I’ve been browsing the 2001 volume “Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999,” by retired Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda, the British-born nephew of Merle Oberon and famed film producer Sir Alexander Korda. (The nephew actually wrote a best-seller of his own, about his Aunt Merle, titled “Queenie.”)
It’s supposed to be a light look at what Americans read -- or used to read. I’m sure few readers have considered it controversial. But I’m accustomed to being the only hand raised in the room.
First, the aging author dismisses as paranoid any claims that the best-seller lists as compiled by the weekly trade publications and The New York Times aren’t strictly accurate -- though it’s obvious from his casual description that there’s no transparency in any of these outfits’ methodology, which seem largely to involve polling the managers of undisclosed bookstores around the country.
How these samples are weighted, and especially how reporting bias is eliminated, Mr. Korda doesn’t even bother to ask.
What do I mean by “reporting bias”?
Imagine asking a random sample of people what books they read. It’s not hard to imagine they might name some impressive, prestigious books which they imagine a high-toned person ought to be reading. Now imagine how different your results might be if you simply slipped into their houses and looked to see what books and magazines are actually sitting on their night stands. Want to bet some pornography and far-from-prestigious paperback Westerns and bodice-rippers and -- oh, I don’t know, gardening books, vacation travel guides -- might not feature far more prominently in the second list?
Well, who’s to say bookstore managers doesn’t show a similar reporting bias?
Imagine you’re an independent bookstore manager, perhaps one favoring contrarian titles -- Austrian economics, anarchist or lesbian literature, whatever. You buy from publishers outside New York (heaven forfend) and sell quite a few of those titles. So you answer the phone to name 10 books The New York Times (Publisher’s Weekly, whatever) editors have never even heard of, published by outfits whose ads do not grace their pages. Think you’ll get called again next week?
Then, no sooner has Mr. Korda asserted that any claims of bias or inaccuracy in the compiling of the lists has long since been disproved and debunked, then we reach his section on the 1940s, where Mr. Korda promptly admits that paperback best-sellers such as Mickey Spillane’s “I the Jury” far outsold any hardcovers on the official “best-seller” lists 50-odd years ago -- yet “did not appear on the hardcover lists, at all”!
(There wouldn’t be a separate paperback best-seller list till 1955 -- and even then it’s not clear what efforts are or were made to count sales at newsstands and other non-traditional locales.)
If such inaccuracies already reduced the evidentiary value of any “best-seller” list way back then, imagine how much more inaccurate such tallies must be today, with lots of folks buying their books online, or merely downloading them to their own printers.
But the final evidence that the New Yorkers who run our dinosaur publishing industry live in Cloud Cuckoo Land shows up when Mr. Korda finally hits the year 1960: “Perhaps most notably,” he reports, “Barry Goldwater’s ‘Conscience of a Conservative’ appeared at No. 8, a sign that even as John F. Kennedy prepared for his first year in office, the conservative movement was already beginning to attract followers in large numbers, for whom a whole host of issues, ranging from Jack and Jackie themselves to ‘smutty’ novels, ‘radical’ books, evolution, fluoridation, and ‘humanism’ were anathema.”
It’s been a long time since I browsed the pages of “Conscience of a Conservative,” but I don’t recall Barry Goldwater and sometime ghost writer Karl Hess making a cause celebre of the fluoridation of municipal water supplies.
For the record, I have never believed fluoridation is or was a “Russki plot” to chemically cripple America. In proper doses, I dare say the stuff probably retards tooth decay. On the other hand, mass fluoridation is a great example of the liberal mind-set -- the haughty presumption that these superior intellects have been “called” to force upon the benighted rubes whatever trendy and “scientific” things the liberals are newly convinced will be good for us, with no “out” provided for those who may be concerned that deleterious long-term side effects or a less-than-perfect level of efficacy may have been whitewashed by the government’s revolving-door “experts” in the rush toward consensus.
(For more recent examples, consider the millions who have died of malaria, worldwide, since the banning of DDT based on a piece of fiction by Rachel Carson; the proliferation of ever-less-efficacious “mandatory” vaccines preserved in ever larger cumulative doses of toxic thimerosal; and the notion that our industrial economy -- but not those of smoky India or China -- must be crippled to “prevent global warming,” which is minimal, cyclical, a good thing in that it expands tillable land, soon to be cancelled out by the next Ice Age, and largely caused by natural forces anyway. In fact, it’s quite possible that by dumping fresh water from melting ice caps into the sea and thus altering ocean currents, minor episodes of global warming may presage and BRING ON our cyclical Ice Ages. We may soon need all the “greenhouse gases” we can produce.)
“Liberals” don’t realize they’re dangerous statist zombies whose minds have been imprinted with socialist sound bites, of course, any more than fish realize they’re wet. They just think they’re normal, average, middle-of-the-road folks, and that anyone who disagrees with “what all reasonable people know” is some escaped lunatic who was probably raised in a cellar by those troglodytes in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
And once their minds are set, so intolerable do they find those lonely voices still asking whether there shouldn’t be an individual right to choose, that they happily seek to silence the remaining dissidents through the simple expedient of ridiculing them as babbling snake-handlers and conspiracy freaks.
Mentioning “fluoridation” or “evolution” usually does the trick.
One will read Mr. Korda’s reporting in vain for any acknowledgement that maybe -- just maybe -- this supposedly new (see Frederic Bastiat, Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken) “conservative movement” had a few legitimate points about government growing too large, too costly, and most of all, too intrusive. (Opposition to “smutty books,” after all, carries no weight unless there’s a government agency powerful enough to ban them.)
Rather, Mr. Korda instructs us, “Publishers, by and large, lived in New York City (except for the few who lived then in Boston or Philadelphia) and most of them were ‘progressive’ in a mild way, ‘liberal’ in the sense that New York City itself was liberal. ... That is not to say that book publishers were leftists, but they were, as sophisticated, urban people, many of them Jewish, inclined to vote Democratic rather than Republican.”
See? They didn’t (they don’t) relentlessly choose and promote authors who would fight to the death to maintain the “leveling” income tax, the government monopoly socialist-youth-conformity schools, and tax subsidies for their favorite symphonies and opera houses -- all funded on the backs of ignorant rubes who prefer to spend whatever earnings are left them on thoroughly unsubsidized stock car races, country music, and corn dogs.
No, no, the New York publishers Mr. Korda represents haven’t been promoting that statist agenda, whether subliminally or up front. They’re merely “sophisticated, urban people,” recoiling in horror at the notion that the unwashed masses might prefer to read something other than what the New York elite and their Pravda on the Hudson think is good for us.
And when it comes time for them to compile their weekly lists, reporting whether we’re being good little children and reading only what our “progressive” New York masters deem it proper for us to read, of course they would never succumb to the urge to make those lists “come out right” by ignoring Peter Duesberg’s “Inventing the AIDS Virus” or John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education” -- shrugging them off as “child-hating, homophobic, racist, sexist” libertarian right-wing junk that wasn’t even published by any of the legitimate “major houses” east of the Hudson that buy ad space to support those list-compiling publications, in the first place.
Just because they realize no independent party has any way to double-check their thoroughly opaque methodology -- and that upstart works preaching smaller-government, pre-1912 republicanism can easily be nipped in the bud before they ever BECOME best-sellers, because bookstore owners can’t very well order books they’ve never heard of -- why on earth would you suspect they’d ever do that?