There’s an interesting new website, The Books of the Century. It has lists for the entire twentieth century, broken down by year, of best-sellers in fiction, non-fiction, and the Book of the Month club, along with a separate list of “critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics’ and historians’ lists of important books.”

The website allows you to get a sense of how different the critical or historical sense of books is quite different from the popular one. W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1905) was, unsurprisingly, not a best seller in the year of its publication, and neither was D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) or James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Some books take time to reach the public: Bergson’s Creative Evolution was written in 1907, translated into English in 1911, and reached the best-selling nonfiction list in 1912.

Also curious is the trend away from fiction towards non-fiction as you reach the end of the century, suggesting that the intelligentsia feels more confident in its judgment of itself than in its judgment of fiction.

And certain books, like Barack Obama’s Dreams of my Father (1995), have made their way onto the list of significant books only recently and in retrospect. His autobiographical reflections would always have had some historical significance, but certainly Obama’s subsequent election to the presidency has made him world-historic in a way that eclipses being the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. As the Wikipedia page for the book confirms, Obama’s life story began to be translated into other languages only after 2007 when his meteoric political ascent was well underway. (The title of the German translation, to digress for a moment, indicates something of his image to the rest of the world: Ein amerikanischer Traum. “An American Dream,” with the German Traum also containing echoes of trauma that suggest the darker aspects of that dream as derived from the African-American experience. And in The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova argues that the route to world-literary importance is through French; fortunately for Obama, he’s been translated into French, but the first translations of his book were into Dutch, Japanese, and Korean.)

Interesting, no? And really bizarre for me, still, to think of the century of my birth as last century.