Bestsellers: review of John Sutherland

Bestsellers (2007) by John Sutherland is published on Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. There are chapters on definitions, the history of bestsellers in Britain and America, on the modern scene, and commenting on bestseller lists in general. A final chapter, so skimpy as barely to qualify as a chapter, covers digitalisation. It is this final chapter that is least satisfactory. It feels tacked on, as if requested by an editor: Sutherland, it would seem, has nothing insightful to say on the subject.

Overall, Sutherland makes a genial guide. He includes diverting facts and anecdotes and writes with a light touch.

All of which is a polite way of saying that the book is superficial. One has a sense of a belle-lettrist mind attempting a task that requires social scientific intelligence — and failing.

At times Sutherland virtually throws in the towel. Having introduced the theme of religious bestsellers, Sutherland tells us that it’s hard to see any chronological rhythm or historical significance in these recurrences…one’s final conclusion is sheer bafflement’ (pp. 38-39). On bestseller markets more generally, Sutherland tells us that one can hazard some hypotheses for the peaks and troughs in sales (p. 4200. So bland are these hypotheses (‘contributory factors were the growth in literacy, the growth in population’ (p. 43) that’s it difficult to see where the hazard lies or even whether there’s any thing that qualifies as a hypothesis at all.

And, indeed, it’s hard to see where any insight or profundity would come from: the author shows little sign of any great empathy for popular culture or any feel for the way the book trade works.

If you give this book a miss, you won’t regret it.

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