My picks for the 16 most iconic books from the 60s are sure to take you back in time and ignite your nostalgia!
The 1960s brought us a lot of things and was a time of social and political upheaval which is reflected in the media of the time – books are no exception.
The most famous books of the 60s are incredibly innovative, playing with structure and form that has had a lasting impact on storytelling today.
While some of the novels on our list discuss themes that are still relevant today, they are also pretty dated in their use of language and may offend the sensibilities of modern readers.
From incredible sci-fi stories to riveting non-fiction and historical novels, below you’ll find 16 of the most iconic books from the 1960s written by famous authors from all over the world. Let’s get into some truly classic, ground-breaking books!
What Was Literature Like In The 1960s?
The literature of the 1960s is most commonly characterized by a blurring of fiction and fact, and journalism and novels. A major example of this is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, written in 1965.
As the decade went on, literature became just as turbulent as the political and social happenings of the time.
1960s literature in the US reflected what was happening in the country, discussing issues such as gender, sexuality, feminism, race, and war, and they were just as critical of these sociopolitical events as the young protestors of the decade.
Books like To Kill A Mockingbird and I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing tackled issues of racism while the civil rights movement was gaining ground.
Meanwhile, The Feminine Mystique was a foundational text for second-wave feminism and A Single Man preceded the Stonewall riots, a groundbreaking moment for LGBT rights.
Slaughterhouse Five, while containing sci-fi elements and bizarre plot points, is a powerful anti-war novel written in a time dominated by anti-war protests.
To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, telling the story of Scout, and her widowed, lawyer father Atticus.
Maycomb is a quiet town until the community is rocked to the core when a black man is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white girl. Atticus steps up to defend the man in court.
During the tumultuous trial, Scout starts to learn important lessons about prejudice, morality, society, and the cruel realities of the adult world, but with the guidance of her father, she can hopefully make it through this ordeal with her faith in the world intact.
This Nobel Prize-winning novel is one of the most famous books in the world, and while there are areas where the theme of racism is left unexplored, it is still a great starting point for discussions of racism in society.
- A timeless story about important themes such as racism.
- Well fleshed-out characters.
- Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel is beloved for its warmth and humor.
- Many readers would like an epilogue, particularly for Atticus’ story.
Meg Murry and her little brother, Charles Wallace, are struggling to fit in at school, and their father’s disappearance is making matters worse.
But then their mysterious neighbor, Mrs. Whatsit, tells them about a strange object called a tesseract that can help them find their father, and Meg can’t turn down the opportunity.
Meg, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin suddenly find themselves on an adventure spanning access space and time, meeting fascinating creatures and people along the way.
They also get caught up in a battle between good and evil that forces them to stand up for themselves and protect each other to survive.
One of the most popular children’s books of the decade, A Wrinkle in Time is just the beginning of the Time Quintet.
- An amazing combination of fantasy, myth, and science fiction.
- An empowering feminism message.
- Doesn’t fall into the normal traps of time-travel stories.
- Some readers found the flow was a bit lacking.
Set in a dystopian, anarchic Britain controlled by criminal gangs, A Clockwork Orange tells the story of Alex, a 15-year-old delinquent who loves to engage in acts of ultra-violence and listening to Beethoven.
Alex is the leader of a gang of ‘droogs’ and takes them on a number of escapades. These often end up with at least one person being seriously injured.
But when a robbery ends with a fatality, Alex finds himself at the front of the criminal courts.
Now facing a long prison sentence, Alex is chosen to take part in a new, experimental procedure that involves aversion therapy. When he is ‘cured’ of his sociopathy, he is released back into society but the results are disastrous.
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most controversial books on this list due to its graphic violence, but what makes A Clockwork Orange so fascinating is its use of ‘Nadsat.’
This is a complicated collection of fictional words and slang that is invented solely for the novel. While this takes a while to get used to, the more you read, the more you’ll pick it up.
- A very thought-provoking read.
- An amazing twist in the last few chapters.
- Although the characters are violent and often nihilistic, Burgess still makes them engaging to read.
- The language and vocabulary used can be quite difficult to understand.
This famous novel tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family and their triumphs, struggles, and failures.
