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A Century of Reading: The 10 Books That Defined the 1950s
We have reached the halfway mark of this series.
Some books are flashes in the pan, read for entertainment and then left on a bus seat for the next lucky person to pick up and enjoy, forgotten by most after their season has passed. Others stick around, are read and re-read, are taught and discussed. sometimes due to great artistry, sometimes due to luck, and sometimes because they manage to recognize and capture some element of the culture of the time.
In the moment, you often can’t tell which books are which. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller upon its release, but we now see it as emblematic of a certain American sensibility in the 1920s. Of course, hindsight can also distort the senses; the canon looms and obscures. Still, over the next weeks, we’ll be publishing a list a day, each one attempting to define a discrete decade, starting with the 1900s (as you’ve no doubt guessed by now) and counting down until we get to the (nearly complete) 2010s.
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.
For our sixth installment, below you’ll find 10 books that defined the 1950s. (Head here for the 1910s , 20s , 30s , and 40s ).
Whether you consider Holden an egotistical whiner or a melancholy boy genius , and even if you really, really hate it , there’s no denying that this novel, which has sold more than 65 million copies since its publication (though this number is a few years old and certainly soft), and continues to sell at a healthy clip, was a crucial cultural touchstone in America in the 1950s. David Shields and Shane Salerno go further in the introduction to their biography Salinger , writing that the book “redefined postwar America and can best be understood as a disguised war novel.”
Salinger emerged from the war incapable of believing in the heroic, noble ideals we like to think our cultural institutions uphold. Instead of producing a combat novel, as Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Joseph Heller did, Salinger took the trauma of war and embedded it within what looked to the naked eye like a coming-of-age novel.
It may have even influenced the way we think about teenagers to this day. “It absolutely speaks to that moment the teenager emerges as a recognizable social group,” Salinger scholar Sarah Graham told the BBC . “Before that people went through their teenage years with no sense it was a particular kind of identity. It is the first novel of the modern teenage years.” Indeed, it was only after WWII that a distinctive youth culture began to emerge: in part because more teenagers were in high school and fewer were working to support their families. They had time on their hands and angst in their hearts. “Leisure gave teenagers time to reflect on where they were going,” Dr. Graham said. “The idea of existential angst in some way draws from Catcher in the Rye as much as the novel reflects it. There is a strong dialogue between the book and the teenage experience—they are mutually shaping.” As Adam Golub has pointed out , Holden was the first teenager Americans really knew who refused to grow up, and was celebrated for it. This of course despite the fact that Salinger did not at all write the book for teenagers, and that it was well received—called “brilliant” by reviewer after reviewer —as a novel for adults.
Famously, the contemporary hype around Catcher was so great that it forced Salinger into the reclusiveness he’s now known for—he was looking, primarily, for privacy, and didn’t mind perpetuating a myth around himself in the process.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison writes in the opening lines of this much-read, much-assigned, and highly influential novel. (So influential that President Obama modeled Dreams of My Father on it.) The novel was awarded the National Book Award in 1953. In his acceptance speech, Ellison said: “If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.”
When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.
To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.
The novel manages to be many things at once; this is one of its many strengths. “Evenhandedly exposing the hypocrisies and stereotypes of all comers,” Lev Grossman wrote in TIME , “ Invisible Man is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”
Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books we all think we understand—probably because we’ve all had to “analyze” it in high school—but even its author wavered on the point. In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury explained it in the context of government censorship:
I wrote this book at a time when I was worried about the way things were going in this country four years ago. Too many people were afraid of their shadows; there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time. And of course, things have changed a lot in four years. Things are going back in a very healthy direction. But at the time I wanted to do some sort of story where I could comment on what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction, where then all thinking stops, and the dragon swallows his tail, and we sort of vanish into a limbo and we destroy ourselves by this sort of action.
When asked in 2005 what inspired the book burning in the novel, Bradbury had a pithier response : “Well, Hitler of course.”
When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.
He also spoke against McCarthyism in his lifetime, and the novel has frequently been interpreted of a criticism of the same, but in later life Bradbury denied this and claimed that it was “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature,” despite the fact that television was relatively new at the time, just becoming popular. Whatever it means, it remains an enduring classic.
Initial reviews were mixed when the first volume of Tolkien’s fantasy epic was first published, but the ones that knew, really knew. None other than W. H. Auden reviewed the book in the Times , praising Tolkien’s The Hobbit as “one of the best children’s stories of this century” and writing of his new volume for adults:
On the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, The Fellowship of the Ring is at least as good as The Thirty-Nine Steps . . . . [But] if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring .
With the second two books (Tolkien originally meant the three books of The Lord of the Rings to be published as a single volume) it steadily gained readership, exploding in popularity particularly in the 1960s with the publication of the paperbacks, and has become one of the best-selling literary works of all time. It is also generally agreed to be the best literary epic ever written, and has had untold influence on the genre ever since its publication. Tolkien’s worlds have been re-immortalized in the songs of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rush, etc. , and more recently drawn out into increasingly unnecessary films (The Hobbit , I’m looking at you) . Less widely known were J. R. R. Tolkien’s rap battle skills .
Nabokov’s most famous novel was originally published in Paris (in English) in 1955 by a publisher whose other titles included Until She Screams , Tender Thighs , and There’s a Whip in My Valise , and generally ignored until Graham Greene called it one of the best books of the year. Then it was roundly disparaged and dismissed as trash, and banned by the French government—no wonder that smuggled-in copies were already being sold for $20 a pop when it was finally published in the US by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, kicking off what Nabokov called in his journal “Hurricane Lolita .” As Steve King writes :
Within four days of publication in the U.S. the book was into a third printing; by September 13th it had become the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks; by the end of September, it was #1 on the bestseller lists. By the time Nabokov appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1962, it seemed that the only one who hadn’t read the book was Groucho Marx, who quipped, “I plan to put off reading Lolita for six years, until she’s eighteen.”
Since then, of course, the novel—along with its eponymous character—has become iconic, though more contemporary readers understand the way the image of Humbert’s nymphet has been twisted as the years have worn on. “With the possible exception of Gatsby, no twentieth-century American literary character penetrated the public consciousness quite like Lolita,” Ira Wells noted in The New Republic .
Her very name entered the language as a common noun: “a precociously seductive girl,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Gatsby, by contrast, had to settle for a mere adjective: “Gatsbyesque.”) . . . [But] we have forgotten Lolita. At least, we’ve forgotten about the young girl, “standing four feet ten in one sock,” whose childhood deprivation and brutalization and torture subliminally animate the myth that launched a thousand music videos. The publication, reception, and cultural re-fashioning of Lolita over the past 60 years is the story of how a twelve-year-old rape victim named Dolores became a dominant archetype for seductive female sexuality in contemporary America: It is the story of how a girl became a noun.
But the fact that we’re still talking about, going over the contents and the form and the way its been misunderstood and the way we failed Nabokov and the way Nabokov failed us is only proof of the novel’s significance. It is certainly a book about rape, though it does not invite us to accept rape. It is certainly a book about erotic obsession, though we are meant to pity the obsessed. It is certainly an enduring literary masterpiece.
All three of Baldwin’s most famous works— Go Tell It On the Mountain , Notes of a Native Son , and Giovanni’s Room —were published in the 50s, the decade that he established himself as an essential intellectual, social, literary, and moral voice in this country. All of these were defining books of the decade, but I’ve chosen to highlight the essay collection above either of the two novels because of Baldwin’s importance as an activist and social critic. That is, with these ten essays, as well as much of his other writing and speaking, he helped haul America into the second half of the twentieth century. We’re not quite there yet, but much of the ground we’ve gained is due to Baldwin. He also influenced a whole generation of American writers. “Speeches will be given, essays written and hefty books will be published on the various lives of James Baldwin,” Maya Angelou wrote after his death.
Some fantasies will be broadcast and even some truths will be told. Someone will speak of the essayist James Baldwin in his role as the biblical prophet Isaiah admonishing his country to repent from wickedness and create within itself a clean spirit and a clean heart. Others will examine Baldwin the playwright and novelist who burned with a righteous indignation over the paucity of kindness, the absence of love and the crippling hypocrisy he saw in the streets of the United States and sensed in the hearts of his fellow citizens. I will speak of James Baldwin, my friend and brother. . . . [who] set the stage for me to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , encouraged me to take a course in cinematography in Sweden and told me that I was intelligent and very brave.
I can’t tell you how much it pains me that Ayn Rand is the only woman on this list. I would love to have replaced her (and/or some of the others here, cough, Kerouac, cough) with Hannah Arendt, or Flannery O’Connor, or Patricia Highsmith, or Barbara Pym. But there’s no denying the influence of Atlas Shrugged on America—horrible and damaging and Paul Ryan-producing as it may be. Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s treatise on Objectivism (read: “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”), her love letter to capitalism, her libertarian rant, and her magnum opus. It was a bestseller in the week of its release and for 22 weeks in total, and sales rose again after the 2007 financial crisis. It has remained popular among high school students and conservatives (an apparently odd paring, though I can think of a few other qualities that unite them), the former likely in part because the Ayn Rand institute donates 400,000 copies of her novels to high schools every year.
