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Best-Selling Novels of the 1960s
Does a list of the top-selling books in any given year tell us something about those who lived then, or at least about that era? I'm not sure. Some of these books are all but forgotten, while others have withstood the test of time. Some might be considered boring now, while at the time they were written they were considered cutting-edge literature. And this list is significant too, for its omissions, for novels written in the sixties which are now considered classics but never made it to a position as a number one best seller. Which ones did impress the public back then? Here they are. This list's source is Publisher's Weekly.
1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1960, the only book on this list to be so honored. It is a complex novel about US government, the Senate in particular, which spawned a series of sequels, all of which were popular at the time. It is little-read now, however, and is out-of-print.
1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
This is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, one of Stone's best-known works. He did an amazing amount of research to give life to his robust tale of the great artist. It was later made into a movie with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. It is still widely read today. This was a stellar year for great literary works, which also included "Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller, and "The Winter of our Discontent" by John Steinbeck.
1962: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
This is a tale of a voyage from Mexico to Europe just before World War 2. The wildly diverse passengers form the vast, complex cast of characters. At the time some saw it as allegory and some as entertainment. The film rights sold for what was at the time an enormous amount of money.
1963: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West
This book is very much a part of the cold-war era in which it was written. The pope dies and a surprise candidate is chosen to succeed him, a young unknown from the Ukraine who spent many years in a Gulag prison camp. Having been deeply affected himself by a world divided and on the brink of nuclear war, the new pontiff determines that the Catholic Church will do what it can to use its riches to aid the suffering world.
1964: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre
This tale shocked the world when it was published in the middle of the cold war. Until then spies were glamorous and good-looking and stalwart in their battle of good against evil, but le Carre presented a protagonist who was dark, flawed, unsure of himself or what he was fighting for. In addition, he proved that a good spy story could also be great literature.
1965: The Source by James A. Michener
Michener specialized in huge historical novels that began in the distant past and covered, through disparate stories, various historical eras in a particular location. This was his take on Palestine, beginning in the Stone Age and continuing on up to modern day Israel. As with most of his novels, it is a huge, sweeping, sprawling epic.
1966: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
An instant hit when it was first published, this novel has held on to become one of the most popular stand-alone novels of all time. The dolls in the title are drugs, and the novel chronicles the lives of three women who move to New York and attempt to make it big in the entertainment industry. Never considered great literature, it has nevertheless been vastly influential culturally, and has spawned various film, TV, and radio adaptations over the years.
1967: The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
Kazan is remembered today much more as a director than as a writer. He directed such film classics as "On the Waterfront", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "East of Eden". He did, however, pen a few novels, and this one was wildly successful in its time. Some say it is autobiographical. It tells the story of a Greek American who is seemingly successful but in fact has a very convoluted, confused underside to his life. It has long been out of print.
1968: Airport by Arthur Hailey
This is another hugely popular book which is now out of print. It is a complex novel about a few days of disaster at a major airport, during which a snowstorm plays havoc with normal operations and brings on a state of emergency. It deals with a large cast of characters and goes into all sorts of details about the operation of the airport. It spawned a major motion picture with an all-star cast.
1969: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
This novel hit the literary world like a storm back in the late sixties, with its blatant, ribald, graphic take on sexuality and Jewish culture. It ignited great controversy and made its author into an international celebrity. Roth went on to become a distinguished, renowned literary figure, but many feel that he has never done better work than this wild comic novel.