The patriarch of the family – Jose Arcadio Buendia – built the town of Macondo in the 1820s, inspired by his dream of a ‘city of mirrors.’
As time goes on, the family remains mostly isolated, but they are occasionally visited by a group of travelers who give them artifacts from the world outside Macondo.
Although the town initially thrives, it eventually becomes less and less of a utopia. It’s almost destroyed by a 5-year storm, and this had a negative impact on the Buendia family.
The scope of One Hundred Years of Solitude can only be described as epic and is ideal for fans of magical realism who would love to read this cornerstone of the genre if they haven’t already.
One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t just one of the most iconic books of the 60s, but one of the most influential works of literature in general.
- A varied array of characters.
- Blends realism and mysticism perfectly.
- Contains timelessly beautiful writing.
- Some readers found the plot confusing and difficult to keep up with.
In 1953, Esther Greenwood has recently graduated from college and has been given what seems like a dream internship at a fictitious NYC magazine.
However, Esther soon feels like her sanity is disintegrating, and she finds herself slipping deeper and deeper into unstoppable depression.
All of her interactions in New York City start to feel meaningless and she believes that returning to her Massachusetts home will help.
Due to its raw depiction of mental health, The Bell Jar is often celebrated as one of the most important books of the 1960s.
However, like most books of the past, The Bell Jar has problematic elements that do often get forgotten about today, such as anti-Asian racism, homophobia, and fatphobia.
- Profound portrayals of mental health, especially considering the time it was published.
- Packed with beautiful, powerful metaphors for the protagonist’s state of mind.
- Although this is a book with a very dark subject matter, Plath’s humor shines through.
- Contains discriminatory language that might be off-putting to modern readers.
At the start of the 1960s, America was still preoccupied with the image of the traditional housewife and the belief that a woman’s place is in the home and the kitchen in particular. But Betty Friedan thought this belief was extremely dangerous.
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan blames commercials, the education system, and women’s magazines for a problem that ‘has no name,’ but which she calls the Feminine Mystique.
The book was revolutionary at a time when second-wave feminism was being ignited and became essential reading for feminists. It catapulted Friedan to worldwide fame and sold millions of copies.
- A truly revolutionary book about feminism that still resonates today.
- Friedan argues her points effectively and in an engaging way.
- The book focuses mainly on middle-aged white women, so maybe not all women will relate to it.
- Some comments made in the book feel very dated today.
Even today, no child would say no to a tour of a chocolate factory where you can sail on chocolate rivers, drink a beverage so fizzy it can give you the ability to fly, and eat a whole meal in a single stick of gum, and that’s why Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is one of the most iconic children’s books to come out of the 1960s.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tells the story of the titular Charlie Bucket, who wins a golden ticket – essentially a free pass to tour the whimsical and mysterious Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Charlie comes from a humble background and is grounded and kind.
Meanwhile, the other children on the tour come from privileged backgrounds and are spoiled, selfish, and disrespectful. Surprises are in store for all of them in the chocolate factory!
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sold 10,000 copies in its first week of release, and Roald Dahl’s razor-sharp wit and fizzing imagination entertained children while teaching them important life lessons too, and all without talking down to them.
Dahl stated numerous times that he wanted his books to open children up to the magic of reading, and to not be intimidated by reading. His books definitely did just that.
- Contains vivid, unforgettable characters.
- A timeless children’s story.
- Has great pacing to keep children engaged.
- Some people find Charlie a boring protagonist.
Arrakis, a hostile desert planet that is home to giant worms that can gulp down entire ships, is the sole planet that produces Mélange.
The House Atreides have been sent to this dangerous planet by the emperor to take over from the old and untrustworthy House Harkonnen as caretakers of the ‘spice’ planet.
However, they need to guard it as well, as the Mélange is capable of everything from allowing interstellar travel to prolonging life. As the saying goes, whoever controls the spice, controls the universe.
Needless to say, House Harkonnen is not happy with being replaced and decides to enact vengeance on Duke Leto Atreides and his house, including his son Paul, who has powers he is yet to realize.
Paul Atreides escapes to the desert, but can he be a hero to the Indigenous people of Arrakis?
Dune is a sprawling novel in both its scope and word count and is one of the most influential sci-fi novels ever written, winning the first ever Nebula Award for Best Novel.
