Reading The Decades

READING THE DECADES: fifty years of the nation's bestselling books. By John Sutherland. BBC pound;16.99

In 1953, those not glued to the box or busy gluing together a plastic coronation coach might have been lured by Casino Royale, Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel and the start of 40 million sales for the series over the next 10 years. Sutherland, an expert on popular literature and the cult of the bestseller, says "Bestselling fiction, especially 'category' or 'genre' fiction, is marked by 'me-tooism'. There is rarely anything genuinely novel in these novels."

But he goes on to recognise that Fleming was offering the postwar reader something new: self-parodying sophistication and pre-Lady Chatterley sex. After the landmark case of 1960, The Naked Ape and The Joy of Sex would follow where Lady Chatterley led. Today, we are more likely to be over-stimulated by Delia Smith than by her ladyship.

Published alongside the BBC TV series, this is an entertaining and wide-ranging survey of trends in books and reading. There is little reference to children's literature overall but Sutherland's comments on recent crossover fiction are acute.

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