For the past five years, as the year drew to a close, we have checked in with consummate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her appraisal of the bestseller list from a century ago. This year we continue the tradition, finding out about the books that topped the list in 1920.

Here are the 1920 bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly:

  1. The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
  2. Kindred of the Dust by Peter B. Kyne
  3. The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Harold Bell Wright
  4. The River's End by James Oliver Curwood
  5. A Man for the Ages by Irving Bacheller
  6. Mary-Marie by Eleanor H. Porter
  7. The Portygee by Joseph C. Lincoln
  8. The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. The Lamp in the Desert by Ethel M. Dell
  10. Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Norris

What were your least favorite reads of 1920?

To make things simple, I’ll just say novels that placed in slots 3, 4, 5, 9, and 10 on the 1920 list are pretty awful as novels, although historical elements in number 5, Irving Bacheller’s A Man for the Ages, give it some redeeming value.

What was your favorite novel of 1920?

The five novels left after the awful ones are removed are all good pandemic reading, but they are so different, that asking me for a favorite is like asking whether I prefer black tea or string beans.

Kindred of the Dust by Peter B. Kyne might be my favorite novel of the 1920 list (although if I reread all five of my top picks, I might change my mind). Kindred is a romance, but its mainly about the relationship between the male lead and his father and the values they share even when they are at odds.

Readers couldn’t go wrong with any of the remaining four 1920 bestsellers either: The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheimer, a mystery novel; The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey which rises above a shoot-’em-up; Mary Marie by Eleanor H. Porter a humorous coming-of-age novel with serious overtones; and The Portygee by Joseph C. Lincoln, whose writing skill saves story from becoming a male version of Pollyanna.

Do you think modern audiences would enjoy in particular any of the 1920 bestsellers?

I read and recommend all twentieth-century bestsellers in terms of what is important and appealing to twenty-first century readers. Notes about what attracted particular novels to twentieth century readers get buried in my reviews as historical trivia.

Would you add any of the 1920 bestsellers to your permanent library?

I don’t think there’s any novel from the 1920 bestseller list that I care enough about to buy for my collection. Lately I’m doing more weeding than acquisitions.

Any titles you're looking forward to reading from 1921?

Since I finished reading and reviewing all 940 bestsellers of the twentieth century in 2020, I’m looking forward to rereading 1921 bestsellers this year. Although the 1921 list boasts authors like Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton, the two novels I want to read again are by lesser lights: The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield and A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Previous year recaps with Linda Aragoni:

While no one is sorry to see 2020 go, we are excited to take one last look at our top ten stories of the year.

#1 Discover the UK’s Historic Books
Take a peek inside a new online resource featuring rare books from the team behind Unlocking the Archive.

#2 How COVID-19 is Affecting Antiquarian Booksellers
In early April, we covered the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ online webinar about how the evolving pandemic would affect the trade.

#3 British Library Makes 40,000 Historical Maps Available Online
Stunning maps from the Topographical Collection of King George III, aka “K. Top,” are available for creative reuse.

#4 (and my personal favorite) For Sale: Miniature Replica of a Mid-Century NYC Rare Bookseller’s Gallery
The dollhouse-sized replica of rare book dealer John Fleming’s 57th Street gallery pictured above went to auction in Chicago this past summer. Spoiler alert: I was out-bid; it sold for $11,250.

#5 Summer Reading: Books about Books
Books about books are our jam. This quarterly roundup featured Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller in nonfiction and Fiona Davis’ The Lions of Fifth Avenue in fiction.

#6 Bright Young Librarians: Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty
Our signature Q&A with Evangelestia-Dougherty, associate university librarian at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

#7 Bright Young Librarians: Devin Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald, curator for rare books and the history of printing at the UCLA Library Special Collections in California, takes our questions.

#8 Unrecorded “Paris Journal” by Jim Morrison Heads to Auction
Yes, the Lizard King's literary legacy lives on.

#9 What’s New in Bibliofiction, Fall 2020
We recommend five new novels with bookish themes.

#10 Notable Wodehouse Collection Heads to Auction
Nearly two hundred lots from the P.G. Wodehouse collection of the late William Toplis were sold in Philadelphia.

And … the best of 2019 can be enjoyed again too! Here’s to 2021.

Another fairly low-key week coming up in the salerooms, but here's what I'll be watching:

Over at Catawiki, a sale of pre-1700 books in 89 lots ends on Monday, December 28. They'll also sell 51 lots of pre-1600 books, manuscripts, and leaves on Tuesday, December 29.