“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that Atlas Shrugged has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” bank executive John A. Allison told The New York Times . “It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”
Since its publication it has spurred many, many slobbering tributes that include lines like “ Atlas Shrugged has shaped the worldview of many devotees of liberty,” and again, given us Paul Ryan—not to mention Alan Greenspan, who didn’t exactly prevent the recession that readers ran to his idol Ayn Rand to assuage.
“That’s not writing; that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan . Whatever you may think of it (and I think it has . . . not held up well), On the Road is without a doubt the most important book, indeed the defining text, of the much-mythologized American “Beat Generation.” It’s not only in retrospect, either—we knew this as soon as the novel was published. “ On the Road is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat,” and whose principal avatar he is,” wrote Gilbert Millstein in his 1957 New York Times review, flying in the face of much critical response at the time. “Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties , The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the “Beat Generation.” He was correct. “After 1957 On The Road sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road,” William S. Burroughs once remarked.
This was of course due in part to the media, the arch-opportunists. They know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a story, and a big one . . . The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.
Upon its publication, this novel, a massive chronicle of the founding of the State of Israel, instantly became a huge international phenomenon. The hardcover was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year , with a cool 19 weeks in the top spot. The paperback was “the fastest-selling work every published by Bantam,” according to Ira B. Nadel’s Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller , and by 1965 was among the top 10 bestsellers of all time. The popularity of the novel, and of the 1960 film adaptation, shaped American perception of Israel, immediately after its publication and beyond. As Uris himself said : “My greatest accomplishment is Exodus . It changed peoples lives, it changed the conception of the Jewish people in the international scene.” For his part, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, said : “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”
The novel, Bradley Burston wrote in Haaretz , “transformed American Jews as no other work has done, before or since . . . it was savaged by critics and academics, and resoundingly ignored by literary prize committees. When the book appeared in 1958, however, it sold in the millions. It was said that it was nearly as common to find a copy of Exodus in American-Jewish households as to find the Bible—and, of the two, not a few Jewish households apparently had only Exodus .”
Needless to say, this American sympathy for Israel and the American Jewish community changed the face of the country and has had lasting effects—both positive and negative, particularly, in the latter case, due to its gross demonization of Arabs. Also, not for nothing, but many Americans could use the reminder that this novel is a work of fiction.
“The genius of Chinua Achebe, like all genius, escapes precise analysis,” Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in the introduction to a Penguin Classics edition of the text.
If we could explain it fully, we could reproduce it, and it is of the nature of genius to be irreproducible. Still, there has been no shortage of attempts to explain his literary achievement, an achievement that starts with the fact that Things Fall Apart (1958), the first of the novels in his “African trilogy” defined a starting point for the modern African novel. There are, as critics are quick to point out, earlier examples of extended narrative written in and about Africa by African writers. Some of them—Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954), to name but two also written by Nigerians—remain eminently worth reading. But place them beside the work of Achebe and you will see that in his writing something magnificent and new was going on.
One reason for this, which often passes without notice, is that Achebe solved a problem that these earlier novels did not. He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.
Achebe introduced African literature to the rest of the world—and opened the door for a whole host of African writers in the UK and America, both by his success and as an editor of the African Writers Series, published by Heinemann. His first novel has sold over 20 million copies and been translated into 57 languages, and has been taught ever since its publication as a text essential for understanding decolonization and mid-century Africa.
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (1950), Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950), Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950), C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (first English translation, 1951), Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1951), Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951), Isaac Asimov, the Foundation Trilogy (1951-1953), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (first English translation, 1952), Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952), Bernard Malamud, The Natural (1952), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952), John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952), Kurt Vonnegut, Piano Player (1952), E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952), Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953), James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953), Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953), Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953), William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953), Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953), J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953), Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954), Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954), Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954), Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1955), Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955), The Guinness Book of Records (1955), Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse (first English translation 1955), Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), John Ashbery, Some Trees (1956), Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956), Dodie Smith, The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (1956), John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957), Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Towards Freedom (1957), Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957), Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957), Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957), Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (first English translation 1958), Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958), Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958), Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask (first English translation, 1958), Americo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand (1958), T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958), Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959), Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959), Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959), Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (1959), D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (unexpurgated U.S. version released 1959)
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25 Famous Books From The 1950s
Posted on Last updated: February 9, 2023
Travel back in time with the best books from the 1950s, including bestselling and iconic titles.
With the post-WW2 boom, emergence of the “baby boomer” generation, “Space Race,” Civil Rights Movement, “The Golden Age of Television,” and many new inventions, the 1950s brought political, scientific, economic, and technological changes.
The 1950s were also responsible for the creation of CERN, black box, oral contraceptive pill, NASA, poliovirus vaccine, passenger jet, and super glue.
Books from the ’50s were some of the most controversial of their time, yet are widely read classics for both adults and children today. Many of these 1950s books are utterly iconic.
Not to mention that some of the best books about the 1950s teach us more about the era, whether through their narrative, censorship upon publication, or public reception.
Like the ’60s, books in the 1950s are products of their time – and some are problematic. Read them with awareness and caution.
So, what are the best books from the 1950s to read right now? Below, find ’50s books in all genres, including a few plays. Let’s get started!
*Please note that while all of these books were published in the 1950s, many of the book covers and links are for newer editions.
Read across the decades with these book lists .
Grab your favorite 1950s books :
1. Book of the Month : Get the month’s hottest new and upcoming titles from Book of the Month. You might snag an early release or debut author. Along with selecting a book a month, find terrific add-ons, both trendy and lesser-known titles. 2. Audible Plus : From Amazon, listen to Amazon Originals, podcasts, and audiobooks. They add new titles every week. 3. Amazon Prime : Don’t miss Amazon First Reads – early access to Kindle books. Get fast delivery as well as movies, music, Originals, shows, and more. 4. Or, start your trial of Amazon Video for movies and tv series on demand.
25 Best Books From The 1950s
By Sheree Strange
1. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
One of the most iconic books from the 1950s is undoubtedly J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye .
This coming-of-age novel about teenage angst and alienation continues to sell a million copies every year –literally!
Holden Caulfield, the narrator, has become a transgenerational symbol of disillusionment.
In the story, he narrates his lost weekend in New York, proffering his opinion on everything from his peers, to dating, to films, to ducks.
You know it’s good because it’s been subjected to bans and censorship since its release, on the grounds of its “vulgar language,” “undermining of family values,” and “encouragement of rebellion” (among other things).
Discover even more famous books on our 50 States book list . Read The Catcher In The Rye : Amazon | Goodreads
2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
“It was a pleasure to burn,” begins Fahrenheit 451 , one of the most enduring 1950s books that has scary resonance today.
In Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novella, firemen no longer put out fires; rather, they set fire to buildings where books have been discovered.
The world has lost faith in the written word, preferring ubiquitous screens and ear plugs (“sea shells”) – sound familiar at all?
At the heart of the story is Guy Montag, a fireman whose curiosity overcomes him. He does the unthinkable: he saves a book.
And so begins a journey that will unravel Montag’s life, and the world around him.
Uncover even more great books about books and reading . Read Fahrenheit 451 : Amazon | Goodreads
3. The Fellowship of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
J.R.R. Tolkien changed the game with The Fellowship Of The Ring , the first in his epic Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
This was long before doorstop fantasy books were a dime a dozen. In the context of books from the ‘50s, this was an ambitious undertaking (to say the least!).
The story begins on Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday when Gandalf has to coerce him into bequeathing the mysterious and powerful ring he treasures to his cousin, Frodo.
If you think you “know” the rest of the story because you’ve seen the Peter Jackson films, think again! Tolkien has some surprises in store for you.
Uncover more books adapted into terrific movies . Read The Fellowship of The Ring : Amazon | Goodreads
4. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
Go Tell It On The Mountain isn’t just one of the best 1950s books; it’s widely considered one of the best books of the 20th century.
This semi-autobiographical novel explores the role of the Pentecostal Church in the Black community during the mid-century decades with many anecdotes drawn directly from Baldwin’s own upbringing.
He began work on the manuscript as early as 1938, but it wasn’t until 1953 – when Baldwin was living in Paris, far from the Harlem home he describes in its pages – that it was finally published, to popular and critical acclaim.
Go Tell It On The Mountain continues to resonate with readers, interrogating the role of race and religion in society. Read Go Tell It On The Mountain : Amazon | Goodreads
5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
One of the most controversial books from the 1950s is also one of the most masterful and acclaimed.
Lolita set the standard for unreliable narrators with the loathsome Humbert Humbert telling his own story of how he kidnapped and abused a 12-year-old girl whom he gave the titular nickname.
It’s stomach-churning stuff, but it’s also beautifully written – all the more amazing for the fact that Russian-American Nabokov wasn’t writing in his native language.
