History of the American Bestseller on Display at U.Va.'s Harrison Institute

March 20, 2012

March 20, 2012 — Best-selling books from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to the Harry Potter series are on display at a new exhibit at the University of Virginia's Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

"Bestsellers: Popular Fiction in America," a free exhibit in the Harrison Institute's main exhibit hall, chronicles America's taste in fiction and features books from the late 18th century to today, including many rare and historically important books from the Lillian Gary Taylor Collection of Popular American Fiction.

Taylor, a devoted bibliophile, donated her extensive collection of best-selling novels and other materials to the University in 1945, and the support of the Robert Coleman Taylor endowment allows the library to add current, popular titles to the collection every year.

"In my first incarnation I think I was a Book-worm," Taylor wrote in one of her journals, in which she meticulously recorded all of the available information about the books in her collection. Those journals are available online.

"We have one of the best collections of American fiction in the world here," said Hoke Perkins, director of the Harrison Institute. "Mrs. Taylor's collection in particular is interesting enough to make sure another generation gets to see it. The exhibit also includes material from other strong library collections."

Because it covers a wide range of books and time periods, the exhibit offers both insight into the history of American taste in fiction and a perspective on changes in the publishing industry, Perkins said. Though the exhibit features many familiar titles, it also showcases some that, while hugely popular in their day, have been largely forgotten.

The exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and runs through August. It is upstairs from the Harrison/Small auditorium, where several Festival of the Book events will be held.

In addition to books, the exhibit includes author manuscripts, early best-seller lists, scripts and photos from film adaptations and Taylor's personal notebooks cataloging each work. It's an updated version of a similar exhibit shown 10 years ago at Alderman Library, but much has changed in the publishing world during that time.

The digital publishing revolution brought on by retailers such as Amazon.com and digital readers such as the Kindle and Nook has changed the notion of what a book is, as well as making it possible for authors to become best-sellers without going through traditional publishing channels. The exhibit includes information on this trend, and an e-reader will soon become part of the display alongside the traditional books.

The exhibit is sponsored by the family of Robert Coleman and Lillian Gary Taylor.

— By Rob Seal