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Our Best Sellers, Ourselves

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What better way to understand a people than to look at the books they consumed most — not the ones they were told to read by teachers or parents, but the ones they returned to again and again, with questions about everything from spelling to sex? Our simple dictionaries, cookbooks, almanacs and how-to manuals are the unexamined touchstones for American culture. These dog-eared books for daily life sold tens of millions of copies, ostensibly teaching readers one subject, all while subtly instructing them about their role in society, often offering a single definition of “American.”

Dale Carnegie and Emily Post wrote our national story just as Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain did. Their beliefs and quirks became the values and habits of millions of Americans, woven into our cultural DNA over generations of reading and rereading. Within their pages is a glimpse of national identity in 1850 or 1950 — or now — laying bare the shifting meaning of the American character.

There are few books where one can find both tide tables and sunrise times alongside animal mating schedules and recipes. Almanacs have long been the Swiss army knife of American print culture, striking a balance between the practical and the poetic. What was once a necessary tool for farmers has increasingly become an object of curiosity, a window into a national nostalgia for the small farmer, one that sells a staggering 3 million copies on average each year.

The “Old Farmer’s Almanac” has survived world wars and national unrest, and it has not missed an issue since 1792. One of the few times it almost halted publication was thanks to a Germany spy apprehended by the F.B.I. in New York in 1942. Among his few possessions was a copy of that year’s “Old Farmer’s Almanac.” The United States suspected that the Nazis might be using the forecasts to plan an attack on American soil. The Almanac’s then editor, Robb Sagendorph, agreed to change the forecasts to general predictions for the sake of national security. Hinting at the Almanac’s less-than-perfect weather accuracy, he later quipped: “Maybe it was the forecasts. After all, the Germans went on to lose the war.”

Those few school children who have never been assigned Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography inevitably still know the basics of his life. The founding father’s rags-to-riches story — arguably the first American self-made-man parable — has shaped generations over the course of two centuries.

The autobiography at once serves as an early map to American success and reveals Franklin’s lesser-known legacy: his skill as a performer. Franklin wrote much of the book in Europe on diplomatic missions, and it was there that his knack for public relations truly shone. In 1776, when Franklin sailed to France to secure money for the Revolution, he dressed as the frontiersman the French expected Americans to be, complete with plain clothes, spectacles and a marten fur cap. The French were so taken with this portly American with the dead animal on his head that his likeness soon decorated everything from snuffboxes to wallpaper in Paris. Frenchwomen even bought wigs called “coiffure à la Franklin,” meant to mimic his style.

Whether the free-spirited teenager making his way in Philadelphia, the wily polymath charming the French or the bespectacled scientist, Franklin became the ideal American not for what he was at any given time but for his ability to be so many different things to a disparate, disunified nation in need of a new Adam.

William Holmes McGuffey was swaddled inside a maple syrup trough and raised in a log cabin constructed out of the surrounding trees. The frontier boy would go on to educate some 122 million Americans with his ubiquitous school primers books that taught more citizens how to read than any other text. Much like the budding common school movement at the time, his readers were intended to do much more than teach children how to read and count. They served as a kind of civic religion, a blueprint for American values, guided by McGuffey’s own strict Presbyterian upbringing.

McGuffey’s Readers educated millions of average Americans, alongside nearly a century of presidents, writers and businesspeople, from Ulysses S. Grant and Laura Ingalls Wilder to Henry Ford. With their emphasis on the Bible as a national text, his books founded a tradition of God in the classroom that would be debated for generations to come.

Some of the most successful books in this collection were forged from scorn, despair or desperation — and the white-gloved Emily Post was no exception. Her name may now be shorthand for good manners, but her writing career began because of its opposite: scandal. After her husband was embroiled in an affair with a showgirl that led to his being extorted by a local tabloid, Post filed for divorce. Faced with the prospect of working for her own money, she turned to writing novels, usually society tales about cheating husbands and their long-suffering wives.

She eventually found her calling not by writing about the indiscretions of her class but by correcting them. Her nearly 700-page tome on etiquette would make her a household name. The book appeared in 1922, and despite its hefty price tag, “Etiquette” would spend approximately a full year on the best-seller list, and it had to be reprinted eight times within that period to keep up with demand. Average Americans saw in her book a ticket to a better life — and it quickly became one of the most frequently stolen books at libraries.

One of Dale Carnegie’s (née Carnagey) earliest memories was the smell of burning hog flesh. Year after year, his parents lost the pigs of their small farm to cholera, and they were forced to burn them — the crackling smell piercing his nostrils as a boy. Despite working 16-hour days, the family was drowning in debt. “No matter what we did, we lost money,” he later wrote.

A man who would write a best seller about smiling and personality was shaped by suffering and lack. The Missouri farm boy who had commuted to college on horseback would move to New York City, change his name and refashion himself using his most profitable skill: charm. Carnegie was a talented public speaker, and the basis for “How to Win Friends and Influence People” would come out of his public speaking courses, which emphasized a potent mix of confidence and affability. His book proved to be a salve for Depression-era Americans who questioned how they, too, could make something out of nothing.

For many people today, Betty Crocker may just be a name on a cake mix, but to millions of women, she was much more. Despite being a character invented to sell flour, Betty Crocker became a star in midcentury America, with her hugely popular radio shows voiced by General Mills staff and her recipes distributed to millions of home makers nationwide. At the height of her popularity, she received 5,000 letters per day, and in 1945 she was named the second most influential woman in the country by Fortune magazine — just after Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book” remains the best-selling cookbook in American history, with approximately 75 million copies sold since its first publication. Its 449 pages offered a veritable everything-you-need-to-know approach to cooking, just as they served as an everything-you-need-to-know approach to American women’s duties. Betty Crocker provided a ready-made mold for women of the day to step into, giving them the recipes for dinner and for a successful home life — all they had to do was heed her directions without deviation.

From sadomasochism to sex work, this best seller really did contain everything you wanted to know about sex — except scientific information. Everyone from Gore Vidal to Playboy magazine pointed out its numerous errors and prejudices.

The snappy, free love-era sex guide either frowned upon interracial and same-sex relationships or dismissed them outright as sheer animal lust. At a time when people were starting to shake off the yoke of 1950s domesticity, Reuben’s book — one of the best-selling sex books ever written — helped guide them back into the old tropes of traditional gender roles and marriage, with a shiny new veneer.

Stephen Covey got his start as a magnetic Mormon missionary, and his charismatic public speaking skills launched his career as a coach, author and all-around business guru. His mega-best seller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” mixed Benjamin Franklin-inspired virtues with his own doctoral research on what he called American “success literature.” The result was a thoroughly modern update of the self-made man, deeply rooted in American mythology: the idea that with the right attitude, you control your life.

The 1980s and early 1990s might be remembered for economic prosperity and relative peace — spawning the birth of the “yuppie” — but those years also brought precarity to middle-class and working-class people. As many Americans felt stuck or powerless, books about self-empowerment and self-improvement garnered enormous audiences, and Covey was emblematic of that trend. Where an almanac or an etiquette book made overtures to the kind of nation their authors wanted, self-help unabashedly puts into words exactly what the American dream has promised — and how to get it.


Jess McHugh is the author of “Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books,” from which this page is adapted.


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