The cultural legacy of this novel cannot be compared, as artists like Lana Del Rey continue to draw on its iconography and academics continue to debate its themes and significance. Read Lolita : Amazon | Goodreads
6. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Ernest Hemingway’s final major work before his death, The Old Man And The Sea , ended up being one of the most significant in his ouveur.
For this novella, he won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it was specifically cited when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
Written with Hemingway’s characteristic brevity, The Old Man And The Sea is short enough to be read in a single afternoon, but it’s rich enough in metaphor and meaning that you’ll be thinking about it for years.
This is one of the books from the ’50s that continues to be analyzed and adored around the world, and will likely be for many decades more. Read The Old Man And The Sea : Amazon | Goodreads
7. The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952)
First translated into English in 1952 by B. M. Mooyaart-Doubleday
Even though The Diary Of A Young Girl was first written during the Second World War, the first English translation didn’t appear until 1952.
The ten-year interlude between Anne Frank receiving a blank diary for her 13th birthday in 1942 and the English-speaking world becoming acquainted with her story was a time of major social and political upheaval.
Perhaps that’s why the earnest etchings of a Jewish girl in hiding touched such a cord with readers.
Anne’s diary went on to become one of the bestselling books in the 1950s, posthumously making her dream of being a literary sensation come true.
Throughout the decades, The Diary Of A Young Girl is one of the most widely read WWII books in American classrooms . Read The Diary Of A Young Girl : Amazon | Goodreads
8. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
Illustrated by Garth Williams
Revisit your childhood and get a heady dose of nostalgia with Charlotte’s Web , one of the most charming children’s books from the 1950s.
It all begins when Fern begs her father not to kill the runt of a litter of piglets. The little piggy becomes her pet, her beloved Wilbur – and his journey is only just beginning.
He later befriends a sentient spider who takes to crafting messages in her web to keep Wilbur from the butcher’s block.
Upon release, reviews called White’s story “magical” and “just about perfect,” a sentiment echoed by generations of young readers in the decades since. Read Charlotte’s Web : Amazon | Goodreads
9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
In 1953, Ralph Ellison became the first Black man ever to win the U.S. National Book Award For Fiction, for his novel Invisible Man published the previous year.
TIME magazine called it “the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century,” when they named it one of the Top 100 Best English-language Novels (1923-2005).
Ellison used what he called “an experimental attitude” to craft a genre-bending story that addresses race and racial politics in a way few other 1950s books do.
Hulu has been working on adapting Invisible Man since 2017, so you’ll want to read it before the series comes out! Read Invisible Man : Amazon | Goodreads
10. On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
You can’t call yourself a beatnik if you haven’t read On The Road , one of the best books about the 1950s counterculture.
Kerouac famously wrote the entire manuscript in just three weeks, typing on a single giant scroll of tracing paper about 120ft in length.
He called his method “spontaneous prose,” an account written “with the fluidity of jazz.”
The story is a (very) thinly veiled fictional account of his adventures across the United States with his friend and fellow Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady, assigned the names Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively.
For iconic road trip books , On The Road is a confronting, challenging, and powerful read. Read On The Road : Amazon | Goodreads
11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
Chinua Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart , was also his magnum opus–a milestone in African literature, and one of the best books from the 1950s.
Through the story of a local wrestling champion, Achebe presents a heart-wrenching account of the impact of European colonialism on the people of southeastern Nigeria.
Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels, written in English, to receive global acclaim. It has gone on to sell over 20 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Achebe is now widely considered one of the most important African novelists, a defining voice in our understanding of African identity and society.
Explore even more books about, from, and set in Nigeria . Read Things Fall Apart : Amazon | Goodreads
12. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)
If you ever needed proof that human history is all swings and roundabouts, you can find it in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible .
(Okay, technically it’s a play, but it’s so frequently read and reviewed as a book in and of itself, it should really count as one of the must-read books from the ‘50s.)
Miller used a partly-fictionalized story about the Salem witch trials in the 1690s to craft a careful allegory about the dangers of McCarthyism.
He was so successful in making his point that he was actually questioned by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to snitch on his friends. Read The Crucible: Amazon | Goodreads | Book Information
13. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951)
For too long, Daphne du Maurier’s novels were written off as “popular trash.”
It’s only in recent years that her Gothic mysteries and compelling psychological thrillers have been recognized for the brilliant works of English literature that they are.
My Cousin Rachel is carefully crafted and perfectly paced. It revolves around an orphan, Philip, who is raised to be the heir to his cousin Ambrose’s Cornwall estate.
When Ambrose falls in love, marries, and dies (in rapid succession), Philip is devastated and highly suspicious of the widow.
Did she have a hand in Ambrose’s death? You can see why this was one of the bestselling books in the 1950s! Read My Cousin Rachel : Amazon | Goodreads
14. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)
The man, the myth, the legend – James Bond all began with Casino Royale , Ian Fleming’s first book about the British secret agent.
It was an instant bestseller in the U.K, selling out of three print runs in its first month on the market, but it bombed in the U.S. (possibly because it was given the aggressive title ‘ You Asked For It ’ in the American market, and editors changed the spy’s name to Jimmy Bond).
Eventually, Fleming found his audience on both sides of the pond, and now his early Bond stories are remembered as game-changers, the best spy thriller books from the ‘50s.
Read Casino Royale : Amazon | Goodreads
15. My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (1956)
Before there was David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, there was Gerald Durrell.
My Family And Other Animals is the – admittedly over-exaggerated for comedic effect – story of life for the young Durrells on the Greek island of Corfu.
With a cast of eccentric side characters and an impressive collection of pets, there are guaranteed laughs to be had.
In between family foibles, Durrell writes beautifully about the fauna and flora of the island.
So beautifully, in fact, that much of the tourism to the island today can be traced back to this and other 1950s books by Durrell.
Books about Greece and Greek life don’t get any more fun and enjoyable than this.
Explore more great books set on islands .
Read My Family And Other Animals : Amazon | Goodreads
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16. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
Yes, James Baldwin wrote so many books in the 1950s that he appears on this list twice!
Giovanni’s Room is very different in tone and style from Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) , but it’s equally as brilliant.
The story revolves around David, an American man living in Paris, and his relationships with other men –especially the Italian bartender, Giovanni, who caught his eye in a Parisian gay bar.
This examination of masculinity, sexuality, social isolation, and identity crises was so far ahead of its time that it’s possible we’re only truly starting to appreciate it fully in the present day.
Learn more about Paris with this reading list . Read Giovanni’s Room : Amazon | Goodreads
17. Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
You might have seen the Hitchcock film (1951), but have you read one of the smartest psychological thriller books from the 1950s?
Strangers On A Train has an intriguing premise: two strangers (who meet, you guessed it, on a train) agree to ‘trade’ murders, each removing a human obstacle from the other’s life.
As the two men are not connected in any other way, and neither of them otherwise has any motive to kill their targets, they predict that they will easily escape police detection.
Of course, nothing in a Patricia Highsmith novel is ever that simple. This taut, introspective train thriller will have you on the edge of your seat! Read Strangers On A Train : Amazon | Goodreads | Book Information
18. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
Technically, all seven novels in the Narnia chronicles series were books from the ‘50s – published between 1950 and 1956.
However, the best-known was the first, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe .
The story revolves around four siblings who are sent to live in the country during the Second World War, where they discover a portal in the back of a cupboard to the land of Narnia.
There are talking lions, mythical creatures, witches , and – most important of all – Turkish Delight.
Revisiting this story as an adult will remind you how brilliant C.S. Lewis was at crafting allegories, and you’ll see the deeper meaning(s) you missed as a kid.
1950s books really don’t get any more iconic than this! Read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe : Amazon | Goodreads
19. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose (1954)
Twelve Angry Men is another play most certainly counts as one of the best books about the 1950s.
The story seems simple enough: a jury retires from a homicide trial to deliberate. Eleven of the twelve ‘men in ties’ push for an immediate verdict of guilty, but one refuses.
One by one, the dissenter persuades other members of the jury (and the reader) to change their vote, ultimately ensuring that an innocent man goes free.
Twelve Angry Men remains popular to this day, with scary new resonance in light of the public failings of the justice system. Read Twelve Angry Men : Amazon | Goodreads
20. East Of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)
Sitting down to read East Of Eden is quite an undertaking, but if you’ve got the time and patience, you’ll find it’s one of the most rewarding books from the 1950s.
It’s certainly Steinbeck’s most ambitious novel, and he himself called it his ‘magnum opus’.
He drew his inspiration from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, crafting a story of depravity, guilt, and struggle around two families (the Trasks and the Hamiltons) set primarily in California over the first half of the 20th century.
It’s a pensive and philosophical novel – and depressing, to boot! – but beautifully written.
Read more contemporary books set in CA too!
Read East Of Eden : Amazon | Goodreads
21. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
Perhaps you’re wondering how a 1960s soap opera ended up on a list of the bestselling books in the 1950s…?
Well, Peyton’s Place was actually based on a novel by Grace Metalious, a salacious and scintillating book that topped the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year.
