“Evening must usher night, night urge the morrow,
month follow month with woe, and year wake year to sorrow.”


The Book-of-the-Month Club, now in its 60th year, is an American success story in the grand manner—its financial success demonstrated by listing on the New York Stock Exchange and later acquisition by Time, Inc., its merchandising skill by some two million members, book buyers all, in every part of the country. During its first 20 years, the Club sent “100 million books into the nation’s households.” The 60-year total must be a staggering figure.

The founder of the Club, Harry Scherman, was born and grew up in Philadelphia, but while still at the Wharton School for Business was lured to New York to work in an advertising agency. His considerable talent for writing copy for direct mail and a successful book promotion or two led almost inevitably to the founding of his book club, to which his most innovative contribution, perhaps, was the concept of a panel of judges with established literary reputations, who were to select the books. As Scherman explained it, “You had to set up some kind of authority so that subscribers would feel that there was some reason for buying a group of books.” In a country with relatively few bookstores, readers in the most out-of-the-way places would be offered each month the most significant or the best book as chosen for them by a panel of literary heavyweights. The first judges were Henry Seidel Canby, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, William Allen White, Heywood Broun, and Christopher Morley. John P. Marquand served for a time as did Gilbert Highet; the Club has had 18 judges in its 60 years. The present members of the board are Clifton Fadiman, John K. Hutchens, Wilfrid Sheed, Mordecai Richler, David Willis McCullough, and Gloria Norris.

At first the Club offered a main selection each month and one alternate, sometimes two; now it offers a dozen new alternates each month and a backlist of 125 books. “Club members,” Mr. Silverman tells us, “that family of intelligent book readers grown more intelligent and sophisticated in their reading tastes over the years, now make their choices from a rich variety of possibilities.” The Club’s selections, however, do not indicate a generation of book readers “grown more intelligent and sophisticated over the years”; it appears to me, in fact, that the selections of the Club as well as the reports describing the selections show a distinct decline in taste and literary standards.

The Club’s 60 years of decline in literary standards can be documented by comparing the selections during the first decades of the Club, and the reports to its members, with those of the recent past. Not every book chosen during the first years of the Club is likely to survive as a classic or even to be long remembered, but a number have already stood the test of time—Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Greene’s The Heart of the Matter—but more impressive, in a way, than the selections themselves, which can be no better than the books authors and pubhshers make available, is the quality of many of the reports of books during those first years, which are the work of the Club’s judges and staff. Christopher Morley’s report on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, to mention a striking example, is not literary “hype” but serious criticism. It lets the reader know what to expect: “It is told entirely in crisp, blunt, sometimes brutal, dialogue. It is done with remarkable skill. . . . It comes uncomfortably close to the realities of New York murder: sordid, grim, steeped in alcohol.” His review of a very different kind of book, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is literary criticism on a high level—judicious, beautifully written, it helps the reader to understand the circumstances and deeper meaning of the story. An essay by Randolph Churchill, “Captain Evelyn Waugh,” is equally satisfying—”His favorite novelist,” we are told, “is Trollope. He has never read Gone With the Wind and never will. He cannot drive a motorcar. He would prefer to receive a knighthood than to have his book selected as the book-of-the-month.” There are other distinguished reviews during those early years of the Club, several by Christopher Morley, Clifton Fadiman’s review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. But I was particularly impressed by Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s review and sharp criticism of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra and the fact that it was sent to the members of the Club at all, because it seems clear that it was written to induce them not to buy the book. “The point is,” Mrs. Fisher tells her readers, ” . . . that it is one of those books with no great inherent importance which sum up a literary tendency. Ever since the war, one school of fiction has been pushing farther and farther toward what they call honesty. ‘Honesty’ for them is a denial of any important springs of human action except alcohol and sex, and the use of bald outspoken vocabulary in calling attention to the usually not-mentioned functions and organs of the human body. . . . It will be called a picture of life, and so it is, a jazzed up picture of a singularly unimportant section of life.” It is probably just as well that Mrs. Fisher didn’t live to experience some of the more recent selections of the Club, those, for example, by John Irving or John Updike, or E.L. Doctorow, whom Bryan Griffin aptly describes in Panic Among the Philistines as “a popular writer of rather smutty political novels.”

