When I was a freshman in college, I decided I had enough money to join the Book-of-the-Month Club. But my money ran out faster than I had planned, so I belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club for just five months. This may well be some kind of a record. If you have some antiquarian interest in books, you will be interested to know that the books that came to me were Napoleon, by Emil Ludwig; Revolt in the Desert, by Lawrence; Elmer Gantry, by Lewis; Giants in the Earth, by Rölvaag; and another book I can’t remember.
About that time I started listing every book I read with the author’s name, number of pages, and a brief comment, and I have kept it up ever since. It was with great delight, therefore, that I came upon the fortieth-anniversary issue of Saturday Review. This issue is one of the finest pieces of publishing to come my way this year, and you ought to try to get a copy if you are not a subscriber. There are wonderful articles by Toynbee, John Mason Brown, Barbara Ward, and Roscoe Drummond, as well as some special efforts by the usual Saturday Review stable of writers. And then on page 92 they begin a list of forty years of best-sellers. Starting in 1924 and using the figures of Publishers’ Weekly, they list the best-selling fiction and non-fiction from 1924 to 1964. Imagine how contented I am to discover that I have read forty-eight of the eighty titles.
Each of you can get at the list in your own way and wonder about it in your own way (try that for the existential situation). I suppose some general conclusions can be reached about trends, although about the only trend I can find is a rise in interest in the religious type of writing in the 1940s—novels like The Keys of the Kingdom and The Robe. Maybe something can be made of the concern for social justice during the Roosevelt administration in books like The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. It is interesting to see the titles of books on self-improvement, and I suppose if I had read Lulu Hunt’s Diet and Health in 1924, I wouldn’t have needed D. D. Alexander’s Arthritis and Common Sense in 1956. Books on dieting and cookbooks are outdone only by Gone With the Wind and the Bible. What one may conclude from this I do not know. Three or four of my all-time favorite books show up, The Story of San Michele, While Rome Burns, Man the Unknown, Days of Our Years, How Green Was My Valley, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Happiness Is a Warm Puppy made it in 1963. Good grief! I am sorry to report that Forever Amber and Elmer Gantry also made it. So did Linkletter’s Kid Say the Darndest Things—twice, mind you.
Another article in the magazine takes a little different direction and I suppose is more serious than a mere reflection of American book-buying. A committee of experts, twenty-seven of them, representing every part of American life pertaining to intellectual attainment, voted on books in answer to two questions: “What books published during the past four decades most significantly altered the direction of our society? Which may have a substantial impact on public thought and action in the years ahead?” In the list of twenty-seven scholars I recognized Brogan, Chase, William O. Douglas, Hook, the philosopher, Lippmann, Montague, Nevins, Lillian Smith, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Significantly, there is only one theologian, and he is a liberal who is retired. I am sorry to report that my reading in this area has not kept up with my reading of “best-sellers.” The highest agreement of the symposium of writers is twelve votes for one book, Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. I think that was the book that taught us to run our economy in the red! One of the best books, and it is on the race problem, is An American Dilemma, by Gunnar Myrdal; eleven of the symposium agreed on this. I don’t really think you understand the race problem until you have read this book.
Kinsey has seven votes for his two books on the male and the female of our species, and the first religious book to appear has four votes for it: Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man. And again, what can be made of the fact that only a few books from the best-seller lists are judged to have had an effect on the past and to have some impact for the future?
In addition to the fact that only one man on the symposium is a theologian, what can we say of the dearth of serious religious writing in the list of books positively affecting our society? We have already pointed out some agreement on Niebuhr. He had four votes out of twenty-seven. And then we pick up another book by Niebuhr with two votes, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology shows two votes—talk about relevance! Van Dusen, the theologian, Sidney Hook, the philosopher, and Tillich, the professor, were neighbors in New York. Van Dusen was the president of Union in York, and Sidney Hook is chairman of the department of philosophy at New York University. Other books in the field of religion are Martin Buber’s (not a Christian) I and Thou: Between Man and Man and Tillich’s The Protestant Era and The Religious Situation. You might count for religion one vote by Sidney Hook for Maritain’s True Humanism. The fact that The Joy of Cooking and Wendell Willkie’s One World also got one vote each makes me wonder.
Critics of the Church inside and out are having a field day over the lack of relevance of the Christian religion. Some are suggesting that we now are living in the post-Christian religion. Others are suggesting that we are living in the post-Christian or certainly the post-Protestant era.
Think back a little. Augustine’s City of God set the tone for the Middle Ages. Calvin’s Institutes evenually touched every facet of European and American civilization, while in the meantime he along with Pascal, another religious writer, virtually created the modern French language with its beauty and exactitude. Perhaps it would be unfair to list Luther’s German Bible or the King James Version, but we could move along to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and have for a title way out on the edge of things perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Some way or another I was led to read a book when I was a youngster called Prudence of the Parsonage. I don’t exactly recommend that kind of religious book or even that kind of title. If you have the time, though, look at the Saturday Review for August 29 and just browse among the book titles. You may well be led to some long, long thoughts.
This fortnightly review is contributed in sequence by J. D. Douglas, British editorial director, CHRISTIANITY TODAY;Philip E. Hughes, guest professor of New Testament exegesis, Columbia Seminary, Decatur, Georgia; Harold B. Kuhn, professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky; G. C. Berkouwer, professor of dogmatics, Free University of Amsterdam; and Addison H. Leitch, professor of philosophy and religion, Tarkio College, Tarkio, Missouri.—ED.
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