The content of the book was surprisingly ahead of its time.
The story revolves around three women who live in a small, gossipy New England village.
They battle inequity and class privilege in their quest to live their truth, while also navigating adultery, lust, and murder.
This is one you’ll want to read when you’re in the mood for something sinfully delicious. Read Peyton Place : Amazon | Goodreads
22. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)
Translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
The 1950s were a wild time for protest books.
Doctor Zhivago had to be smuggled out of the USSR in order to reach publishers in Italy, as Boris Pasternak was none too popular with the Russian government of the day.
Censors rejected his work on the grounds that he (subtly) criticized Stalinism and the Great Purge.
Thankfully, the manuscript landed in the right hands in Milan, so we all get to enjoy it today.
It’s surely one of the most complex books from the ‘50s with dozens of characters with multiple names playing out an intricate plot.
But it’s also an immensely rewarding read, if only for the struggle it had to go through to get to us.
Read Doctor Zhivago : Amazon | Goodreads
23. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1959)
If it weren’t for pearl-clutching censors and puritan scolds, Lady Chatterley’s Lover wouldn’t be one of these 1950s books at all.
The first editions were published in liberal European nations, Italy and France, two full decades before they could be sold elsewhere.
D.H. Lawrence’s story of adultery and desire was subject to one of the most extensive and controversial censorship campaigns of the 20th century.
The matter made it all the way to the courts where the book’s publishers were put on trial for obscenity.
The publisher’s victory paved the way for publication in the U.S. (1959) and the U.K. (1960) and changed the game for all controversial titles that came after.
Essentially, the story follows the relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman.
Lady Chatterley (formerly Constance) has been trapped in an emotionless marriage and has an affair with the gamekeeper. Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover : Amazon | Goodreads
24. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1950)
If you’re in the mood for nostalgic, romantic books from the 1950s, pick up A Town Like Alice (also called The Legacy in the U.S.).
It’s one of the first examples of WWII historical fiction , written not long after the war ended and based loosely on the real experiences of women and communities during the conflict.
Jean Paget, a British secretary, comes into an unexpected inheritance.
She wants to use her new wealth to build a well for a Malayan village community where she herself was held prisoner during the war.
Jean wants to make it “a town like Alice [Springs],” an Australian region she visited while searching for the man she fell in love with while imprisoned.
Explore even more WW2 books for world travelers . Read A Town Like Alice : Amazon | Goodreads
25. The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee (1957)
Although it’s not as widely read as other 1950s books today, The Flower Drum Song was one of the bestselling books in the 1950s.
It’s a story about the Chinatown district of San Francisco, the refugees who have made it their home, and the pressures of assimilation.
Chinese-American writer C.Y. Lee initially had a lot of trouble finding a publisher willing to take it on.
However, an elderly manuscript assessor for Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy (who died shortly after reading the draft) convinced them with a final message he scrawled on the front page: Read This.
The book went on to be adapted for both stage and screen, to great success. Read The Flower Drum Song : Amazon | Goodreads
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Thank you to TUL contributor, Sheree from Keeping Up With The Penguins
Sheree (pronouns: she/her) is a writer and book reviewer living on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation (known as Sydney, Australia). She has been reviewing books on her blog, Keeping Up With The Penguins, since 2017. She reads books of all kinds and shares her thoughts on them all across the internet.
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Best Books of the Decade: 1950s
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Books that shaped the 1950s
Leaving behind the war-torn 1940s , here's to the 1950s – a decade defined by Cold War panic, the breakdown of colonialism, civil rights, hope, economic boom, TV... and an awful lot of great literature.
By the 1950s, the world was trilby-deep in what W. H. Auden famously called The Age of Anxiety . The Cold War was nearing its icy pinnacle, and the McCarthy witch hunts were in full force. Less than a decade earlier, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by two atomic bombs, an international arms race was off the mark, and the shadow of Hitler still loomed over Europe.
But then, imperial colonialism was dissolving, too – and with it the pain felt by its victims began to emerge into the mainstream. There was an economic boom, a baby boom, and the voice the Civil Rights movement also began to boom. Plus, people were finally starting to talk about sex.
Of course, like all major cultural shifts, all this was reflected in literature. So, from Doris Lessing to J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison to Dodie Smith, here are 20 great books that helped define the 1950s.
"It caused tremors when it came out – a novel of self-exposure and lesbian love in an era that had little patience for either."
The Price of Salt , later published as Carol , by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
“Prior to this book,” wrote Patricia Highsmith in 2015, “homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality … or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”
All that changed with The Price of Salt – the first mainstream novel about a lesbian affair... with a happy ending. It is, in short, a love story between a ennui-crippled 19-year-old girl, Therese, and an older woman, wife and mother called Carol. After meeting in the department store where Therese works, sparks fly and soon they're on the run together. In each others arms, their loneliness drains away.
It caused tremors when it came out – a novel of self-exposure (it was heavily semi-autobiographical) and lesbian love in an era that had little patience for either.
And while Highsmith is perhaps better known for two of the six other novels she wrote during the 1950s – Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) – “Salt” was part of a vanguard of 50s literature leading homosexuality into the sunlight.
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
The 1950s was the decade James Baldwin launched himself as the civil rights movement's loudest literary voice. He published all three of his most famous works during that time – Got Tell it on the Mountain , Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni's Room . All three were defining books of the decade, but we've chosen Go Tell It on the Mountain because it was his first novel, and signalled the moment Baldwin set out his stall as America's defender-in-chief of black identity in the 1950s.
Based in part on Baldwin's own childhood in Harlem, it tracks a day in the life of 14-year-old John Grimes, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, as he tussles with his developing sexual awareness under the crushing weight of Christian guilt. “Judicious men in their chairs may explain the sociology of guilt, and so explain Negro religion away,” wrote the New York Times in 1953. “Mr. Baldwin will not have it away. In this beautiful, furious first novel, there are no such reductions.”
Beginning with this, the seismic impact Baldwin had on the race debate in the 50s was best summarised by author Maya Angelou when she wrote in 1987: “[Baldwin] burned with a righteous indignation over the paucity of kindness, the absence of love and the crippling hypocrisy he saw in the streets of the United States and sensed in the hearts of his fellow citizens.”
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
By 1953, the future, for many, looked bleak. It wasn't just the Cold War, memories of Hitler and McCarthyite oppression that sowed fear.
For Ray Bradbury , there was something else: the invasion of black-and-white television in people's homes. So he wrote Fahrenheit 451 , about a dystopian future America where books are banned, and firemen burn them, and people are entertained by staring at giant wall screens in their homes, day and night. To him, TV was the new opiate of the masses. Reading was dying, and with it critical thinking. “There are worse crimes than burning books,” Bradbury once said. “One of them is not reading them.”
Fahrenheit 451 was a smash hit. The influential science fiction writer August Derleth called it, "a savage and shockingly prophetic view of one possible future way of life." While another, Groff Conklin, said it was "among the great works of the imagination written in English in the last decade or more."
“Children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all"
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957)
By the 1950s, America had tumbled into a literacy crisis. "Why can't Johnny read?” worried the headline of a Life magazine article by the writer John Hersey. Children, it was thought, were reading too many comic books and not enough book-books. The problem? Books in schools (known as “Dick and Jane Primers”) were too boring.
Enter Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss , and his story of a home invasion. With the decision to put one picture per page, he conjured The Cat in the Hat from a vocabulary list of 240 words.
It's about an anthropomorphic cat who appears at the home of two children while their mother is out. With his two pals, Thing One and Thing Two, he wows them with games and tricks, trashing the house to the chagrin of a sentient goldfish.
The reviews frothed with praise. “Parents and teachers will bless Mr. Geisel for this amusing reader with its ridiculous and lively drawings,” cooed a typical review in the Saturday Review , “for their children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all."
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Books That Shaped America 1950 to 2000
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Since his debut in 1951 as the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye , sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with adolescent alienation and angst. The influential story concerns three days after Holden has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, he wanders New York City searching for truth and rails against the phoniness of the adult world. Holden is the first great American antihero, and his attitudes influenced the Beat Generation of the 1950s as well as the hippies of the 1960s. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most translated, taught, and reprinted books and has sold some 65 million copies.
J. D. Salinger (1919–2010). The Catcher in the Rye. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1951. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (074.00.00)
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Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is told by an unnamed narrator who views himself as someone many in society do not see much less pay attention to. Ellison addresses what it means to be an African American in a world hostile to the rights of a minority, on the cusp of the emerging civil rights movement that was to change society irrevocably.
Ralph Ellison (1914–1994). Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952. Herman Finkelstein Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (075.00.00)
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E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)
According to Publishers Weekly, Charlotte’s Web is the best-selling paperback for children of all time. One reason may be that, although it was written for children, reading it is just as enjoyable for adults. This story of a clever and compassionate spider and her scheme to save the life of Wilber the pig is especially notable for the way it treats death as a natural and inevitable part of life in a way that is palatable for young people.
