Term for books that are remarkably popular, for a brief time or over a period of many years. Seldom of great literary significance, such works are often ephemeral and dependent upon temporary tastes and interests. Nevertheless, the best-selling book in the U.S., as in other Christian lands, has been the Bible. Publications of special sects, like the Book of Mormon and Science and Health, have also been widely circulated. Best sellers of colonial times included the New England Primer and The Day of Doom, followed later by political tracts like Common Sense, by chapbooks like Weems's life of Washington, and by almanacs. In the mid-19th century gift books had huge sales, as did dime novels and children's literature. Widely read poems included Hiawatha, Nothing To Wear, and “Plain Language from Truthful James,” and later poets with great followings included Ella Wheeler Wilcox, James Whitcomb Riley, Robert Service, and Edgar Guest. Texts that have been popular include the Spelling Book and dictionary of Noah Webster, the school primers of Caleb Bingham, the Eclectic Readers of William H. McGuffey, and cookbooks.
The novel has been the most popular literary genre in the U.S., and widely read works include Charlotte Temple (1794), The Spy (1821), Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), The Lamplighter (1854), St. Elmo (1867), The Gates Ajar (1868), Barriers Burned Away (1872), Tom Sawyer (1876), Ben-Hur (1880), Looking Backward (1888), In His Steps (1896), Hugh Wynne (1897), When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898), David Harum (1898), Richard Carvel (1899), The Call of the Wild (1903), The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903), The Clansman (1905), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), Dere Mable! (1918), The Covered Wagon (1922), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), Anthony Adverse (1933), Gone with the Wind (1936), The Robe (1942), The Naked and the Dead (1948), From Here to Eternity (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1951), Lolita (1958), The Group (1963), and War and Remembrance (1978). The first American novel to sell over 1,000,000 copies was Uncle Tom's Cabin. In His Steps has been the most popular work with a religious theme, and Gone with the Wind has been fastest selling.
Very popular types of fiction, although not always represented by single books, are detective stories; novels of Western adventure by such authors as Harold Bell Wright, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L'Amour; science fiction, like that of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury; and novels by women, ranging from the moral and sentimental, like those of Kathleen Norris and Frances Parkinson Keyes, to the toughly realistic and frankly sexual, like the works of Jacqueline Susann and Erica Jong. In recent years authors whose works almost consistently appear on bestseller lists have included O'Hara, Steinbeck, Michener, Irving Stone, Uris, Vidal, and Wouk. Popularity on first publication in hardbound editions is usually repeated in paperback reprints, but some authors, like Erskine Caldwell, find their large public only in reprints, as do works of certain desirable genres, such as the lushly romantic pseudohistoric novels called Gothic romances. Selection by major book clubs usually assists bookstore sales and popularity of reprints. Popular plays may be considered in the category of best sellers, even if they do not always sell very well when put into print. The greatest stage successes in the U.S. have included The Drunkard, A Trip to Chinatown, The Old Homestead, Our American Cousin, Under the Gaslight, East Lynne, Rip Van Winkle, Sherlock Holmes, The Squaw Man, Lightnin', Abie's Irish Rose, The Green Pastures, Tobacco Road, Life with Father, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls, and A Chorus Line.