- A rich, detailed sci-fi tale.
- Handles complex themes masterfully.
- One of the most influential sci-fi books ever.
- The length of the book might be off-putting to some readers.
In the early hours of November 15, 1959, four members of the Clutter family were brutally murdered in, as the title of the book suggests, cold blood. The murders rock the quiet Kansas town where they took place.
When Truman Capote hears about this horrendous crime, he joins forces with his childhood best friend (Harper Lee) to travel to Holcomb, Kansas, and look into the case.
Capote wrote the book over a course of 6 years, and his work paid off as it became one of the most famous non-fiction books from the 1960s, making observations on the case by following the trial and interviewing neighbors and friends.
Capote is still considered a pioneer of the non-fiction novel and New Journalism, as In Cold Blood does embellish real events.
If you like books set in the 60s and 50s, and are also a fan of criminal investigations and courtroom proceedings, then In Cold Blood is going to be your new favorite book.
- Gives a fascinating insight into the justice system in the 1950s and 60s.
- Combines the form of the novel and investigative journalism beautifully.
- Detailed without being voyeuristic.
- The subject matter may be upsetting to some readers.
Published four years before the Stonewall riots brought about the modern gay civil rights era, A Single Man was incredibly ahead of its time.
It tells the story of George, an English, middle-aged university lecturer who lives in California and is dealing with the loss of his partner, Jim, who has recently been killed in a car accident.
The story takes place over a single day, and while George is an admirable figure he is also incredibly angry, not just due to his grief but because the suburban society he lives in refused to accept his and Jim’s relationship.
As George tells his class: “People with freckles aren’t thought of as a minority by the nonfreckled. They aren’t a minority in the sense we’re talking about.
And why aren’t they? Because a minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of a threat to the majority, real or imaginary.”
A Single Man rocked the establishment, especially at a time when gay men in many US states could be horrifically punished for engaging in sexual relationships in the privacy of their homes.
A Single Man is a classic piece of LGBT literature and addresses the rights of LGBT people head-on.
- Contains beautiful, breathtaking prose.
- A profound portrayal of grief.
- Many readers enjoy the fact that the whole book takes place over the course of 24 hours.
- Some people found the inclusion of Charlotte as a character unnecessary.
Silence is a novel that takes place in 17th century Japan where Christian persecution is taking place.
Two Jesuit priests named Francisco Garrpe and Sebastiao Rodrigues come to Japan from Portugal in search of Sebastiao’s mentor, a priest named Ferreira as they have heard he has renounced his Christian faith.
However, they discover that Japanese Christians have gone into hiding and that those who are found by security officials are forced to renounce their faith or be put to death.
When Francisco and Sebastiao are captured, their faith is tested in a way it never has been before.
Widely considered to be one of the best books to come out of Japan in the 60s, this historical fiction novel has an epistolary form in the beginning – the story is told through journal entries and letters – and third-person narrative later on.
- A challenging and masterful portrayal of faith.
- A sobering read that will definitely move you.
- Beautifully written.
- Some readers found the novel had a slow start.
After the Earth has been ravaged by another world war, humans now live in colonies away from Earth but have left the poorer inhabitants of the planet behind.
To help the colonies – both constructing them and performing a servile role – artificial androids are designed to resemble humans and are also sent off-world.
However, six of the latest android models have gone rogue and returned to Earth, and because of their resemblance to humans, tracking them down is almost impossible.
Bounty hunter Rick Deckard has been tasked to track down and ‘retire’ these robots in return for a rich bounty. But while he is tracking these androids down, he starts to question his own existence, particularly if he’s an android too.
Possibly the most famous novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is one of the most iconic books of the 1960s and was adapted into the iconic movie Blade Runner, although the two pieces of media are very different.
- Dick’s writing is captivating and thought-provoking.
- A sci-fi story with a philosophical touch.
- A somber, fascinating sci-fi setting that draws you in.
- Some readers found the antagonists unconvincing.
Set in 1965 when Ghana is now an independent country, an anonymous railway clerk battles with his principles when corruption and rule-breaking that only serves the individual is rife.
When he turns down a bribe, he feels guilty and ashamed for refusing something that could help his family despite making a morally good decision.