E. B. White (1899–1985). Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper, 1952. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (076.00.00)
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Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s disturbing vision of a future United States in which books are outlawed and burned. Even though interpretations of the novel have primarily focused on the historical role of book burning as a means of censorship, Bradbury has said that the novel is about how television reduces knowledge to factoids and destroys interest in reading. The book inspired a 1966 film by Francois Truffaut and a subsequent BBC symphony. Its name comes from the minimum temperature at which paper catches fire by spontaneous combustion.
Ray Bradbury (1920–2012). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953. General Collections , Library of Congress (078.00.00)
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Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956)
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (first published as the title poem of a collection) established him as an important poet and the voice of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Because of the boldness of the poem’s language and subject matter, it became the subject of an obscenity trial in San Francisco in which it was exonerated after witnesses testified to its redeeming social value. Ginsberg’s work had great influence on later generations of poets and on the youth culture of the 1960s (Ginsburg is credited with coining the phrase “flower power.”).
Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1956. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (079.00.00)
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Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Although mainstream critics reacted poorly to Atlas Shrugged it was a popular success. Set in what novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand called “the day after tomorrow,” the book depicts a United States caught up in a crisis caused by a corrupt establishment of government regulators and business interests. The book’s negative view of government and its support of unimpeded capitalism as the highest moral objective have influenced libertarians and those who advocate less government.
Ayn Rand (1905–1982). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957. General Collections , Library of Congress (080.00.00)
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Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)
Theodor Seuss Geisel was removed as editor of the campus humor magazine while a student at Dartmouth College after too much reveling with fellow students. In spite of this prohibition-era setback to his writing career, he continued to contribute to the magazine pseudonymously, signing his work “Seuss.” This is the first known use of his pseudonym, which became famous in children’s literature when it evolved into “Dr. Seuss.” His introduction to animation and illustration came during World War II, when he worked on military training films and developed a character named Private Snafu. The Cat in the Hat is considered the defining book of his career. More than 200 million Dr. Seuss books have been sold around the world.
Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss, 1904–1991). The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (081.00.00)
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Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
The defining novel of the 1950s “Beat Generation” (which Kerouac named), On the Road is a semiautobiographical tale of a bohemian cross-country adventure, narrated by character Sal Paradise. Kerouac’s odyssey has influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Hunter S. Thompson and films such as Easy Rider. On the Road has achieved a mythic status in part because it portrays the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people take off to see the world.
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (082.00.00)
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Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
This 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner was an immediate critical and financial success for its author, with more than 30 million copies in print to date. Harper Lee created one of the most enduring and heroic characters in all of American literature in Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer who defended a wrongly accused black man. The book’s importance was recognized by the 1961 Washington Post reviewer: “A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere eighteen ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird .”
Harper Lee (b. 1926). To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1960. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (083.00.00)
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Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
Joseph’s Heller’s Catch-22 , an irreverent World War II novel and a satiric treatment of military bureaucracy, has had such a penetrating effect that its title has become synonymous with “no-win situation.” Heller’s novel is a black comedy, filled with orders from above that made no sense and a main character, Yossarian, who just wants to stay alive. He pleads insanity, but is caught in the famous catch: “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.” Although the novel won no awards upon its release, it soon became a cult classic, especially among the Vietnam War generation, for its biting indictment of war.
Joseph Heller (1888–1957). Catch-22. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (084.00.00)
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Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
The first science fiction novel to become a bestseller, Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians (his parents were on the first expedition to Mars and he was orphaned when the crew perished) who then returns to Earth about twenty years later. Smith has psychic powers but complete ignorance of human mores. The book has become a cult classic.
Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988). Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putman, 1961. General Collections , Library of Congress (085.00.00)
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Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day (1962)
Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day was the first full-color picture book with an African American as the main character. The book changed the field of children’s literature forever, and Keats was recognized by winning the 1963 Caldecott Medal (the most prestigious American award for children’s books) for his landmark effort.
Ezra Jack Keats (1916–1983). The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (086.00.00)
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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
A marine biologist and writer, Rachel Carson is considered a founder of the contemporary environmental protection movement. She drew attention to the adverse effects of pesticides, especially the use of DDT, in her book Silent Spring , a 1963 National Book Association Nonfiction Finalist. At a time when technological solutions were the norm, she pointed out that man-made poisons introduced into natural systems can harm not only nature, but also humans. Her book met with great success and because of heightened public awareness, DDT and other pesticides were banned.
Rachel Carson (1907–1964). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (092.00.00)
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Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)
“It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood—the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things—that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have,” Maurice Sendak said in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech on June 30, 1964. Sendak called Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are , his “bravest and therefore my dearest creation.” Max, who is sent to his room with nothing to eat, sails to where the wild things are and becomes their king.
Maurice Sendak (1928–2012). Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (087.00.00)
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James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
One of the most important books ever published on race relations, James Baldwin’s two-essay work comprises a letter written to his nephew on the role of race in U.S. history and a discussion of how religion and race influence each other. Baldwin’s angry prose is balanced by his overall belief that love and understanding can overcome strife.
James Baldwin (1924–1987). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial, 1963. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (088.00.00)
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Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)
By debunking the “feminine mystique” that middle-class women were happy and fulfilled as housewives and mothers, Betty Friedan inspired the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan advocates that women need meaningful work and encourages them to avoid the trap of the “feminine mystique” by pursuing education and careers. By 2000 this touchstone of the women’s movement had sold three million copies and was translated into several languages.
Betty Friedan (1921–2006). The Feminine Mystique. New York: Laurel, 1984. General Collections , Library of Congress (089.00.00)
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Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
When The Autobiography of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was published, the New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and it has become a classic American autobiography. Written in collaboration with Alex Haley (author of Roots ), the book expressed for many African Americans what the mainstream civil rights movement did not: their anger and frustration with the intractability of racial injustice. In 1998, Time magazine listed The Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of ten “required reading” nonfiction books.
Malcolm X (1925–1965) and Alex Haley (1921–1992). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. General Collections , Library of Congress (090.00.00)
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Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965)
Ralph Nader’s book was a landmark in the field of auto safety and made him a household name as a leader in consumer activism. It detailed how automakers resisted putting safety features, such as seat belts, in their cars and resulted in the federal government’s taking a lead role in the area of auto safety.
Ralph Nader (b. 1934). Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman, 1965. General Collections , Library of Congress (091.00.00)
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Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)
A 300-word article in the New York Times about a murder led Truman Capote to travel with his childhood friend Harper Lee to Holcomb, Kansas, to research his nonfiction novel, which is considered one of the greatest true crime books ever written. Capote said the novel was an attempt to establish a serious new literary form, the “nonfiction novel,” a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless entirely factual. The book was an instant success and was made into a film.
Truman Capote (1924–1984). In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York: Random House, 1966. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (093.00.00)
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James D. Watson, The Double Helix (1968)
James D. Watson’s personal account of the discovery of DNA changed the way Americans regarded the genre of the scientific memoir and set a new standard for first-person accounts. Dealing with personalities, controversies, and conflicts, the book also changed the way the public thought about how science and scientists work, showing that scientific enterprise can at times be a messy and cut-throat business.
James D. Watson (b. 1928). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968. General Collections , Library of Congress (094.00.00)
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Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)
Until librarian Dee Brown wrote his history of Native Americans in the West, few Americans knew the details of the unjust treatment of Indians. Brown scoured both well-known and little-known sources for his documentary on the massacres, broken promises, and other atrocities suffered by Indians. The book has never gone out of print and has sold more than 4 million copies.
Dee Brown (1908–2002). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971. General Collections , Library of Congress (095.00.00)
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Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971)
In the early 1970s a dozen Boston feminists collaborated in this groundbreaking publication that presented accurate information on women’s health and sexuality based on their own experiences. Advocating improved doctor-patient communication and shared decision-making, Our Bodies, Ourselves explored ways for women to take charge of their own health issues and to work for political and cultural change that would ameliorate women’s lives. Readers’ responses played a critical role in the evolution of each of the nine revised editions and more than twenty foreign-language translations that continue to educate and empower a worldwide movement for improved women’s health.
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. General Collections , Library of Congress (096.00.00)
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Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)
Carl Sagan’s classic, best-selling science book of all time accompanied his wildly popular television series Cosmos . In an accessible way, Sagan covered a broad range of scientific topics and made the history and excitement of science understandable and enjoyable for Americans and then for an international audience. The book offers a glimpse of Sagan’s personal vision of what it means to be human.
Carl Sagan (1934–1996). Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980. General Collections , Library of Congress (097.00.00)
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Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named Beloved “the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years.”
Toni Morrison (b. 1931). Beloved: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (098.00.00)
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Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On (1987)
And the Band Played On is the story of how the AIDS epidemic spread and how the government’s initial indifference to the disease led to a new awareness of the urgency of devoting government resources to fighting the virus. Shilts’s investigation has been compared to other works that led to increased efforts toward public safety, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle .
