A nation gripped by triffids, traffic tiaras and TV

Reading the Decades

五月 24, 2002

If a television programme is ever made about television in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one genre certain to be identified as significant in the "Noughties" is nostalgia TV. In the past couple of years, the BBC has jogged memories with programmes about pop-chart number ones and trends from the bikini to the ra-ra skirt. "Reading the Decades", a recent four-part BBC2 series, was the latest to use this winning formula. With the familiar pattern of plenty of archive footage interspersed with celebrity interviews, it recalled bestselling books from the 1950s to the present day and the political and social backgrounds in which they were read. John Sutherland's slimmish volume is the book of the series.

It shares many of the series' virtues. Sutherland's thesis is that bestsellers "fit their cultural moment as neatly as a well-fitting glove" and that "reviewing half a century's bestsellers is like running one's fingers over a topographical map of British social history: feeling its anxieties, ambitions, aspirations, fears, prejudices, neuroses" - a compelling idea. It makes sense that a popular book must reflect the spirit of the age, because large numbers of people have selected it from the thousands of books published every year and because such a book may influence its readers' outlook.

Like the series, the book has the irresistible nostalgia factor. It concentrates on the postwar period, most of which is recent enough to be recalled with little effort and to spark numerous associated memories. Remember the Nigel Molesworth Down with Skool series, written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle? Or the anxieties about nuclear war that helped to spawn science-fiction writer John Wyndham's popularity in the 1950s? Or Harold Robbins's sex 'n' violence novel The Carpetbaggers , published in 1963? Or the Scarsdale and F-Plan diets, the Sloan Ranger Handbook and the Charles and Diana wedding? Or The Henry Root Letters and 1980s' Victorian values.

Along memory lane, Sutherland scatters new and fascinating vignettes, often to do with the workings of the publishing industry. He records that when the Guinness Book of Records first appeared, WH Smith ordered six copies nationwide - an order they were forced to increase to 10,000 within a week.

Sutherland is an academic, professor of modern literature at University College London, who has written on the bestseller phenomenon and is compiling The Oxford Companion to Popular Fiction . But he is also a regular newspaper columnist and has an easy style. Yet perhaps the book could have been meatier had it not been for its television link.

Unlike "Reading the Decades" the series, the book had the opportunity to offer some analysis of what turns out to be a complicated subject. Why is it that the reading public has actually grown in spite of warnings that it would be killed off by television? While bestsellers do indeed often fit their cultural moment, how they do so is not always straightforward. Moreover some seem to rise to the top for no identifiable reason. Why, for example, was Colin Buchan's government report, Traffic in Towns , a bestseller in 1963? Why was Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow , a Danish murder mystery, a hit in 1993? Sutherland notes such discrepancies but rarely attempts to explain them. Often he seems to rush through the decades, determined to discover the next plot twist without pausing to dwell on the riches along the way.

Where he does attempt analysis, he can be insightful and provocative. Arthur Hailey, author of Airport , owed his success to fixing on a contemporary universal experience, "something which everyone who could afford $2 for a paperback has, does, wants, or is likely to be affected by" - such as travelling by aeroplane. Sutherland explains the surprise success of Dave Pelzer's autobiographical series starting with A Child Called It , in which he describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, in terms of post-feminist males wanting reassurance that "mothers could be bad guys too".

On the other hand, Sutherland has no pretensions in the book. He describes it as "an informed essay" rather than a research dissertation and, as such, it is a tantalising read, raising many questions and prompting many a return to the bookshelves. He writes of Kenneth Clark, whose book Civilisation based on his television scripts, was one of the early bestselling tie-ins: "Intelligently, he realised that this kind of book was, generically, the servant of the dominant medium - TV." Sutherland seems to have made the same calculation, but in a book about the power of books written by a professor of literature, maybe he could have been less humble.

Harriet Swain is on the staff of The THES .

Reading the Decades

Author - John Sutherland
ISBN - 0 563 488107
Publisher - BBC Worldwide
Price - £16.99
Pages - 192



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