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Entirely by coincidence, The New Yorker's book blog has a post this week called A Tale of Two Winstons.  It stems from the fact that the 20th Century bestseller lists upon which this challenge is based reflect that "the number one best-selling novel every other year or so for the first decade plus were all written by Winston Churchill." 

Who knew the eventual British prime minister was first a best-selling author in America?  Well, he wasn't. 

As the blog post points out, this Winston Churchill was an American novelist.  He had eight novels on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, five of which -- The Crisis, The Crossing, Coniston, Mr. Crewe's Career and The Inside of the Cup -- would reach number one.  Churchill, however, stopped writing in 1919.

At the same time he was selling so many books, the American Churchill was also a politician, although not nearly as successfully as his British counterpart.  He served two terms in the New Hampshire legislature but lost in two bids for governor of that state.   According to one historian, the two Churchills exchanged several letters, leading Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill to add the initial “S” to all of his subsequent writings.

I guess it goes to show you can learn something from a reading challenge without even reading one of the books.

When it comes to art and graphics, I am one of those who flunked "cut and paste" in kindergarten.  That said, I've attempted to create a bare bones logo/badge participants can use.

Feel free to download it from this post.

If you're wondering about where to find some of the older books in the compilation, the internet is your friend.

Copyright has expired on a number of the books.  Thus, for example, Project Gutenberg has  e-versions of most of the books on the Publisher's Weekly list for 1900-1917.  The same is true of Arthur's Classic Novels.  Only a small number of the books are not available through these sites.  Moreover, at least for Project Gutenberg, it appears some of the books are available in formats that will work on various e-book readers.

Finally, Google Books, The Online Books Page and I'm certain other online sources have many of these books available.  And if all else fails, try your local library or interlibrary loan.

There's plenty of lists around compiling some person's or organization's ideas of the "best" books of a time period or genre.  So why build a reading challenge around The Books of the Century?

First, it is the breadth of the list.  I haven't counted how many books are on the lists but if you figure just 20 for each year, which is a low estimate, you're talking 2,000 books in total.  That allows this to be an ongoing challenge, not one limited to just one year.  That aspect also allows new people each year, but also allows participants to decide each year whether they want to continue or resume the challenge.

More important, though, is the content of the lists.  Because it is built on bestseller and Book-of-the-Month club lists, I think it tends to reflect American culture at the time.  As compiler Daniel Immerwahr points out, the lists reflect that "the books we remember today were often not the books that were most popular in the past (in 1925, the year The Great Gatsby was published, the fiction list was topped by A. Hamilton Gibbs's Soundings)."

No one is claiming any of the fiction bestsellers in 1925 are "better" than The Great Gatsby.  And the list recognizes "great" literature by incorporating "critically acclaimed and historically significant books." Yet the bestseller and BOMC lists also allow us to see what the "average American" was reading in any particular year.  When considered in the context of what was happening in the country at the time, I think it's interesting insight into popular American literary culture.

I was so intrigued by Daniel Immerwahr's The Books of the Century website, that I decided to launch a reading challenge based on it.

Immerwhar has compiled a list for each year of the 20th Century based on:

  1. The top ten bestsellers in fiction, as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
  2. The top ten bestsellers in nonfiction, also as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
  3. The main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, founded in 1926;
  4. "Critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics' and historians' lists of important books."
In light of the years covered and the range and breadth of the books, I thought this a particularly good opportunity to combine some excellent and classic reading from the history of popular American reading.  Given the number of books, this will be a perpetual challenge.  The books need not be read exclusively for this challenge.

At least for the first year, the levels will be:
  • Popular Literary Culture 101 -- Five books from the entire list.
  • Popular Literary Culture 201 -- Ten books from the entire list.
  • Popular Literary Culture 301 -- One book from any of five different decades on the list.
  • Popular Literary Culture 401 -- One book from each decade on the list.
  • Master's in Popular Literary Culture -- Twenty books from the entire list, with at least each decade represented once.
  • Doctorate in Popular Literary Culture -- Two or more books from each decade on the list.
Go ahead and join with Mr. Linky below.  Please try to link to a specific post on your blog about the challenge.  It is up to you whether you want to designate the books you are going to read ahead of time or just the level you are shooting for.  I will email participants so they can post reviews on the blog.

Hope you like the concept.

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