Randy Shilts (1951–1994). And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (099.00.00)
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César Chávez, The Words of César Chávez (2002)
César Chávez (1927–1993), founder of the United Farm Workers, was as impassioned as he was undeterred in his quest for better working conditions for farm workers. He was a natural communicator whose speeches and writings led to many improvements in wages and working conditions.
Richard Jensen and John C. Hammerback eds. The Words of César Chávez. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2002. General Collections , Library of Congress (101.00.00)
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Big Books from the 1950s
The 1950s saw the emergence of literary lights including J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, authors whose books questioned the status quo and the midcentury preoccupation with conformity. The decade’s best books were mired in the dark realities of recent history, and looked forward to seismic social shifts to come. Novelists explored cultural norms through timeless dystopic visions, and one of fantasy literature’s most enduring series was launched. These are some of the decade’s most indispensable books.
The Catcher in the Rye
Paperback $8.99 $9.99
J. D. Salinger
In Stock Online
The Catcher in the Rye , by J.D. Salinger Considered the ur-coming of age novel of the modern era, Catcher is a book that grows with you. A bleakly comic first-person cri de couer, it follows recently expelled prep student Holden Caulfield on an aimless ramble around New York City, through run-ins with former friends, a visit to the Central Park ducks, and his return to his parents’ luxe apartment, exploring his aching, barely submerged desire to reclaim the innocence of childhood.
Paperback $15.49 $17.00
Lolita , by Vladimir Nabokov This often-banned book is a love story, a paean to 1950s Americana, a breathtaking portrait of a sociopath, and the most memorable road-trip book you’ll ever read. When European academic Humbert Humbert first lays eyes on Lolita, he’s a rootless wanderer with movie-star looks—and she’s a 12-year-old “nymphet,” the daughter of Humbert’s faded maneater of a landlady. He marries the mother to get to the girl, and a twisted tale of obsession begins. After mom is dispatched, Humbert and his Lolita cross the country together, on a soda-pop-and-comics–fueled trip to keep them a step ahead of anyone who might suspect the true nature of their relationship. Lolita’s fate inspires pity and horror, as Nabokov’s sublime prose inspires awe, journeying toward a dark end for his pedophile protagonist that’s intimated in the book’s first pages. In the words of Humbert Humbert, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
East of Eden
Paperback $15.99 $18.00
John Steinbeck , David Wyatt
East of Eden , by John Steinbeck Steinbeck’s California epic is Biblical in its proportions as well as its themes, recalling both Cain and Abel and the snake in the Garden. Brothers Charles and Adam Trask, one viciously violent and the other a sensitive seeker, play out their roles as Cain and Abel, complicated by the arrival of a psychopathic cipher of a woman who becomes the mother to Adam’s own two sons. Elsewhere in their Salinas Valley home, silver-tongued Irish patriarch Samuel Hamilton raises a clan with his dour wife, intersecting with the Trasks and representing one stripe of American ingenuity and self-made success. This multigenerational epic brims with landscape poetry and sensitive character studies, and explores the endlessly resilient properties of the human spirit.
On the Road
Paperback $14.99 $17.00
On the Road , by Jack Kerouac Kerouac’s Beat masterpiece defined a certain kind of American seeker, one who rejected societal norms and struck out for an unencumbered life. And the fact that Kerouac lived this life himself, and loosely based his books on his own experiences, have only made them more appealing. His fictional alter ego Sal Paradise criss-crosses the country with a pack full of sandwiches and, often, with companion Dean Moriarty, a thinly veiled Neal Cassady. They seek out “the mad ones…mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,” chasing down the transient highs of new experience and an unfettered existence. Kerouac famously claimed to have written the book in three coffee-fueled weeks, and more than 50 years later, his novel still sings with youthful immediacy.
Lord of the Flies
Paperback $8.99 $11.00
William Golding , Lois Lowry , Jennifer Buehler
Lord of the Flies , by William Golding In Golding’s chilling masterwork, a group of boys wash up on a deserted island after a shipwreck. The boys create a microcosmic society, one that rapidly breaks down as their middle-class manners decay. A survival-of-the-fittest free-for-all ensues. The battle for the souls of every boy on the island boils down to a showdown between prime antagonist Jack, a violent alpha who believes might equals right, and Ralph, a sensitive boy who desperately fights against the descent into tribal chaos. The novel can be read as an allegory or an indictment of mindless conformity, or as the scariest, most mesmerizing beach book you’ll ever pick up.
Paperback $13.99 $16.00
Invisible Man , by Ralph Ellison Ellison’s bleak and bracing portrayal of the politicization of a young African American man stands among literature’s most powerful indictments of American racism. Over the course of the narrative, Ellison’s unnamed protagonist is transformed from an ambitious academic, enduring humiliation to secure a scholarship at an elite black college, to a political firebrand working for an interracial organization called the Brotherhood, to the titular “invisible man,” hiding in one of New York City’s forgotten corners in order to write his story. The book argues that the honoring of selfhood, even over community, is the most powerful political statement an oppressed individual can make.
Breakfast at Tiffany's and Three Stories
Paperback $14.49 $16.00
Breakfast at Tiffany’s , by Truman Capote Holly Golightly, the quicksilver heroine of Capote’s indispensable New York novella, has come to serve as shorthand for a certain kind of woman—a proto manic pixie dream girl given a second, equally timeless, life onscreen by Audrey Hepburn. The novel is narrated by a writer who meets Holly after she moves into his building. She’s a completely self-made construction, a penniless farm girl who forms herself into a knowing member of café society, living on the money she gets from the rich men who adore her. It’s a wistful story of missed connections, hard-lost naiveté, and a bygone world where beautiful women were given money to go to the powder room.
Fahrenheit 451: A Novel
Paperback $13.99 $17.00
Fahrenheit 451 , by Ray Bradbury Bradbury’s dystopian classic still has the power to strike fear in the heart of readers. It imagines a world in which human life is cheap, television is king, and books are illegal and subject to burning. When our protagonist, fireman and career book burner Guy Montag, meets a young woman who piques his curiosity about the world as it was before, he starts taking risks to save books from the flames, and finds himself on the run. This is a cautionary tale about the evils of censorship, conformity, and anti-intellectualism, published at a time when many Americans were enjoying their first television set.
Paperback $18.00 $20.00
Boris Pasternak , Richard Pevear , Larissa Volokhonsky
Doctor Zhivago , by Boris Pasternak Pasternak’s controversial, Nobel Prize-winning bestseller went unpublished in his home country of Russia for 30 years after its 1957 release, and Pasternak was blocked by the Soviet government from receiving the Nobel prize during his lifetime. The novel follows Dr. Yury Zhivago through the years of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, as he struggles to choose between his wife and Lara, the captivating wife of another man, whom he seems fated to keep meeting. Their doomed love story spans years and multiple separations, serving as a melancholy throughline of a tale encompassing a turbulent chapter of modern Russian history.
The Lord of the Rings
Paperback $24.99 $28.00
J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings , by J.R.R. Tolkien J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume masterwork, starting with this 1954 novel, introduced into popular culture perhaps the most meticulously created fantasy world in literature. Complete with maps, languages, and a deep sense of its own invented history, Tolkien’s story captures the journey to destroy a dangerous ring undertaken by a quartet of hobbits, the wizard Gandalf, and others. Its settings ranges from the village of Hobbiton to the elflands to the peaks of Mordor, and its indelible characters have become an indestructible part not just of fantasy fiction but of the pop-culture landscape.
Grace Metalious , Ardis Cameron
Peyton Place , by Grace Metalious Metalious’s scandalous, often vicious account of small-town secrets, dissatisfactions, and hypocrisies inspired both a film and a soap opera that ran from 1964 to 1969. The placid exterior of the fictional Peyton Place, New Hampshire, hides a morass of societal ills, explored largely through three women: unmarried mother Constance Mackenzie; her daughter, Allison; and Selena Cross, a girl saddled with poverty and a sexually violent stepfather. In an era when keeping up appearances ruled, this book’s exploration of the darkness lurking behind even the most brightly painted doors ignited readers’ imaginations.
Atlas Shrugged: (Centennial Edition)
Paperback $22.99 $26.00
Ayn Rand , Leonard Peikoff
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand Rand’s controversial bestseller, both revered and reviled, is not just a narrative, but the distillation of her closely held political and moral beliefs. Against the backdrop of a dystopian U.S., railroad vice president Dagny Taggart navigates threats to her company and the compromised expectations of family and friends. When fellow business leaders start disappearing, the mystery leads Taggart and her lover, industrialist Hank Rearden, to John Galt, a man determined to bring down the government through a business strike. Galt serves as a mouthpiece for Rand’s Objectivist beliefs.