His wife is also unhappy that he did not get involved in the schemes that would definitely improve their situation.
The man can’t stop thinking about his former classmate who is entrenched in corrupt activities and is able to live a much more lavish life because of it.
Can he keep hold of his honor and integrity while the people who have forfeited theirs leave him behind?
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a profoundly satirical story set in the early days of independence in Ghana, and is one of the most tragic books on our list.
- Clearly written prose that puts you right in the moment.
- Gives you valuable insight into a point of history you may not know much about.
- An engaging story you won’t be able to put down.
- Some readers found the pacing too slow.
It’s safe to say that Maya Angelou had a very eventful life. She had many jobs, from being a showgirl to a director, and a foreign correspondent, so it’s no wonder that she has told her life story over seven memoirs.
I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing is her first memoir chronicling her childhood, and finishes when she is 17 and has given birth to her first child.
While the book features heavy subject matter, it is Angelou’s portrayal of how she made it through life in the extremely racist Deep South in the 1930s and 40s that makes this such a compelling read.
- A deeply personal story that will undoubtedly move you.
- Angelou’s prose is beautiful and almost poetic.
- Provides an in-depth account of the life of a woman of color in the Deep South.
- Some readers found the ending rather abrupt, but that’s because this is the first memoir of Maya Angelou’s in a series of seven.
Billy Pilgrim has led a pretty extraordinary life. He served in World War II and survived the bombing of Dresden, and has been abducted by aliens to be an exhibit in a human zoo.
But now, he’s unstuck in time, and while this would be disorientating and challenging for anybody because Billy didn’t exactly have his life together before it’s even more unnerving.
Slaughterhouse Five jumps all over Billy’s timeline. In one scene he’s young and fighting in World War II, and in the next scene he’s old and retired, but he’s trying his hardest to make sense of what’s going on.
Slaughterhouse Five isn’t just an acclaimed piece of science fiction, but anti-war literature too, written by one of the best writers of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut. Billy is the very definition of an unreliable narrator.
- A great read for those who enjoy the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope.
- Wonderfully balances the ridiculous and the philosophical.
- Has an intriguing, quirky plot.
- Some readers find Vonnegut’s repetitive and purposefully confusing writing a bit off-putting.
Philip Roth’s novel about the lusty, mother-obsessed young Jewish bachelor Alexander Portnoy ignited a raging fire of controversy when it was published in 1969, and made Philip Roth a household name, and somewhat of a rockstar in the literary world.
Portnoy’s Complaint was called ‘one of the dirtiest books ever published,’ by the New Yorker and was even declared a ‘prohibited import’ by the Australian government, and was particularly criticized (and celebrated) for its candid portrayal of teenage sexuality.
Besides the raunchy, candid subject matter, Portnoy’s Complaint is also fascinating for the form the novel takes. It is basically one long, no-holds-barred monologue between Portnoy and his therapist.
- Readers have long praised Portnoy’s Complaint for its humor.
- A novel filled with vivid imagery.
- Has a clever framing device.
- Although the protagonist is meant to be divisive, some readers may find him off-putting.
There you have it! 16 of the most iconic books from the 1960s. From historical fiction to sci-fi, the 1960s was a decade brimming with earth-shattering innovative work that readers still enjoy today.
The 1960s also pioneered New Journalism, that combined journalism with fiction, and echoes of it still exist in the true crime media of today.
The literature of the 1960s also reflected the turbulent times in which it was written, with themes of revolution and social justice.
The counterculture of the 1960s wasn’t just limited to music, film, and fashion.
These 16 iconic books prove that the movement was having an effect on literature too, with writers playing around with structure and breaking the conventions of the traditional novel.
No matter what your tastes in novels, I hope this list of influential 1960s books has something for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Was The Most Prevalent Literary Movement Of The 1960s?
New Journalism is definitely the literary movement that defined the 1960s and 1970s and pushed the boundaries of non-fiction writing and traditional journalism.
It combined investigative journalism with the techniques normally associated with fiction writing while writing about real-life events.
What Was 1960s Society Like?
The 1960s were one of the most divisive and turbulent decades in history, and are defined by the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Vietnam War and the protests surrounding it, the counter-cultural movements, and the growing ‘generation gap.’
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