Best Selling Books from the year I was born: how has literature changed in 20 years?

Title Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

I have been thinking about my future a lot recently and wondering where and what I might be doing in a few years’ time, which also lead me to reflect on my life thus far. Inevitably, I have changed a lot in many ways but that is a whole other blog post! Instead, I want to focus on what else has changed in the past twenty years. Of course, there were many areas I could have explored, but I decided to focus on books for two main reasons. The first reason is that is that I simply love books, I mean I’m committed to study them for three years! And the second reason is that what better way is there to truly understand how society has changed (or hasn’t), in the past twenty years than by looking at one of the cornerstones of knowledge?

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is by looking at the top-ten bestselling books, as by definition they are the most popular books of the year and among the list there are few hidden surprises. Firstly, J.K. Rowling takes the charts by storm claiming the top four spots with the Harry Potter novels, and in at number five is a harrowing autobiographical work by Dave Pelzer chronicling his nightmare childhood. Also featured on the wider list, are memoirs by famous singers (Robbie Williams and Victorian Beckham), award-winning historical fiction (‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale), and celebrity cook-books, as we welcome the age of Jamie Oliver. 

The Top Ten bestsellers in 2001

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  5. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
  6. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (film tie-in)
  7. Happy Days with the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver
  8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  9. Man and Boy by Tony Parsons
  10. Comic Relief: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling

Data extracted from the BookScan Total Consumer Market

But just how many books were sold?

Let’s briefly talk numbers. It is very tricky to find out exactly how many books were sold were sold (total) in 2001. But, according to PublishersWeekly’s data, NPD BookScan (part of a research company called the NPD Group), which accounts for 85% of all print book sales, reported that sales reached 825.7 million units in 2021. Which is the highest volume BookScan has recorded since 2004. So, whilst this cannot tell us about 2001 in particular, it does show us that the sale of print books has reached its highest point for several years – and that is not even including E-book sales. However, what I can say with more certainty is that by 2001 the Harry Potter novels had collectively sold over 50 million copies, whilst by 2002, Bridget Jones’s Diary had sold over 2 million copies worldwide. And, for each of these books, the sales have only continued to increase over the years. Indeed, arguably they are both now deemed ‘modern classics’. Pelzer and Oliver are also not too shabby themselves, having sold over 1.6M copies and 1M copies respectively. But, whilst all of these authors have had great success, I wanted to delve a little deeper and discover other (some less common) books which were popular or published in 2001. So, below are seven other popular books sold or published in 2001 which didn’t make the top-ten list but are still worth knowing about…

A Painted House by John Grisham

Publication Date: 6th February 2001

Inspired by Grisham’s own childhood in Arkansas, the novel tells the story of a young farmer called Luke Chandler who lives in the cotton fields with his parents and grandparents in a little house that has never been painted. The Chandlers farm the eighty acres they rent and when it is harvest time, they hire “a truckload of Mexicans” and a family from the Ozarks to help. But little Luke hears things out on the fields that he is not only too young to hear, but that he also must keep a secret. But how long can Luke hide information that threatens his own family’s livelihood…

Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Publication Date: 20th February 2001

Stephen King is one of the masters of the horror genre, and this science-fiction horror novel is no different. It features gore, suspense, and an alien invasion. The novel revolves around four children as they try and avoid being eaten alive by alien fungi and attacked by psychotic military commanders. Just your common everyday stuff really…

Desecration: AntiChrist Takes the Throne by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim Lahaye

Publication Date: 30th October 2001 

This is the ninth (yes, ninth!) book in the popular Christian religion series Left Behind, with the first novel being published in 1995 and the last in 2007. Desecration has sold over 63 million copies worldwide, and this particular book in the series details the adventures of Nicolae Carpathia as he prepares to travel along the Via Dolorosa and toward the temple in Jerusalem in a quest to claim it as his own. 

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Publication Date: 2001 (around March)

Put simply, the novel is about a person desperately trying to atone for their sins by staying with a conscious feeling of guilt for a bad thing they have done. It is also a multi-spatial and temporal love story as we move from 1935 upper-class England to the second world war in France. 

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Publication Date: 11th September 2001

This fantasy adventure is all about a Tamil boy from Pondicherry called ‘Pi’ Patel who survives 227 days shipwrecked while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The book explores issues of spirituality and practicality, and it has now become a literary classic and has been made into a high-grossing film. 

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Publication Date: 1st September 2001

This book has divided readers, with some loving it and others giving up 100 pages into this 600+ page saga. Nevertheless, it made the best-selling list. The book employs a stream of consciousness style, as it explores familial relations amongst a backdrop of dramatic global change during and leading up to the turn of the millennium. 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Publication Date: 19th June 2001

This book is a “kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien”. It follows the protagonist Shadow’s chaotic and confusing life – who after being released from prison finds that his world has been turned upside down. He discovers his wife has been killed and that he has been offered a job by Mr. Wednesday, who warns that bad things are coming – so bad that Shadow will be involved in “a battle for the very soul of America”.  

So, what can these books tell us about life in 2001?

All these books show us that authors were pushing the boundaries of fiction regarding form and content, just as The Corrections does, and that serial fiction remains extremely effective and profitable as the Harry Potter and Left Behind series show us how to capture an audience for several years at a time. Another key aspect driving literature sales was the multimedia connection of films based on books, consequently drastically increasing book sales. Indeed, Atonement, The Life of Pi, and Bridget Jones Diary all benefit from this multimedia approach. And last but not least, a lot of fiction published in 2001 reflects and builds on the excitement and fear that the turn of the millennium brought, indeed, sometimes in fantastical ways – as Dreamcatcher explores.

Ultimately, a vague and somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion is that literature hasn’t changed that much, most likely because in retrospect twenty years isn’t that long ago. However, the literature of twenty years ago can interestingly tell us what was deemed important in society, for example religion was much more prevalent than it is now. It can also show us that books are cool – and even in the media driven world we live in, literature will always teach us important lessons and provide a way to escape that in a way that technology can’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s