The Year in Books: 1869 vs. 2019

According to Amazon.com their top selling books of 2019, many of which were published last year or even longer ago, have been Becoming by Michelle Obama, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens; Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis; The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo; Educated by Tara Westover; Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis; Dog Man: Brawl of the Wild by Dav Pilkey; It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way by Lysa TerKeurst; The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley, and The Complete Ketogenic Diet for Beginners by Amy Ramos.

150 years ago, the publishing landscape was considerably different, and also in many ways much the same….

In 1869, the serial novel was in its heyday. Serial novels, told and sold over sequential installments, had existed for some time before the 1800s, but was popularized by Charles Dickens with the publication in serial form of The Pickwick Papers in 1836-1837. The greater affordability of the individual installments of a serial over traditionally printed books made them desirable for decades to come. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Herman Melville, and Henry James all wrote serials. The first big American serial title was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which had been published as a serial called The Year 1805 over the course of several years, was first published in its entirety in 1869.

Anthony Trollope’s serial He Knew He Was Right, the first book to include a fictional private investigator, was concluded in 1869 and was also published as a single volume that year. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, also published as a serial, concluded in 1869. Gustave Flaubert, and Victor Hugo published new titles in 1869. Alexandre Dumas died in 1869, leaving his last book, The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, unfinished. It was completed by Claude Schopp and published in 2005.

For young adults, Louisa May Alcott published Good Wives and Horatio Alger, Jr. published Luck and Pluck. Jean Ingelow, best known as a poet, published the children’s book Mopsa the Fairy.

Biographies and self help were very much in demand in 1869, when P.T. Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs or Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum made its debut and Warren Felt Evans published The Mental-Cure: Illustrating the Influence of the Mind on the Body, Both in Health and Disease, and the Psychological Method of Treatment. Mark Twain released The Innocents Abroad, and John Stuart Mill shocked British society with the publication of The Subjection of Women, arguing that “The legal subordination of one sex to another – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other” (The Subjection of Women, Chapter 1).

We cannot know the most popular or bestselling titles published in 1869. Such lists did not begin to appear in the United States until 1895, when the literary journal The Bookman started tallying bestselling books in the journal’s first issue. But based on what we still read or know of today, we can make a guess at the most popular books and authors of 1869. The increasing availability and decreasing price of books, the ever increasing literacy of the general populace, and the proliferation of lending libraries diminished the prevalence of serialized novels by the early 1900s, but what people wanted to read hasn’t changed in all that dramatic a fashion. 150 years ago, people wanted to read much the same type of material then as they do now: fiction, biography, self-help, travelogue, social commentary. The most major changes have been to the authors themselves. 150 years ago, women authors were still very much a rarity, at least based what society has seen fit to retain. People of color, with the single notable exception of Alexandre Dumas, weren’t commonly among those published 150 years ago in the United States and Europe. Picture books and comics were certainly not among the most popular books of the day in 1869, as they are now, but there are frequently picture books and graphic novels on best seller lists in 2019.

Of the bestselling books of 2019, what do you think has staying power? What titles do we think will still be read in 150 years? What authors will make their indelible mark on society and the world of letters? And will those authors who were famous, or infamous, in 1869 still be read in 150 years?

– Kerri, WFPL Reference Librarian

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