Readers Predict in 1936 Which Novelists Would Still Be Widely Read in the Year 2000


Few know as much about our incom­pe­tence at pre­dict­ing our own future as Matt Novak, author of the site Pale­o­fu­ture, “a blog that looks into the future that nev­er was.” Not long ago, I inter­viewed him on my pod­cast Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture; ever since, I’ve invari­ably found out that all the smartest dis­sec­tions of just how lit­tle we under­stand about our future some­how involve him. And not just those — also the smartest dis­sec­tions of how lit­tle we’ve always under­stood about our future. Take, for exam­ple, the year 1936, when, in Novak’s words, “a quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine for book col­lec­tors called The Colophon polled its read­ers to pick the ten authors whose works would be con­sid­ered clas­sics in the year 2000.” They named the fol­low­ing:

At first glance, this list might not look so embar­rass­ing. Nobel lau­re­ate Sin­clair Lewis remains oft-ref­er­enced, if much more so for Bab­bitt (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats – Read Online Now), his 1922 indict­ment of a busi­ness-blink­ered Amer­i­ca, than for It Can’t Hap­pen Here, his best­selling Hitler satire from the year before the poll. Most Amer­i­cans pass­ing through high school Eng­lish still bump into Willa Cather, Robert Frost (four of whose vol­umes you can find in our col­lec­tion Free eBooks), and per­haps Eugene O’Neill (like­wise) and Theodore Dreis­er (espe­cial­ly through Sis­ter Car­rieiPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats – Read Online Now) as well.

Some of us may also remem­ber Stephen Vin­cent Benét’s epic Civ­il War poem John Brown’s Body from our school days, but it would take a well-read soul indeed to nod in agree­ment with such selec­tions as New Eng­land his­to­ri­an James Truslow Adams and now lit­tle-read (though once Sin­clair- and Dreis­er-acclaimed) fan­ta­sist James Branch Cabell. The well-remem­bered George San­tayana still looks like a judg­ment call to me, but what of absent famous names like F. Scott Fitzger­ald, William Faulkn­er, Ernest Hem­ing­way, or maybe James Joyce? The Colophon’s edi­tors includ­ed Hem­ing­way on their own list, but which writ­ers do you think stand as the Fitzger­alds and Faulkn­ers of today — or, more to the point, of the year 2078? Care to put your guess on record? Feel free to make your pre­dic­tions in the com­ments sec­tion below.

via @ElectricLit/Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Great­est Books Ever, Accord­ing to 125 Top Authors (Down­load Them for Free)

The 25 Best Non-Fic­tion Books Ever: Read­ers’ Picks

The Books You Think Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read: Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

600 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • bjza says:

    I am not sur­prised to see Frost and St Vin­cent Mil­lay as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive poets. The lat­ter exper­i­ment­ed (quite suc­cess­ful­ly) with mod­ernist poet­ics (“Spring”, “Wild Swans”), but the bulk of her work is late- or neo-roman­tic, much like Frost, in style and sub­stance. Eas­i­ly digestable, uncon­tro­ver­sial even when it tries to be.

  • timwalters says:

    Looks pret­ty good on sec­ond and third glance as well. Cabell is still quite pop­u­lar among fan­ta­sy fans (at least of my gen­er­a­tion), so that’s nine out of ten (twelve out of four­teen with the edi­tors’ choic­es). They missed the mod­ernists, and did­n’t guess that we’d still be read­ing pulp writ­ers like Edgar Rice Bur­roughs, but I would­n’t expect either of those groups to be on book col­lec­tors’ radar in 1936.

  • LiamGarrett says:

    Guess­es: David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Jonathon Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Don DeLil­lo, but I guess these are obvi­ous guess­es.

  • CODE says:

    Isabel Allende, James Bald­win, and Mar­garet Atwood.

  • Melissa says:

    Isaac Marion(I’d hope) and prob­a­bly Suzanne Collins.

  • songmango says:

    Most of the writ­ers from 1936 are dis­tinct­ly mid­dle-brow u2013 fair­ly acces­si­ble. Mil­lay is real­ly the only one with weight. Dreis­er for one book is a good choice. But real­ly u2013 how far off with they with Fitzger­ald, who, just with Gats­by prob­a­bly out­sells all the oth­ers com­bined today.

  • Yazman says:

    I’d say Stephen King, Michael Crich­ton and Neil Gaiman.

  • Bill W. says:

    To be fair, the likes of Hem­ing­way, Faulkn­er, and Stein­beck were just get­ting pop­u­lar around 1936…they had just a lit­tle ways to go still before they reached Lit­er­ary God-sta­tus!

  • Michael Schein says:

    I believe Stephen King will be on the list. Sure, pop lit­er­a­ture in many minds but a far big­ger impact on the cul­ture than many of the names men­tion above. And I stand by my belief that he has a tru­ly dis­tinc­tive voice.

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