Some Lists Hard to Use
Identifying the biographies was not exactly easy, as the various committees at RUSA (and at both the Lending Round Table and the Division of Public Libraries before RUSA) have not agreed through time on how to report the Notable Books. A single alphabetical list that did not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction was issued until 1974, when the committee divided the titles into the two categories. Someone must not have liked the idea, for the dividing into fiction and nonfiction did not reappear again until the 1987 list. Most years since then are divided, but some are not. I am happy to see that the most of the recent lists do separate.
Before 1970, the committee did not write annotations. I had to look at a variety of online library catalogs to identify the subjects of many of the books without subtitles. The titles alone were often insufficient. Some possible biographies turned out to be fiction. Some that I suspected were novels turned out to be biographies, histories, or other nonfiction topics. I'm glad recent lists are more informative and of more help to readers' advisers.
For my purposes, I am excluding autobiographies and memoirs.
Biographies by the Years
The number of biographies in Notable Books have decreased since a high in the 1970s, but may go up slightly again in the 2000s.
- 59 in the 1950s
- 53 in the 1960s
- 67 in the 1970s
- 33 in the 1980s
- 21 in the 1990s
- 21 in the 2000s (through 2007)
Individual years can go way up and down. There was only one notable biography in 1991, 1992, 1997 and 2001. There were twelve in both 1950 and 1973.
The Lists Reflect Their Times
According to the introduction of 50 Years of Notable Books, the first list, called "Outstanding Books," was compiled by the Lending Round Table in 1944, a time of war. Among the titles on that first list were the following:
- How to Think about War and Peace by Mortimer J. Adler
- How New Will the Better World Be? by Carl L. Becker
- They Call It "Purple Heart Valley" by Margaret Bourke-White
- Ten Years in Japan by Joseph C. Grew
- America Unlimited by Eric A. Johnston
- U.S. War Aims by Walter Lippmann
- Prejudice: Japanese Americans by Carey McWilliams
- Brave Men by Ernest Pyle
- Tarawa: The Story of a Battle by Robert Sherrod
- People on Our Side by Edgar Snow
- Lend-Lease: Weapon of Victory by Edward R. Stettinius
- They Shall Not Sleep by Leland Stowe
- The Veteran Comes Back by Walter Willard
- Time for Decision by Sumner Welles
In the late 1950s and 1960s, there were many books reflecting the civil rights movement and environmental concerns. At that time, there were also many anthropology books suggesting nontraditional social arrangements.
What will people notice looking back at the 2000s?
Some Authors Repeat
As you might expect, some great authors appeared in several lists. Wallace Stegner, John Updike, and Eudora Welty were honored six times each through 1996. The committees always seems to like historians. Arthur M. Schlesinger and Catherine Drinker Bowen each appeared in the lists seven times. The champion of Notable Books was the very famous Sir Winston Churchill, whose books were listed eight times.
Some Subjects Repeat
Just publish a book on Samuel Johnson and you get a Notable Books honor. The same can be said for books about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Margaret Bourke-White not only won for a book that she wrote, two books about her were also named Notable Books. Can you say John Maynard Keynes and Douglas MacArthur twice quickly. Did I mention John F. Kennedy?
Many of the Books Have Lasted
In my checking library catalogs, I found all the books that I checked were still available in Illinois somewhere. Most of the Notable Books of the last fifty years are still in my library's seventy library consortium. From the mid-1950s to the beginning lists, many of the titles that I searched are only available at colleges and universities. Of course, I was searching for the titles that I did not recognize. The more famous titles are available everywhere.
Reflection of Me
I was please to see books that I read on many of the lists from the late 1970s forward. I have often thought I had rather specialized tastes. Maybe I just fit a public librarian profile.
I also saw many books to try if I ever find the time. How about Popular Book: A History of America's Popular Taste by James D. Hart from 1950? I wonder what it would say to us now?
Take a look at the old ALA Notable Books lists. Allow a couple of hours.