Books by such writers as John Updike, John Irving, or E.L. Doctorow are not the only selections during recent years, but they take a prominent place in the book under review and mark a sharp contrast with the character of the books selected in earlier years. Irving’s The World According to Garp is reviewed by Mordecai Richler, “the Club’s demon judge from Canada,” as he is described, who is given credit for helping “to introduce Irving to the reading public.” Garp, Mr. Richler tells us, “is a loopy novel of inspired anarchy.” Garp and his wife, Helen, “have two adorable children. They love each other. Garp proves vulnerable to pretty baby sitters, and Helen, an English professor by this time, indulges in a meaningless affair with one of her students. Bizarre incidents proliferate. So does rape. So does murder. So does emasculation of Helen’s lover.” But however sordid and demeaning all this may be, the novel is redeemed, we are assured, “by a disarming tenderness and a large talent that announces itself on practically every page.” One other book by John Irving, The Cider House Rules, is reviewed in the history. The fact that two of the 60 books chosen to represent the history of the Book-of-the-Month Club are by John Irving says something about the esteem with which he is presently regarded among the Club’s authors. Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, by way of contrast, which was a selection, is not mentioned in the history, although John P. Marquand, in the Club’s report to its members, praises it as ” . . . the best explanation yet to be presented of the Communist mind and the Communist climate” and concludes, “The book was not written as literature, but literature it is of a high order.”

John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick is reviewed by David McCullough. He describes the three “witches” as “blousy suburban retreads of the three classical Graces. Not that their lives are all that graceful. Their frantic love affairs may remind seasoned Updike readers of the bed-hopping wives in his earlier novel Couples, since, as he puts it here, ‘being a divorcess in a small town is like playing Monopoly; eventually you land on all the properties.'” The reviewer comes to no particular conclusion about the book, nor recommends it beyond mentioning the “frank sex scenes,” and concluding, “John Updike has given us a witches’ sabbath to remember.”

Considering my rather slight firsthand acquaintance with Updike and Irving, it may appear presumptuous of me to make any generalizations about them, but the temptation is irresistible. Although not a seasoned TV-watcher, either—we don’t even own one—I am prepared to make the statement, on the basis particularly of Updike’s Of the Farm and Irving’s Garp, that such books are written for people whose mental horizons are strongly influenced, if not determined, by television. There is no coherent development, only a series of more or less unrelated incidents. Everything is described in great detail so that nothing in the way of participation is demanded of the reader, who is treated as a viewer and nothing more.

A review of the history of the Book-of-the-Month Club necessarily becomes a review of the Book Club itself When Harry Scherman first launched his project, I remember, the objection was raised that it would have the effect of standardizing the taste and reading habits of all those thousands of Book Club members in every part of the country, receiving and obediently reading the monthly selection chosen for them by a small group of judges in New York. Al Silverman, in his introduction, meets this objection by pointing out that the members of the Club can, if they wish, order the monthly selection, but they may also choose from a large group of other books. As a matter of fact, in whatever fashion the Book Club operates, the reading habits of the whole country, or at least a substantial part of it, are largely determined by a small group of people in New York, whether or not they help select books for the Club—the people, that is, who write the reviews that appear in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, or the Library Journal. It is the opinions of this small group of people which have much to do with which books make the best-seller lists, which books the libraries buy, which books are picked up for review in other publications, and, therefore, the reading habits of all those people who like to feel that they belong to the intellectual elite. I find it hard to believe that people from Maine to California would have paid good money to buy such a book as The World According to Garp if the New York literary establishment had not recommended it with such cant phrases as “rich and humorous” (the New York Times), “Superb . . . the imagination soars as Irving draws us inexorably into Carp’s world” {Publishers Weekly). By sending Garp to its members, therefore, the Book Club didn’t contribute to the standardizing of the taste of the country; that had already been done. The Book Club was merely following the lead of the literary establishment.

With the reports to its members of these books still in mind, it is instructive to compare them with a very different kind of review of a very different kind of book: Clifton Fadiman’s 1948 review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter:

Scobie is maneuvered, without his quite knowing how it has come about, into a position where he must partake of Communion in a state of sin. This to him means quite literally eternal damnation. The scene at the altar rail in which this man, hungering for God, torn with guilt and quite unconscious of the heroic beauty of his own character, takes God into himself and condemns himself in his own mind to an eternity of deprivation, is one of the most moving I have encountered in recent novels. Its intensity is exceeded only by the final chapters in which Scobie finds himself forced to commit the final unforgivable sin which puts the human soul outside the mercy of God—self destruction in a condition of despair.

Such a review and the book it describes seem to come from a world different from Garp or The Witches of Eastwick. It is interesting to speculate whether the standards of the American people have changed as drastically as Silverman’s history seems to indicate. Or is it the standards of the Book-of-the-Month Club that have changed?


[The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman (Boston: Little, Brown) $17.95]