On Wednesday, December 30, Heritage Auctions will sell the first part of the Conway Collection of Error Notes: 140 lots of misprinted U.S. banknotes, being sold without reserve. The second part of this collection will be sold later in January as part of Heritage's Signature Currency Auction. Wednesday's highlights include a 1934 $1 silver certificate with the back printed upside down (bid up to $2,800 as of Sunday morning); a 1988 $1 bill where the serial numbers don't match; a 1985 $20 bill where the back is printed upside and and slightly off-kilter such that portions of the back image of two different bills can be seen (estimated at $1,500–2,000); and even a 1988 $1 bill which got folded during printing, leading some portions of the front image to be printed on the back side (also estimated at $1,500–2,000).

Trillium Antique Prints & Rare Books will sell Fine Art – Antique Engravings & Lithographs – Works on Paper on Saturday, January 2, in 200 lots. Several of Audubon's quadrupeds are expected to lead the sale, but there are a fair number of plates by John Gould, Maria Sibylla Merian, and McKenney & Hall, too.

In researching a story for our next print issue, I came across the oddly compelling (and timely) fact that Noah Webster, whose legacy is rooted in dictionaries, wrote what are believed to be some of the first American books about epidemiology. Webster was a newspaper editor at the tail end of the eighteenth century, as bouts of yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia and New York. With no medical training—not that it would have helped much, at this point in history—Webster did what he could: collected information from physicians and published the results in order to better understand the health crisis at hand.

Earlier this year, a highly bejeweled miniature Quran that belonged to Queen Victoria went on display for the first time. The Muslim holy book is in fact part of an enameled gold locket/necklace, decorated with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, and is attached to threads of silver foil wrapped around a silk core. The book, which measures 46mm x 35mm, is revealed by sliding the side of the locket. It dates from around 1700 and probably belonged to Zinat Mahal, wife of the final Mughal emperor. In the nineteenth century it was confiscated after the unsuccessful 1857 Indian Rebellion and later given to the queen.

The book necklace is one of many items included in the exhibition, Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent, at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland. Through prints, photographs, architectural studies, and illustrations of Hindu epics, the exhibition explores 400 years of history in the area now covered by India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Conservators preparing the Quran for display reported that it had been well used, the goatskin covers and gold-printed pages both showing signs of extensive handling. Small amounts of preservation work were undertaken, including gentle cleaning, enamel consolidation, and edge tear and binding repairs.

Also on display are Queen Victoria’s Hindustani diaries from November 1893 to March 1894. The queen had a longstanding interest in South Asian culture and the diaries include her studies of the Hindustani language. Her Hindustani phrasebook is also on view.

Eastern Encounters is temporarily closed due to the UK’s latest lockdown, but should reopen in January. Until then, a virtual version is available.

A quiet week coming up in the auction rooms, not surprisingly:

Four Decades: In Celebration of AIPAD at Sotheby's New York ends on Monday, December 21. This sale of 88 lots marks the fortieth anniversary of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD). Sharing the top estimate at $40,000–60,000 are an 1843 William Henry Fox Talbot salt print, "Elm Tree, Lacock Abbey," and Robert Frank's "Covered Car," a gelatin silver print from the 1950s. A Lillian Bassman diptych, "Lisa Fonssagrives, Harper's Bazaar, and Flower 28 (Pink Mallow)" is estimated at $30,000–50,000, as is Ormond Gigli's "Girls in the Window, New York City," a mural-sized chromogenic print.

’Tis the season! In today's short video, Morgan Library & Museum paper conservator Reba Snyder discusses “desilking" the pages of Charles Dickens’ original manuscript of A Christmas Carol. It's a fascinating up-close look at the manuscript and the amazing work of book conservators. Read more about process here.

At yesterday’s auction of longtime antiquarian bookseller Justin Schiller’s collection of children’s literature, the “Christmas Stocking Library” was one of the more festive offerings. Housed in its original box, this charming set of books was published in Boston in 1864-1865 by Louis Prang. Included within the decorative paper box are six pocket-sized volumes: A Visit from St. Nicholas, The Story of Hans the Swapper, Dame Duck's Lecture, Who Stole the Bird's Nest, In the Forest, and A Farm Yard Story. Each individual book unfolds accordion-style to feature twelve chromolithographic illustrations.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Brittany Nichole Adams of Northwestern University in Chicago.

What is your role at your institution?

