Over the summer I completed reading the 1965 bestseller list for fiction. If you have followed my blog for a while you are familiar with what I call My Big Fat Reading Project. If you are new, go to the link to learn about why I read these best selling novels of long ago.
I have only reviewed three of the ten books here and I will provide the links to those reviews. Otherwise I will give you a brief synopsis of the other seven. The purpose of this post is to give my thoughts on how these books shed light on the events of 1965. It is my theory that in the 20th century the bestseller lists, which are based on sales, give evidence of the interests and concerns of fiction readers in any given year.
#1: The Source: Michener used the framework of an archeological dig at an ancient site in Israel to cover the vast history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religious themes always sold well in the early years of the 20th century, but had not been as popular in the 1960s. I would think this one was of interest because of the growing tensions in Israel in the decade.
Michener shows the connections between the religions and provides a history of their major conflicts. He made me think about religion, why humans need the idea of God, how religion had brought both order and chaos to our lives. An excellent read.
#2: Up The Down Stair Case: Bel Kaufman's book about her first year teaching in a public NYC high school is both hilarious and cautionary. The rules, the disorganization, the lack of supplies but most of all the challenges of making learning important to inner city teens, give what I was quite sure was an accurate picture of the scene. I wonder if LBJ's War on Poverty spiked an interest in this one.
#3: Herzog: This novel was also the #3 bestseller in 1964 and then won the National Book Award in 1965. It is his 6th novel but the first to make the top ten bestseller list. A middle aged intellectual is betrayed by his best friend who steals his wife. Bellow had cashed in on the midlife crisis plot before and since men still read fiction in the 60s, he did it again.
#4: The Looking Glass War: The Cold War produced the spy fiction genre and Le Carre first hit the bestseller list in 1964 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. By his own admission, after that success , le Carre wanted to tell the real truth about the state of British intelligence in the early 1960s. The novel is grim. He shows a nation no longer the world power it was. Intelligence has become a political endeavor inside the offices of the military and intelligence branches. He became the antidote to Ian Fleming and James Bond.
#5: The Green Berets: These guys were the sexiest of military intelligence operatives during the Vietnam War so it is no surprise that this revealing but patriotic inside look at how they did the job would be a bestseller. I was appalled.
#6: Those Who Love: Irving Stone's biographical novel of Abigail and John Adams and their roles in founding American democracy must have had high appeal to readers still reeling from the assassination of JFK. For me, reading it in 2020, it was an indictment of how we have failed to keep those ideals. To his credit, John Adams as portrayed here had his doubts about that very thing at the time.
#7: The Man With the Golden Gun: This was the final James Bond novel. It takes place in Jamaica, though begins with Bond being brainwashed by the Russians after his capture in the prior book, then being given electric shock therapy by MI6 to make him fit for another mission. Again, the Cold War makes for bestsellers.
#8: Hotel: Arthur Hailey made his career with this first top ten bestseller. It is set in a famous New Orleans hotel which has seen better days and is now facing a hostile takeover by a hotel chain. Racism plays a large part in the story and that made it ripe for the times in 1965.
#9: The Ambassador: This was Morris West's third top ten bestseller. The second book on this list set in Vietnam, it is a fictionalized account of the months leading up to the CIA backed coup and assassination of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. The CIA giveth and the CIA taketh away when their implanted rulers stop playing by US rules. The novel does a fair job at showing the complexities of Vietnamese politics at the time and the toll this took on an American ambassador to the country. It captures that moment when LBJ began to plan his major escalation of the war.
#10: Don't Stop the Carnival is one of Herman Wouk's whimsical novels. A Broadway promoter decides to get away from the constant pressure of his job and the harsh New York winter by buying a hotel on a fictional Caribbean island that feels a lot like Jamaica. What was it about Jamaica in 1965?. It is a rip roaring read with some cringe inducing views of the natives who of course are Black and the many gay people who have taken refuge there from the homophobia of America.
So there you have it. Have you read any of these books? I felt they gave me a pretty good picture of some of the major issues and concerns in America in 1965. I am now reading the novels that won awards in that year and will create a similar post when I finish those.