America in 1907 read more than most of us. But did America of 1907 read smarter than us? Transported back to America in 1907, would we savor a book culture less dumbed down than ours? Well, let's take a look at the bestselling fiction of 1907. All 10 were potboilers unknown today. The top seller was "The Lady of the Decoration" by one Frances Little. Others on the list included the likes of "The Port of Missing Men" and "Half a Rogue."
Sounds a lot like the mass market portion of the New York Times Bestseller list, eh? At least in paperback fiction we've got Atonement and Water For Elephants (which started out on the BookSense bestseller list, a compilation of sales just from indie bookstores, that tends to be decidedly more "literary" than the Times list, though it's not without its potboilers), and Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, pretty hard to dispute as a literary novel.
So despite this article in Commentary criticizing Maud Newton for thinking about books like movies, maybe the movies (and TV, and iPods, and other technologies) haven't dumbed down our reading tastes so very much. Regular folks have always loved and still love adventure and romance and escapism. I just finished the amazing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (review forthcoming), which isn't escapism but is about a "long underwear" comic literally called The Escapist (and makes a case for its poignancy and cultural impact despite its schlockiness). And I've spent a lot of time lately reading Agatha Christie. But there's possibly more room for the smart stuff to succeed now than there's ever been.
I wouldn't have minded living in an era when all the men wore hats. But I think now is a pretty good time to live for the literature.