Anthropology's Greatest Hits (Vol. I)

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Fri, 18 Oct 1996 16:57:19 -0400

Well, folks, the good news is -- there is an anthropology top ten. At least
there should be, in theory. The bad news is I don't know what it is. And
I'm having a hard time finding people who do.

Here's what I got from the American Booksellers Association website:

<<Mr. Cahill;

I' sorry to inform you that we don't have any information that would be
helpful to you. It would be highly unusual for booksellers to compile
information on such a specific topic. You might try to contact some
academic publishers . Again I'm sorry we couldn't be of much help to you.

I have a feeling that there's a powerful message in here about academic and
mass markets, and where anthropology might fit in the scheme of things, but I
don't want to look too closely just yet. :-)

I have also put the question to a network of anthropology librarians through
a contact at the Smithsonian Institution (the contact was provided by my
source in the AAA -- to whom I'm very grateful). Unfortunately, nothing from
this direction so far. But I continue to hold out hope. I am told that when
anthropology librarians get together they occasionally talk about
anthropology books that have sold well. Benedict's _The Chrysanthemum and
the Sword_, crops up, as does Colin Turnbull's _The Forest People_. So our
earlier discussion in which these titles were mentioned doesn't seem to have
been too far off the mark. Now, if we can just get enlarge the picture and
some figures on sales.

I will shortly scour the back pages of _Publisher's Weekly_ to see what I can
find, but in the meantime I'd like to open this up to list. If you have a
favorite, more general anthropology book and are inclined to contact the
publisher, see if you can get some numbers on volume of sales and the price
of the book. E-mail me what you find out an I'll compile the results. Maybe
we can develop a list of our own.

On a note related to Bill Loker's thread -- does cultural anthropology have a
large body of relatively widely accepted knowledge? In my travels, I came
across R. R. Bowker's _Reader's Advisor_, described as a "Baedeker" for
overwhelmed patrons of the New York Public Library:

"Known as _The Bookman's Manual_, it had, as its name suggests, actually been
conceived, not by a librarian, but by a bookseller, Bessie Graham. Graham's
first edition, published in 1921, was based on an enormously popular
bookselling course she had recently taught at the William Penn Evening High
School in Phildelphia. Just over 400 pages, that first _Bookman's Manual_
was intended to give novice book retailers a basic inventory of essential
in-print titles, both to stock and to recommend to customers.... [Now in its
14th edition,] in its various guises, it [has] been successfully matching
good books with grateful readers for more than 70 years." (Publisher's
preface to R. R. Bowker's _The Reader's Advisor and Bookman's Manual_. 14th
edition. 1993, p. xv.)

The preface notes that the guide -- striving to stay "at the forefront of
breaking literary and nonliterary events worldwide" -- established a "new
chapter on science in the seventh edition in 1954" to help readers make sense
of "the profound legacy of such theorists as Einstein and Freud." In 1960,
the beginning of "a heady and tumultuous era," Bowker's added new lists for
readers who were "discovering ideas, arts, people, and places as perhaps
never before." There were books on the North American Indian, and there were
works by authors from Africa, Japan, China, India, and Latin America. We
begin to see something identifiable as "anthropology" at this point.

Well, gentle reader, by 1993, the field of anthropology had acquired its own
section within Volume 3 ("The Best in Social Sciences, History, and the
Arts," edited by John G. Sproat) of _The Reader's Advisor_. The '93
overview, which was compiled and edited by Rita Smith Kipp of Kenyon College,
calls our field the "science of humanity." It goes on to list 191 essential
works of anthropology across all four subfields under the following topical

Reference Works Histories and Surveys
Methodology and Issues Anthropological Archaeology
Culture and Acculturation Culture and Personality
Economic Anthropology Ethnology
Evolution Kinship and Caste
Language Modern Societies
Religion Social Structure
Tribal Societies

I wonder how many of us would agree with Kipp's topical arrangement, let
alone her selections.

By the way, the coverage is largely of American and British anthropology,
with the usual French authors added. There is also a separate list of major
figures in anthropology that contains books by and about them. We could
probably debate this list as well.

Bowker's _Advisor_ is clearly not a bestseller list. But it does come out of
a tradition of bookselling and it retains a hint of "the popular" about it.
Maybe I'll return to it if there's interest. In any event, I would
recommend it to anyone looking for an example of a "general reader" booklist
in which anthropology has a place.

Mike Cahill