I am more often than not devoted to contemporary fiction, the shiny and the new. But I do read some older books too. The metrics in my annual reading stats include the number of books I’ve read published before I was born in 1960 and those between 1960 and 1999: they prove I’m not totally addicted to the latest titles!
This series picks out some of those old books that I’ve read, sorted by publishing date, not reading dates which can be any time. You can read the previous posts here: 1930s; 1940s; 1970s.
This time, we’re looking at the 1960s, the decade in which I was a child. My trusty spreadsheet showed 53 titles read from that decade since I started keeping records, so once again, in order to achieve a spread across my reading at just one for each per year, I’ve had to leave out some cracking good books. NB: ‘Buy’ links all go to Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
1960: The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
My favourite Spark and one of her most madcap comedic novellas. A young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then he disappears. Is Dougal Douglas the devil or just a very naughty boy? Spark’s prose is sparse and there’s not a word wasted, it’s also very funny (and way better in its brevity than A Confederacy of Dunces which has some similar themes). BUY at Blackwell’s.
1961: The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
My late mum was a huge fan of Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and I inherited the full set from her (all ex-library purchases). Although I enjoyed the book, I kept having to stop and look things up, be it ancient Scottish words, a French proverb, a reference to myths and legends of antiquity, Dunnett’s scholar-ship on the mid-16thC is never in doubt. Gradually though, I could immerse myself in the text, concentrating on the plot and character rather than looking up all the learned references and consequently I could up my pace of reading. And Lymond, the Master of Culter, who has snuck back into Scotland, with price on his head, is a huge character indeed! Full review in two parts here and here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1962: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
What can I say about Burgess’s most notorious novel that hasn’t already been said? This story of a teenage gang leader, Alex, who with and his droogs, Pete, Georgie and Dim, hangs around the Korova Milkbar and terrorises the local neighbourhood, raping and pillaging is a coming of age story first and foremost. Alex finally growing up in spite of the treatment the authorities mete to him. Burgess’s language, the ‘nadsat’ slang used by the boys, soon kicks into the reader’s understanding. It retains a freshness that ensures it remains ‘horrowshow’. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1963: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre
This novel is in my top ten ever read, and is the book that set the standard for cold-war spycraft, set shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected. Alec Leamas is due to come back in from the cold after spying in Berlin for years. He’s seen it all, and survived – so far, but Control has one last mission for him before he can come home for good. In a big game of bluff, Control and Leamas set up a plan to catch Mundt, the German spymaster which will involve Leamas playing a disgraced ex-spook ready to betray his country. Masterful. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1964: The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch
One of Murdoch’s slighter novels, this was my only choice for this year. It’s her take on the traditional returning home for a family funeral only to discover that there’s more trouble at t’mill. The dead mother’s presence haunts the novel throughout (not as a physical ghost though). It’s a tragicomedy, and surprisingly pacy for Murdoch. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1965: Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster
Again, I inherited my mum’s early paperback of this seminal novel of London loving. Georgy is a wonderful creation. She’s enjoying life, but you do feel that underneath she wants to be a homemaker, she’s waiting for her prince to come. In her early twenties, she has her independence, but she can always go home. What I always find interesting in reading books from this period though is the sense of ‘carpe diem’ that pervades them. The young things in these dramas may not be so far from the kitchen sink, but they do live for the moment, and that keeps it fresh. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1966: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
This novel is that rarity – classic SF that’s a three-hanky book. It’s a story about IQ vs EQ – when a young man of limited intelligence who perfectly happily works in a bakery undergoes a treatment to improve his IQ, previously tried out on a mouse, Algernon. You can guess what will happen; as Charlie’s intelligence grows, he’s not emotionally equipped to handle it. One of my favourite SF novels. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1967: The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
Alan Garner’s sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen sees another adventure for twins Colin and Susan who were ten in the first book. Garner lives and breathes the landscape, mythology and history of Alderley Edge, and this story sees a battle between the elves and the goblin folk, Susan will be posessed by an evil spirit and Colin kidnapped by the goblins. These books were amongst my favourites as a child, and Garner’s writing stands up to adult reading. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1968: True Grit by Charles Portis
What a great western this novel is, with such a terrific heroine and narrator in young Mattie Ross, who looks back on the adventure she had when she was fourteen on her quest to find Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer. The man she selects to help her is, of course,
John Wayne, Rooster Coburn. The novel feels really authentic, and the dialogue is absolutely sparkling, Mattie besting any man who’ll take her on in the verbals department. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
1969: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. The narrator, (surely a metafictional Vonnegut himself) tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once. Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting. A great book group read as there is so much to discuss. Full review here. BUY at Blackwell’s.
I hope you enjoyed the tour of my reading from the 1960s.
Do you have any highlights to recommend from particular years of this decade?
