paperback fiction with former bestsellers Dear John (Nicholas Sparks) and The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold) making the list thanks in part to their box office counterparts of the same names. With a fresh decade upon us, are more people seeking escape from rather than insight into financial turmoil?

During the depression of the 1930s, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath all topped their respective years’ bestsellers list (both The Good Earth and Gone with the Wind held the top position for two consecutive years). All three books depicted families who struggled against nature and economic circumstance at three very different moments in history. Even today, the mantra of resilience and hope resound throughout the novels’ pages with an emphasis on land and family.

Yet, while escapism seems to be the trend of the new millennium, the bestsellers of today don’t vary much from bestsellers of recent economic booms. Only a decade earlier, Stephen King was the king of horror, Tom Clancy and John Grisham fascinated readers with thrillers, and Danielle Steele created one romantic scenario after another. What can be concluded by examining today’s bestsellers is that the genres remain stagnant despite economic fluctuation.

Still, one can’t depend on the economy to determine what novel becomes a bestseller. In the end, people are going to read what they want to read. What popular literature provides is insight into what values are important at a certain point in time. As opposed to society in the 1930s, people of 2010 want to delve into novels that transport them to an alternate reality, allowing them to be the one to solve a homicide or explore a new romance.

If thrillers and romances resonate with people through good or bad times, then so be it. We aren’t going to be the ones to tell Nicholas Sparks or Dan Brown to write something they don’t want to.

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