My title is the Special Collections, Digitization, and Archival Services Librarian, and my role encompasses all those areas and more. Being responsible for Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s rare book, manuscript, and archives collections, my work can range from processing collections to designing exhibits to assisting on a research trip to the National Archives in London. I do a lot of digitization work, both for our digital collections as well as for the Law School’s marketing and alumni relations departments. I also work with donors and researchers, which might be my favorite part of my job. I love being able to help someone honor a loved one either by preserving their materials or finding a piece of their legacy from the Law School.

Since I am the first to hold this position at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Pritzker Legal Research Center, there is some wiggle room to tailor the job to my strengths and interests. I’ve been dabbling in coding and design, and, in addition to creating graphics and websites, I’m excited to see what kind of digital projects I can create for others to experience our collections in different and interactive ways.

How did you get started in special collections?

It’s kind of a funny story: I always thought I want I wanted to be an attorney, until I took an internship at a law office and realized the lifestyle wasn’t for me. At the same time, I’d been working at the local library, which was an environment I loved. So, I decided to pursue a life as a librarian.

One of the first classes I took as part of my program was an exhibitions course taught by Valerie Hotchkiss, then-director of the Rare Books and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois. When she showed us the RBML’s copy of the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, I was hooked. The incunabulum describes a pilgrimage author Bernhard von Breydenbach allegedly took to the Holy Land with artist Erhard Reuwich, whose woodcuts illustrate the people, places, and—my favorite—animals they saw along the way. (Apparently, unicorns do exist!) I knew I was in the presence of something special, and I wanted more.

That first class on exhibitions introduced me to the interdisciplinary nature of special collections. It’s a combination of creative, historical, linguistic, and technical work, and that mix of subjects really appealed to me.

A lot of coursework and one paraprofessional job later, I landed my first professional position in special collections, which is my current role at Northwestern Pritzker Law. In the end, I went to law school after all.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I’m a proud alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It’s called the School of Information Sciences now, but it’ll always be GSLIS to me. I graduated with a master’s in library and information sciences with a certificate in special collections.

Afterwards, I wanted to get a subject master’s, and was accepted to the book history program at the University of St Andrews. This was an incredible experience. I was able to learn about history where it took place, and it gave me a solid foundation in book history as well as bibliography.

Favorite rare book /ephemera that you've handled?

I don’t know that it’s my favorite—it’s too hard to pick just one—but one rare book that comes to mind is our 1560 16mo edition of Stile et Prothocolle de la Chancellerie de France. It was the first book I purchased as curator of our collections, so it’s quite special to me. I felt it would be a nice complement to our strong collection of French coutumes, and I love the bit of manuscript waste that peeks out of the binding.

What do you personally collect?

I’m not personally collecting any rare books or manuscripts at the moment, although I’d love to start at some point. In the meantime, I collect editions Le Petit Prince in different languages when I travel. My most recent acquisition is De Kleine Prins from Belgium, but my favorite is probably Regulus, the Latin edition that I picked up at Shakespeare & Co. in France.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Like most (all?) librarians, I love reading. I read a good mix of non-fiction and fiction, especially mysteries. I’m obsessed with mysteries. I’m continually working on my language and design skills, and recently, as a kind of quarantine experiment, I decided to try candle making. In more normal times, I enjoy traveling, trying out different restaurants, and anything cultural: art exhibits, the ballet, etc.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

The variety—I love it. In a given day, I could digitize photos, search for ancestral records, make progress on a website, and work on rare book bibliographies. I love using my language, paleography, and design skills all for one position. And best yet, I’m always learning along the way.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

I think scholarship will always require reference and research assistance, and so these roles will remain significant parts of the profession. And I think a lot of this will still take place in-person; digitization is immensely helpful, but there is nothing like encountering an object with your own eyes and hands.

That said, I do think digital work is going to become more and more prevalent as a means of access. I think it also presents an opportunity for creativity to shine a light on our materials in ways they haven’t been seen before. For example, we have a collection of French legal edicts from different regions within the country. I would love to create a map that geographically and chronologically charts these advancements in the law. Or, we have a collection of trials (including Marie Antoinette’s!) that I would love annotate and possibly serialize so our modern minds can better understand their context and impact.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