21 thoughts on “Reading the Decades #4: The 1960s”
I really enjoyed your post — it was lots of fun to see what you’ve read and a great reminder of some old favorites of my own. Over the span of several decades, I’ve read six of your ten. My own favorite from your list is True Grit, which I think is one of the great American novels that doesn’t get nearly the praise it deserves (pehaps this is changing. A year or so ago Donna Tartt did a great short piece on Portis in the NY Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/books/charles-portis-true-grit-dog-of-the-south-gringos-masters-of-atlantis.html ). Have you seen the Coen Brothers more recent movie treatment? In many ways, it’s more faithful to Portis’ book that the older movie.
I also loved Georgy Girl, book & movie, although it’s been years since I’ve read/seen either. As you note, coming of age novels from that period do have such a carpe diem spirit to them, sense of the spontaneity of life, that keeps them fresh eve today.
Clockwork Orange is another favorite, which I’ve re-read a few times over the years. I love Burgess’s aritficial language, and the sense of passing from bafflement in the first few pages to rapid comprehension as the mind becomes accustomed to it. Aside from the serious questions Burgess raises, reading Clockwork is a great lesson on how one should sometimes let go in a novel, quit trying to parse every work and just swim in the narrative flow. And then there’s sociopathic Alex himself and how one’s sympathies (at least mine) shift with respect to what happens to him. Another classic movie BTW.
I hadn’t thought of Flowers for Algernon in years but I totally agree with your assessment that it’s a three-hanky read.
Le Carre’s Spy and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 are two more classics, both of which I’ve thought of re-reading. This is particularly true of Vonnegut, as it’s been so many years since my first introduction to his work.
Although I very much like both Iris Murdoch & Muriel Spark, I’ve not read either of the two novels you mention. I’ll definitely check them out. I’ve also missed out on Dunnett, although, alas, the optimal time for me to read her work is perhaps over, as I’m not terribly into historical fiction these days. Garner, too, is another author that I haven’t much read, although Ive a copy of Red Shift (NYRB edition) waiting for my attention!
Again, thanks for a great post and a wonderful review of an very interesting decade.
I’m loving your in depth comments Janakay! True Grit is an absolutely brilliant novel – my edition has a Tartt intro. Must read Portis’ other book(s). Loved both movies – I grew up with the Wayne, so it’ll always remain high in my affection, but the Coen brothers also can do little wrong in my book.
I’m not such a fan of the Clockwork Orange film. I have read several other Burgess novels, but will always return to that one.
That Spark novella is a classic, the Murdoch not so. I failed to move on from the first Dunnett, the second has a slow beginning and that’s where I stalled. I’m not a fan of classic historical fiction either.
Garner is one of my favourite authors. He’s an interesting man too, I went to hear him talk and was mesmerised, erudite and considered. He has a new novella out this autumn, which I’ll be reading.
All in all, a pretty good decade of writing! Love your selections.
I remember selling loads of copies of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels in the ’80s. I wonder if she’s still popular.
She has a huge fanbase, which is fanatical too, as I discovered when I posted my reviews of the first Lymond book. Sadly, as I’m not a big reader of historical, I’ve not progressed with these books (they’ve very wordy!)
Dorothy Dunnett’s novels are still popular. There is a Dorothy Dunnett Society, with a beautiful quarterly magazine for members and there are a number of online discussion groups around the world.
I had a work colleague who was a big fan of Dunnett and persuaded me to try her. It was so long ago that I can’t remember what it was – just that I enjoyed it but never felt compelled to read her again. This particular one doesn’t appeal but I might go searching for a different title just out of curiousity
She wrote two big series – The Lymond ones set in 16thC Scotland/Europe and a longer series The House of Niccolo set in 15thC Renaissance Europe. I don’t feel compelled to read more by her either, indeed I only really read the one because my mum had loved these books so.
It would have been part of The House of Niccolo that I read because I was fascinated by the Medici dynasty
I’d recommend Sarah Dunant’s novels about the Borgias. She is one historical author I do still really enjoy.
I’ve heard that name but never tried her – shall have a look when I next am allowed to browse the library
So interesting! I’ve only read the Gaarner (decades ago) although I do have the Spark and Le Carre lurking!
You have treasures in store Karen.
We recently watched the John Wayne movie and it made me interested to read the book. Glad to have your opinion – it sounds excellent!
The John Wayne movie was a Wayne vehicle, so Rooster is slightly less prominent in the book, which is all narrated from Mattie’s PoV and is wonderful.
I almost never read anything published between c.1910 and c.1980 but I have read a few of these 60s classics, mostly for work! I can’t say I enjoyed either Flowers for Algernon or The Clockwork Orange, which I read for research, but I do love Alan Garner.
I love all of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels, but of the two series the House of Niccolo is my favourite. Wordy novels indeed, but rewarding reads.
I wish I were minded more to continue reading, but I don’t really have an interest in this period, nor enough time to devote to them really. I’m glad to have read the first Lymond book though, so I know what her fandom is all about. 😀
I find some historical periods much more interesting than others 😊. How boring it would be if we all had identical taste in reading.