Any list of what’s “best” is going to necessarily be subjective. Here, I offer a list of the “best” best-sellers, as culled from the New York Times Best Seller List, based on the simple criteria of popularity, endurance (the book’s reputation has withstood the test of time), and readability.
All these novels are derived from the List from 1942 onward, when it was first printed in The Grey Lady, so such masterpieces as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (a.k.a. Fiesta) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath are excluded. (Of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s two best-sellers, This Side of Paradise and Beautiful & the Damned, only the latter would gain consideration for my list. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, was not a best-seller, but a notorious flop. William Faulkner’s Light in August is one of the great American novels, but he didn’t make the best seller lists until after the war, and those books weren’t his best.)
The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham, made the New York Times Best Seller List in 1944. Maugham was once one of the most popular writers in the world, but stylistically, he was limited by a mediocre vocabulary and an inability to create felicitous metaphors. He was no F. Scott Fitzgerald in terms of being a stylist. Of Human Bondage is considered his masterpiece, but The Razor’s Edge is likely to find favor with a modern audience due to the timelessness of its theme of spiritual seeking..
The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren rode the New York Times Best Seller List in 1949-50. Algren was 10 years younger than Ernest Hemingway and seen years younger than John Steinbeck, writers who clearly influenced him. Yet, he has his own sardonic humor that he more pretentious (and humorless) Hemingway lacked, and did not have the stalwart belief in humanity of Steinbeck that can tip that writer over into sentimentality, though the hard-boiled Algren does have his bouts with unbridled emotion. The winner of the first National Book Award, this is considered his masterpiece. His 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side also is essential reading.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, which was a best seller in 1951, is an essential part of the American Literary canon, as is his short story collection Franny and Zooey, which graced the Times list at #1 for an astonishing six months from October 29, 1961 to April 22, 1962. What James Dean is to the American cinema, Salinger is to American letters: One of the seminal talents of American fiction.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, was the #1 best selling novel on the New York Times Best Seller List from November 2, 1952 to March 23, 1953. Steinbeck’s epic tale of life in California’s Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula, denounced by some as a potboiler, is a moral fable rooted in the Bible. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey picked the book to relaunch her book club, and the novel hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Trade Paperbacks, 50 years after it was first published. Although Steinbeck is considered resolutely middle-brow and shunned by most American academics, he remains a valuable writer for two reasons: His empathy for the dispossessed and his popularity, which makes him a valuable “Feeder” writer, who starts off many young readers on the journey to other, more “complicated” writers in the canon. For myself, I value Steinbeck on his own terms, which are considerable.
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. It’s become the party line since the rise of feminism and gay rights to put down “Papa” Hemingway as an egregious old fart who was a worn-out bellows puffing out bilious clouds of machismo, but he ranks as the most influential American writer of the 20th Century. In The Old Man and the Sea, his sublime Job-like tale of an old Cuban fisherman and his battle with a marlin who represents an unyielding god, Hemingway went back to his old style which established his reputation, the style of his first short stories and The Sun Also Rises. Some thought it a cop-out, as the 20th Century had prized experimentation and expanding the boundaries of fiction in the guise of modernism. Papa revolutionized American letters by shearing it of ostentation. His influence can be felt in most every American writer from John Steinbeck to Norman Mailer to Charles Bukowski, and this is one of his seminal works. This novella brought Papa Hemingway his sole Pulitzer Prize and helped him win the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. What list of the best best sellers wouldn’t include a “dirty book.” Lolita, which originally published anonymously in 1955 by Paris’ Olympia Press, a publisher specializing in pornography, was hailed by Graham Greene for being “at last, a dirty book that is readable.” After some copyright issues were hammered out, Nabokov’s masterpiece was published in the United States in 1958 and soon climbed the greasy pole of the New York Times Best Seller List, making it to #1.
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, was the novel that knocked Lolita out of the cat bird’s seat, much to the dismay of fellow Russian Vladimir Nabakov, who considered the Doctor to be irredeemably middle brow. This epic novel remains eminently readable through out a person’ s lifetime, and like all great works of fiction, changes along with the reader, as he or she matures. Like Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it is concerned with the struggle of the individual against the cohort of human society, though the stakes that Yuri Zhivago play for and the background against which his life is played out are much more intense. Banned in Pasternak’s native USSR for being anti-Soviet propaganda, Doctor Zhivago and his lyric poetry of the period from World War One to the early 1930s won Pasternak the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was forced to deny.
Herzog, by Saul Bellow, topped the New York Times Best Seller list in 1964 and established Bellow’s reputation not only as a superb writer but a popular one. His protagonist, Moses Herzog, is an ineffectual intellectual in the midst of a mid-life crisis, as was his protagonist in his equally valuable best seller,Humboldt’s Gift, which made the New York Times Best Seller List in 1975. (The Times characterized that book as “Bellow on money,
art, power, and ideas in America.”) Herzog won the National Book Award, as did Humboldt’s Gift. The latter also won the Pulitzer Prize and positioned Bellow for his being named the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1976.
Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, ranks with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (which never made the New York Times Best Seller List despite selling a phenomenal 10 million copies) as the great American anti-war novel of the post-World War II period. A best seller in 1969, Vonnegut also made the list with his delightful satire Breakfast of Champions in 1973. Both are essential parts of the American canon.
The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever, graced the New York Times Best Seller List in 1979 and won the Pulitzer Prize. The collection was described by the Times as, “Visions of lost moral order amid contemporary domestic disarray.” John Cheever ranks, along with Hemingway, as one of the great short story writers in American letters. His stories are one of the great pleasures of American literature.