Two or three years ago, I was introduced to Andy Austin, who worked as a courtroom sketch artist in Chicago for over 40 years. She generously agreed to donate her collection to our library, thousands of sketches of trials ranging from the Chicago 7 to the Illinois governors’ trials. They’re a significant testament to Chicago legal history, as well as striking illustrations in their own right. Recently, I’ve also been working with the family of one of Ms. Austin’s contemporaries, Verna Sadock, who has graciously given us her sketches on permanent loan. Ms. Sadock and Ms. Austin covered many of the same trials, but their artistic styles are very different, and it’s fascinating to see their unique perspectives through their art. We’re currently working to digitize and add these sketches to our digital platform ( so they can be accessible to a broader audience. I think I can safely say that these are objectively engaging collections, but they’re also special to me because it has been such a joy to work with Ms. Austin and Ms. Sadock’s family, to hear the stories behind the sketches, and to get to preserve them for years to come.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Yes! Northwestern University recently celebrated 150 years since it opened up to women. The Law School actually graduated the first female law student in the country, and we’ve had many impressive women as students and professors in the years since. The digital exhibit I’m currently working on highlights seven of accomplished women. I’ve enjoyed learning about their history and am so excited to honor them in this way.

Readers may have noticed something new in our recent issues: a little section up front we call “Editor’s Bookshelf.” It’s a brief list of new or forthcoming books that we think will most appeal to bibliophiles. Here’s more information on the five featured in our current issue, as well as three “bonus” picks that only came to our attention after we went to press.

Alan Jacobs takes a professorial approach in Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind and argues that we ought to read more old books (no argument here). But he also wants us to refocus our attention on authors like Milton, Wharton, or Jefferson—all flawed in their own ways, all perhaps subject to cancel culture—and find a way to reengage beyond the banal good/bad duality.

Ever since we wrote about about Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces project, which documents marginalia in nineteenth-century library books, in our autumn 2014 issue when it launched at the University of Virginia, and then again on our blog later that year, we’ve been eager to see more! And now that time has come. Stauffer’s book, Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library, will be available just after the new year.

Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age by Jessica Pressman is an approachable study of the book as a “fetish object” in the twenty-first century. She’s thinking about things like Pride and Prejudice leggings or bookish decor objects that get added to ‘reader’s catalogs’ and book lover’s gift guides (guilty as charged), while also reading into contemporary novels in which ‘bookishness’ (defined as: "creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture, in modes that may be sentimental, fetishistic, radical”) becomes part of the narrative framework. 

If a novel about an eccentric author/illustrator set in a ramshackle old manor house in England sounds like your cup of tea, try The Book of Hidden Wonders by Polly Crosby, who spins an enchanting tale about a father who records his daughter’s life story in a series of books. The books become famous, as some readers believe they offer a series of clues leading to buried treasure, but the real secret is something young Romilly Kemp must unearth.

Antiquarian bookseller Henry Wessells recommended The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand, and that was enough for us! Fourth in a series of Cass Neary mysteries, this biblionoir finds the strung-out photographer and amateur sleuth on the trail of an ancient manuscript. Fending off book dealers, gamers, and killers with impeccable aim, Cass chases the oddly powerful book through London and then to Sweden. The writing is fresh and zippy, and the plot is perfection.

Nigel Beale, host of The Biblio File podcast, also offered a fantastic recommendation: The Bookseller’s Tale written by longtime bookseller Martin Latham and published in the UK earlier this year just before everything shut down. Chock-full of charming stories about books, book collectors, and booksellers, the narrative effortlessly segues from one tale to the next — from the history of the Codex Mendoza to the copy of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis bought in the 1590s and stowed in an attic for 250 years “resting quietly as the Northamptonshire wind howled outside and long summer days baked the roof.” Latham’s storytelling style makes us wish we were at a pub with him hearing more. 

A library sets the scene for Matt Haig’s thought-provoking novel, The Midnight Library, but it’s an odd sort of library, a purgatory in which the user can choose from an infinite number of books, each of which shows them what life would have been like had they chosen another path or made a different decision. The idea is for the protagonist, Nora Seed, to use the library to find the life that most fulfills her.  

Agatha Christie fans should be on high alert for December 29 when Marie Benedict’s novel, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, arrives in bookstores. Told in a dual narrative, the novel centers on the 11-day episode in December 1926 when the Queen of Crime herself went missing and “the largest manhunt in England’s history” ensued. An ideal fireside page-turner.

And, if you’re still looking for more great bookish reads, take a whirl through our 2020 book review coverage:

    -Fall 2020 bibliofiction roundup

    -Summer 2020 books about books

    -Spring 2020 books about books 

    Individual titles:

    The Hunt for History

    Author in Chief

    Murder Maps and Dark Archives

    Death of a Typographer