From Here to Eternity: The Complete Uncensored Edition
James Jones , William Styron
From Here to Eternity , by James Jones The first of James Jones’ trio of World War II novels, followed by 1962’s The Thin Red Line and 1978’s Whistle , From Here to Eternity won the National Book Award and was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra. It centers on three soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the warm months of 1941, as they brawl and haze and betray each other, attempt to assert their individual will, and discover what happens to the nail that stands up.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Paperback $13.49 $14.99
A Good Man Is Hard to Find , by Flannery O’Connor O’Connor’s stories, like life, are “nasty, brutish and short,” populated with tricksters, ciphers, and benighted people born into small destinies they’re unable to escape. Her stories are also darkly funny and addictively readable, each a window onto the small tragedies and even smaller minds of farm folk, drifters, and opportunists in the heartland.
Gift from the Sea
Hardcover $15.99 $18.00
Anne Morrow Lindbergh , Reeve Lindbergh
Gift from the Sea , by Anne Morrow Lindbergh This wildly popular bestseller, written by an acclaimed author also known as the wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, is an essayistic exploration of the joys of solitude, marriage and love, growing old, and Morrow Lindbergh’s own experiences as a woman of the era. It’s a book meant to nurture readers’ souls, full of wisdom that rings true more than a half century later.
The Power of Positive Thinking: 10 Traits for Maximum Results
Paperback $15.49 $17.99
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
The Power of Positive Thinking , by Norman Vincent Peale This is the book that launched a thousand imitators. Another inspirational text that has stood the test of time, Peale’s self-help classic has a simple but timeless message of positivity, grace under pressure, and treating yourself with kindness. The rewards his methods promise include easing of worry and the realization of goals—and with millions of copies sold, who can argue with its enduring power?
10 novels written in the 1950s we love even more today
Unlike us forgetful, breakable and generally unreliable human folk, good old books get better and better with age. Or, at least, the books themselves stay the same, but our appreciation of them grows. It’s been over sixty years since the fifties first exploded onto the stage, complete with greasers, the end of UK food rationing and the I Love Lucy show. What a decade! Its books weren’t half bad, either. Here’s a selection of 1950s lit that still rocks our world….
1. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954)
Are we human or are we savages? Or is the human essentially savage? Oh, the moral confusion! This good-boys-gone-bad tale of desert island adventure, cruelty and tragedy is a thriller when you’re ten, but more of a chiller when you’re older an can appreciate the true horror of murderous schoolkids. It’s also the main reason why Golding’s a household name, Nobel Prize notwithstanding.
2. Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952)
A pig and a spider, friendship, love, loyalty, birth and death: we’re not being schmaltzy, but this children’s classic is a proper well of emotion, and it’s not getting any less moving as the decades pass. Plus, for all you lit-geeks, E.B. is the very same White you might recognize from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style , the dry-eyed compositional manual to beat all compositional manuals. Is there nothing this man couldn’t do?
3. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
Volume One of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We hardly feel like we need to introduce this one – but if you’ve only seen the movies, it’s time you cracked the spine of this classic of British fantasy, if only to check out the unique musical stylings of Tom Bombadil. Also, if there had been no Fellowship, we’d probably never have invented Dungeons & Dragons! (Hmm…)
4. East of Eden, John Steinbeck (1952)
Two families’ histories become entangled in the Californian Salinas Valley in the early twentieth century. Taking inspiration in part from the Cain and Abel story of the Old Testament, this is the novel that Steinbeck was said to consider his masterpiece. It’s certainly stars one of literature’s most interesting antagonists in the figure of Cathy Ames, a cruel and cold individual who leaves violence and mayhem in her wake. A brilliant family saga (but probably not one for the whole family to share, what with the murders and all).
5. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)
One of the most famous and historically significant African novels to be published in the English language, Achebe’s book tells the story of an Igbo man’s downfall in the context of a white government’s incursions onto his land. As brilliant as the book is, it’s also fascinating as regards its position at the intersection of language, colonialism and power. Given the still marginalized position of African literatures in the Western book-market today, Achebe’s work is still a central text for those who want to expand their literary horizons.
6. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass (1959)
Oskar Matzerath is a German dwarf with questionable sanity who gets caught up with the Nazia, becomes a jazz drummer, gets falsely imprisoned for murder and writes his memoirs from jail. Well, no summary of The Tin Drum is likely to do Grass’s huge and complex novel justice. It’s been accused of being pornographic and blasphemous, like all the most famous books of the twentieth century – Lady Chatterley, please stand up! – and it’s nothing if not fascinating. Well worth a punt, we say.
7. The Borrowers, Mary Norton (1952)
A race of diminutive people, struggling to stay alive under your floorboards – hey, it’s more likely than the Bilbo/dragon scenario. Norton’s book began a series that spawned numerous TV shows and a 2010 Japanese animation, but the original is still the best, and we kind of wish Arrietty Clock would come borrowing our goods.
8. The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing (1950)
Lessing’s first novel is, as you might expect, a book about racial politics in what was then Southern Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe – it’s set on a farm and stars an ill-suited white couple and their black servant, Moses. The 1940s setting made it very relevant to its contemporary readers, but it’s nonetheless got a kick to it today, as Mary’s treatment of Moses still makes for very uncomfortable reading.
9. Under The Net, Iris Murdoch (1954)
Writers, philosophers and bookies rubbing shoulders in London: this picaresque gem was Murdoch’s first novel and it stands the test of time, not least because her prose, here as everywhere, is indubitably brilliant. Under The Net is slapstick existential madness of the highest order and we’re off to reread it right now.
10. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns Carr (1950)
The least well-known novel on our list, we’ll wager, this book by English writer Comyns Carr ought to be more widely loved, because, we cry, who wouldn’t adore a book about an artists’ model in 1930s Bohemian London? It’s witty and compelling, and we dare to whisper, an almost-forgotten classic.
These are some of the novels we think have improved in the last half a century, but there’s doubtlessly plenty more worth a mention. If you’ve got some in mind, please let us know in the comments below.
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The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut. It is one of his earliest well-known novels. I take the time to read every few years. Its a tale of human contact and friendship that takes place across almost-unfathomable stretches of time and space. It has a bittersweet style to the writing, which becomes the hallmark of Vonnegut’s later work. It holds up pretty well, and I imagine has more impact today than the day it was first published.
Good list. The only one I can think of off-hand that you missed is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
I was astonished that Lolita wasn’t on the original list. I re-read it recently, and it’s better than I remembered.
Internet Rule #453: for every list on the internet, there will be comments for additions on the list.
“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis. Read it in freshman lit in 1968; re-read it periodically. Always laugh.
And a good number of readers also shrugged at the lack of profundity in her self described “magnum opus.”
Looking for a 1950’s English/British book called ATTA. About a man that transforms to the size of an ant, then befriends Atta,an ant, and the journey across the park. Dont recall author. Book was sold before I had a say. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks
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Home » Blog » Spotlight on the Mid-Century Era » 20 Classic American Books Published in the 1950s
20 Classic American Books Published in the 1950s
The 1950s were a strange time in the U.S., when a prevailing post-WWII normalcy, calmness, and prosperity fostered new countercultures. Their rebellious attitudes started showing up prominently in the music, movies, art, politics, and yes—the literature—of the decade. This can be seen easily with a quick look at some of the most iconic, enduring American books published in the 1950s.
In them, there are recurring themes of alienation, inequality, and rebellion. So many of the greatest books of the ’50s highlight societal problems like injustice, censorship, and commercialization. Just take a look at the following 20 classic American books published in the 1950s.
Great American Literature from the ’50s
- A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play is an important depiction of life for African-Americans at the time and it reached white audiences in a groundbreaking way.
- A Separate Peace – Published in 1959, John Knowles’ first and best-known novel tells a moving coming-of-age/loss of innocence story set during the World War II years.
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand’s pivotal 1957 work about government corruption and total free-market capitalism has been highly influential on libertarian and conservative political thought.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Introducing Holly Golightly, arguably Truman Capote’s most famous character, this 1958 novella is one of this major American author’s most important books.
- The Cat in the Hat – This book, released in 1957, is considered the most iconic work in Dr. Seuss’ canon of widely celebrated, innovative, instantly recognizable children’s literature.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Probably the most famous play by Tennesse Williams, this probing look at deception and death was published in 1955 and quickly won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
- Catcher in the Rye – This 1951 J.D. Salinger classic about Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old frustrated by the world’s phoniness, is a staple for angsty teens and high school English classes.
- Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White’s tale about a spider working to save a pig’s life was a unique look at death for kids. Published in 1952, it’s the all-time bestselling children’s paperback.
- The Crucible – First released in 1953, Arthur Miller’s most famous play is superficially about the Salem witch trials, but actually comments on McCarthy-era persecution of communists.
- East of Eden – This classic 1952 John Steinbeck novel is his most ambitious, drawing deeply from the Bible’s Book of Genesis in its depiction of life in early 1900s Central California.
- Fahrenheit 451 – Portraying a dystopian futurre of banned and burning books, Ray Bradbury’s influential novel about censorship and the dumbing down of information was released in 1953.
- Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin’s 1956 novel about social alienation was shocking at the time for its portrayal of homosexuality. It’s considered one of the great works of gay literature.
