I enjoy this kind of book, though I’ve seen more interesting examples. But books about books have always been a draw for those of us in the business, and I couldn’t wait to go through Check It! This is a checklist of bestselling fiction between 1940 and 1961, with a rating system to tell you whether it’s something you should seek out.
What makes this particular checklist interesting is that it was compiled by the Parish Section of the Michigan Unit of the Catholic Library Association. The compilers read through 21 years’ worth of book reviews in half a dozen or so national Catholic magazines, and then, admittedly basing their list on these reviews and not on reading the books themselves, rated them S (Suitable for General Reading), A (Acceptable for Adults), M (for the Mature reader), or U (Unsuitable for any reader). They felt the main discussions should concern the M books, since it was up to you to decide whether you (or the patrons of the library you worked for) were likely to be Mature enough for them, rather than being just adults.
For its time and slant, the book is not exactly filled with shocking surprises. Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Mickey Spillane rate a U for every single book cited; other books receiving a U include Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Roberts, Requiem for a Nun, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. The coveted S is given to anything by Zane Grey, Guy Gilpatric, and Bess Streeter Aldrich. Some of the sorting is intriguing: was Ernest Hemingway hurt that he didn’t rate a single U but only Ms and As? The Perry Mason mysteries are treated variously, with one third or so rated S, one third A, and one third M. Agatha Christie has a higher proportion of S, but there are several As and one M. All of Georgette Heyer gets an S, except one book, while Taylor Caldwell has at least one book in each category. Mary Lasswell, one of my mother’s favorite humorists, gets three Ms and a U.
As much fun as all this is (Let’s see: all of Isaac Asimov is Adults only, but all of Robert Heinlein is for Mature Adults), one finds one’s mind wandering. These were the opinions of reviewers over two decades, and the reviewers are not named, nor are the reviews quoted. Whatever reasoning stood behind to S or the U is not here, so it’s hard to get too excited. Did you EXPECT Ian Fleming to get an S from this crowd? (Two As, two Us, and the rest are Ms.)
What really starts to appall is that, well, these were bestsellers in their day, or they wouldn’t have attracted attention from the committee that did the book. And, um, at least two thirds of these authors are people Uncle Blogsy, who has been sorting books for over thirty years and hanging around libraries for fifty, has never heard of.
Maria Flores? Sigrid de Lima? Diana Chang? How come no one has ever donated Elithe Hamilton Kirkland’s Love Is a Wild Assault? (This got only an A, by the way; it’s a U title if ever I saw one.) Nard Jones has only one book on the list, and rated an S, while Jack Karney’s only book pulls a U. Here, this page lists Daphne Rooke and James Ronald: eight books, almost all of them with an M or a U, and I don’t remember seeing any of them.
It might be an interesting collection for someone out there looking for new worlds to conquer: see if it takes you longer to find all the S books or all the U books. (From Here to Eternity rates a U but so does The Hunter, by Hugh Fosburgh. Or read them all, and try to guess what, exactly, made this or that book Unsuitable in the eyes of the critic (The Sword in the Stone gets an M, two-thirds of Irving Wallace’s books draw a U, but poor old Kurt Vonnegut gets no higher than A. Explain this system. Use back of test paper if necessary.)
(I tried, by the way, to get this into the Newberry’s Melville Collection, since it awards Moby Dick an A, but they tell me they need more than one line in the book to be about Herman Melville. So the Newberry rated this booklet U.)