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Why is a Book Popular?
That the popularity of a book cannot with certainty be determined in advance of publication is doubtless a matter of grief to many a worthy publisher, and never more so than when he has declined with thanks a volume that afterwards, under some other imprint, attains a wide sale. And yet the good qualities of a book are quite as apparent in the manuscript as in the published volume. There are many critics who explain in detail why a book has proved successful, but very often the explanation does not adequately explain.
A book is doubtless liked because it possesses certain qualities. Humor, pathos, plot, dramatic intensity, well drawn or strongly contrasted characters, literary style--some one or more of these a book must have in order to gain wide popularity; it must have more than one of them to attain an enduring place in literature. Lack of literary distinction has killed many a book that was rich in other good qualities, and a striking preponderance of some other quality has in other cases covered a multitude of sins against style.
Timeliness is a very potent factor in a book's success. "Uncle Tom's Cabin." appearing twenty years sooner than it did, before the national conscience had been stirred on the subject of slavery, would have fallen on stony ground; twenty years later, when slavery was a dead issue, it would have been simply an interesting study of a past epoch. Bellamy's "Looking Backward" owed its success as well as its origin to the social unrest that stirs our modern life. Mr. Dooley, in his own inimitable way, discusses the living questions of the hour. Books are the fruit and flower of a nation's thought; like other products of evolution, they thrive best in their native environment.
But the personal quality, after all, is what makes the book; it is the individuality of the author, speaking through the printed page, that differentiates the book from a thousand others. All other differences are transitory and unessential. And as this personal quality is more or less pronounced, to that extent does the book, or the picture, or the statue--whatever the medium of expression may be--stand out from the others that surround it. The high and clear intelligence that, like Shakespeare, can rise above time and circumstance and take as the materials of his art the basic elements of human life and character, is the only writer who can hope for enduring fame. The writer of the hour can only put himself in touch with current thought, and do the best that lies in him, and launch his frail bark on the troubled sea of popularity, uncertain whether it will sail or sink--prepared always for failure, but hoping always for the great success that will compensate for a lifetime of fruitless effort.
CHARLES W. CHESNUTT.
Chesnutt, Charles, W., "Why is a Book Popular?" The Index [Cleveland] 2.1 (Sept. 1, 1899): 5.