Of the bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable: it was on the bestseller list two years running.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.
Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova, Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.
If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.
Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.
Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling tops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.
John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,
Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s Escape. Rebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape. Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.
My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance. Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.
Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.