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Kahn's Corner Best of the Bestsellers: 1913-2014

Matthew Kahn read 100+ years worth of bestselling novels; these are his favorites

In February of 2013, Matthew Kahn of Kahn's Corner set off on an ambitious journey to read every book to have reached the top of Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list. In June of 2015, he finished this task, reading 96 books in just over two years.

Though reaching the top of the bestseller list is certainly a mark of success, it doesn't necessarily equate to a great or lasting work (as you will discover if you delve into Matthew's reviews). I was curious to know which books Matthew enjoyed the most, so I reached out and asked for his top ten favorites.

For your reading pleasure and convenience, here are the top 10 best bestsellers of the last 102 years, according to Kahn's Corner.

1. Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis (1927)

Whatever your opinions, politically or religiously, Elmer Gantry provides a look at corruption and mass deception that is both incredible and down-to-earth.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

Universally recognized as a landmark in American literature, Elmer Gantry scandalized readers when it was first published, causing Sinclair Lewis to be “invited” to a jail cell in New Hampshire and to his own lynching in Virginia. His portrait of a golden-tongued evangelist who rises to power within his church—a saver of souls who lives a life of duplicity, sensuality, and ruthless self-indulgence—is also the record of a period, a reign of grotesque vulgarity, which but for Lewis would have left no trace of itself. (Amazon)

2. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1928)

The novel is both aesthetically and philosophically beautiful.  The story and characters are layered and the prose is strong.  Read this book.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.

By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death -- and to the author's timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition. (Amazon)

3. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

If copious amounts of masturbation and long rants about sex and Jewish mothers liable to offend you, you probably shouldn't read this novel.  Otherwise, I recommend it highly.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

Along with Saul Bellow's Herzog, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint defined Jewish American literature in the 1960s. Roth's masterpiece takes place on the couch of a psychoanalyst, an appropriate jumping-off place for an insanely comical novel about the Jewish American experience. (Amazon)

4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

While I think a lot of us roll our eyes at the phrase “testament to the human spirit,” I am nothing but sincere when I say that The Grapes of Wrath is a testament to the human spirit and one of the truly great novels of the twentieth century. 

Kahn's Corner - Full review

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. (Amazon)

5. Cimarron by Edna Ferber (1930)

While the characters in Cimarron are layered and fascinating, there is a lack of character development... Seeing the novel as a story about the growth and development of Osage is at least as interesting as a story about the characters, as it goes from a lawless tent city to a new metropolis.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

This vivid and sweeping tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, from Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, traces the stunning challenges of settling an untamed frontier. Staking claim to their new home in Osage, Yancey Cravat, a spellbinding criminal lawyer, and his wife, well-bred Sabra, work against seemingly overwhelming odds to create a prosperous life for themselves. And as they establish themselves in this lawless land, Sabra displays a brilliant business sense and makes a success of their local newspaper, the Oklahoma Wigwam, all amidst border and land disputes, outlaws, and the discovery of oil. (Amazon)

6. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (1975)

Doctorow raises all the standard but relevant social issues.  Nesbit and Goldman discuss gender, while Coalhouse and Mother's Younger Brother consider race, and Tateh ponders class in American society.  Yet despite the prevalence of these themes in American literature, Doctorow makes them seem fresh, at least in presentation.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence. (Amazon)

7. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

Besides A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front is the only major World War One novel still read and talked about.  It has also aged spectacularly well, and in many ways is as relevant today as it was when it was written... It’s a classic for a reason, and that reason is quality.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

Paul Baumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other--if only he can come out of the war alive. (Amazon)

8. E. T., the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle (1982)

The tone of the novel is incredibly different from that of the movie.  As I mentioned earlier, the novel is largely through E.T.'s perspective, which, I think, kind of explains much of this tone shift.  The movie is about an average kid who finds an alien and has to help the alien get home.  The novel is a ten-million year old botanist from a technologically advanced society who finds himself stranded amidst a bunch of far inferior creatures.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

A boy discovers an extraterrestrial botanist in his mother's vegetable patch, and helps him return to his planet, 3 million light years away. (Amazon)

9. Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley (1956)

Reading Don't Go Near the Water is like watching an old sitcom that has aged remarkably well.  The humor is often predictable but generally sincere...
Kahn's Corner - Full review

At once a rousing entertaining farce and gentle love story, this novel is set on a remote Pacific island during the waning days of the World War II. It follows the adventures of a group of young officers in the public relations sector of the Navy—described as commissioned without the corrupting influence of any intervening naval training—as they face wartime adversities with comic ingenuity. For these mariners, the Navy’s immortal motto, "Don’t Give Up the Ship" had become "Don’t Go Near the Water." (Amazon)

10. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King (1992)

Dolores Claiborne is a very strong novel.  It's less horror than it is gothic, in the sense that Flannery O'Connor or Shirely Jackson's works are gothic.  It does have a number of King tropes, the small town Maine setting, the attempt to make everyday objects terrifying, but it doesn't suffer from them as much as some of his other works.  The novel paints a vivid picture of a desperate woman, and sucks you into life on that that small island in Maine.

Kahn's Corner - Full review

When Vera Donovan, one of the wealthiest and most ill-natured residents of Maine's Little Tall Island, dies suddenly in her home, suspicion is immediately cast on her housekeeper and caretaker, Dolores Claiborne. Dolores herself is no stranger to such mistrust, thanks to the local chatter and mysterious circumstances surrounding her abusive husband's death twenty-nine years earlier. But if this is truly to be the day of Dolores Claiborne's reckoning, she has a few things of her own that she'd like to get off her chest...and begins to confess a spirited, intimate, and harrowing tale of the darkest secrest hidden within her hardscrabble existence, revealing above all one woman's unwavering determination to weather the storm of her life with grace and protect the one she loves, no matter what the cost.... (Amazon)
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