- The Haunting of Hill House – A seminal work of the literary ghost story genre, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 book delivers a depth, complexity, and true creepiness that’s rare and haunting.
- Howl and Other Poems – Allen Ginsberg’s landmark titular poem from this collection, published in 1956, is a major achievement of Beat literature and modern American poetry.
- I, Robot – This collection of short stories from science fiction master Isaac Asimov came out in 1950. It remains one of the most-read and most influential American sci-fi thrillers to this day.
- Invisible Man – Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece portrays life as an African American in the mid-century years, on the cusp of the beginning of the civil rights movement.
- The Lord of the Rings – Easily the most influential fantasy literature work, this J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy was written between 1937 and 1949 and published in three stages from 1954 to 1955.
- Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs’ best-known book, put out in 1959, is a Beat Generation classic that originally got itself in lots of trouble due to its subject matter and obscene language.
- The Old Man and the Sea – The last major Ernest Hemingway book published in his lifetime, this short 1951 novel re-established the author as a master of simple prose probing deep themes.
- On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s 1957 tale recounting his cross-country adventures introduced the world to Kerouac’s “bop prosody” style, and is the defining work of the Beat Generation.
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The Greatest Books Since 1950
This list is generated from 130 "best of" book lists from a variety of great sources. An algorithm is used to create a master list based on how many lists a particular book appears on. Some lists count more than others. I generally trust "best of all time" lists voted by authors and experts over user-generated lists. On the lists that are actually ranked, the book that is 1st counts a lot more than the book that's 100th. If you're interested in the details about how the rankings are generated and which lists are the most important(in my eyes) please check out the list details page .
If you have any comments, suggestions, or corrections please feel free to e-mail me.
1 . One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the 20th century's enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize–winning car...
- I've read this book
- I want to read this book
2 . Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The book is internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, middle aged Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and se...
3 . Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is a satirical, historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller, first published in 1961. The novel, set during the later stages of World War II from 1943 onwards, is frequently cite...
4 . Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The novel addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marx...
5 . To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses is...
6 . Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The novel, her fifth, is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison...
7 . The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian short-story writer, playwright and physician, considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers in the history of world literature. His career as a dram...
8 . Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonis...
9 . The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings is an epic high fantasy novel written by philologist and Oxford University professor J. R. R. Tolkien. The story began as a sequel to Tolkien's earlier, less complex children'...
10 . The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordea...
11 . Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A novel of great power that turns the world upside down. The Nigerian novelist Achebe reached back to the early days of his people's encounter with colonialism, the 1890's, though the white man and...
12 . The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka
The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka is a compilation of all Kafka's short stories. With the exception of Kafka's three novels (The Trial, The Castle and Amerika), this collection includes all of Ka...
13 . Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The novel is presented as a poem titled "Pale Fire" with commentary by a friend of the poet's. Together these elements form two story lines in which both authors are central characters. The int...
14 . The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on female black life during the 1930s in the Southern United States, addressing the numerous issues including their exceedingly low position ...
15 . Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies discusses how culture created by man fails, using as an example a group of British schoolboys stuck on a deserted island who try to govern themselves, but with disastrous results....
16 . The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery...
17 . On the Road by Jack Kerouac
On the Road is a largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. It is often considered a defining work of the post...
18 . The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
“For many successive generations now, ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and ‘Four Quartets’ have continued to excited readers and to inspire young poets. Teenagers still disc...
19 . Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
An anti-war science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim.
20 . The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist dystopian novel, a work of science fiction or speculative fiction, written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985...
21 . Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
The novel tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages praisin...
22 . Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted ...
23 . Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Waiting for Godot (pronounced /ˈɡɒdoʊ/) is a play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for someone named Godot. Godot's absence, as well as numerous other aspects...
24 . A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The title is taken from an old Cockney expression, "as queer as a clockwork orange" and alludes to the prevention of the main character's exercise of his free will through the use of a classical co...
25 . The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita (Russian: Ма́стер и Маргари́та) is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, woven around the premise of a visit by the Devil to the fervently atheistic Soviet Union. Many critics consi...
26 . The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Acclaimed as the greatest German novel written since the end of World War II, The Tin Drum is the autobiography of thirty-year-old Oskar Matzerath, who has lived through the long Nazi nightmare and...
27 . Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Bertha is the madwoman locked in the attic by her husband Rochester, the simmering Englishman whose children Jane has been hired to tutor. In Bronte's novel we lear...
28 . The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor
The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O'Connor's monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do n...
29 . Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Rabbit, Run depicts five months in the life of a 26-year-old former high school basketball player named Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, and his attempts to escape the constraints of his life.
30 . A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque novel written by John Kennedy Toole, published in 1980, 11 years after the author's suicide. The book was published through the efforts of writer Walker Perc...
31 . Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement is a 2001 novel by British author Ian McEwan. It tells the story of protagonist Briony Tallis's crime and how it changes her life, as well as those of her sister Cecilia and her lover Rob...
32 . White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This may be the first novel ever written that truly feels at home in our borderless, globalized, intermarried, post-colonial age, populated by "children with first and last names on a direct collis...
33 . The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
This book, as well as the couple that followed it, enters the realm of what Margaret Drabble in The Oxford Companion to English Literature has called Lessing's "inner space fiction", her work that ...
34 . Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
Before he gained wide fame as a novelist, Ernest Hemingway established his literary reputation with his short stories. This collection, The Short Stories, originally published in 1938, is definitiv...
35 . Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel by Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez that was first published in Spanish in 1985, with an English translation released in 1988 by Al...
36 . Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is a 1985 Western novel by American author Cormac McCarthy. It was McCarthy's fifth book, and was published by Random House. The narrative foll...
37 . The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections is a 2001 novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. It revolves around the troubles of an elderly Midwestern couple and their three adult children, tracing their lives from the mid...
38 . A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mo...
39 . One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Narrated by the gigantic but docile half-Indian "Chief" Bromden, who has pretended to be a deaf-mute for several years, the story focuses on the antics of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, a ...
40 . Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike
Rabbit Is Rich is a 1981 novel by John Updike. It is the third novel of the four-part series which begins with Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, and concludes with Rabbit At Rest. There is also a relat...
41 . The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is a best-selling novel written by Dominican-American author Junot Díaz. Although a work of fiction, the novel is set in New Jersey where Díaz was raised...
42 . The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
World War II has just begun and four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, are evacuated from London in 1940 to escape the Blitz. They are sent to live with Professor Digory Kirke, who ...
43 . The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer tells the story of Binx Bolling, a young stockbroker in post-war New Orleans. The decline of Southern traditions, the problems of his family and his traumatic experiences in the Korea...
44 . Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
Pedro Páramo is a short novel written by Juan Rulfo, originally published in 1955. In just the 23 FCE editions and reprintings, it had sold by November 1997 1,143,000 copies. Other editions in Mexi...
45 . The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A slender novel but far from flimsy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie enrolls the reader at Edinburgh's fictional Marcia Blaine School for Girls under the tutelage of one Jean Brodie, a magnetic, unco...
46 . Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago is a 20th century novel by Boris Pasternak, first published in 1957. The novel is named after its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, a medical doctor and poet. It tells the story of a man to...
47 . The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day (1989) is the third published novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of The Day is one of the most highly-regarded post-war British novels. It won the B...
48 . Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Austerlitz, the internationally acclaimed masterpiece by "one of the most gripping writers imaginable" (The New York Review of Books), is the story of a man?s search for the answer to his life?s ce...
49 . Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Rabbit Redux finds the former high-school basketball star, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, working a dead-end job and approaching middle age in the downtrodden and fictional city of Brewer, Pennsylvania, ...
50 . The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Leopard is a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that chronicles the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento. Published posthumously in 1958, after two rejections by the ...
With The Greatest Books
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25 Best Books From The 1950s · 1. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. · 2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) · 3. The Fellowship of The Ring by
1. The Catcher in the Rye by. J.D. Salinger. 3.81 avg rating — 3,285,321 ratings. score: 36,706, and 378 people voted Loading trans ; 2.
Books that shaped the 1950s ; Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953) ; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) ; The Cat in the Hat by Dr
The Books of the Century: 1950-1959 · 1. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book · 2. The Baby · 3. Gayelord Hauser, Look Younger, Live Longer · 4. Frank Bettger, How I
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) · Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) · E. B. · Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) · Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956) · Ayn
Big Books from the 1950s ; The Catcher in the Rye · The Catcher in the Rye · $8.99 ; Lolita · Lolita · $15.49 ; East of Eden · East of Eden · $15.99
1. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954) · 2. Charlotte's Web, E.B. · 3. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) · 4. East of Eden
1950Edit · The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson · Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes · Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway · The Wall by
Great American Literature from the '50s · A Raisin in the Sun · A Separate Peace · Atlas Shrugged · Breakfast at Tiffany's · The Cat in the Hat · Cat
The Greatest Books Since 1950 · 1 . One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez · 2 . Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov · 3 . Catch-22 by Joseph Heller · 4 .