Thursday, July 05, 2018


A few of you who follow the blog have expressed interest in a summary of the Bestseller List of 1964. I completed reading the 10 top bestsellers about a week ago, so here are my thoughts.

The List:

When I started My Big Fat Reading Project in 2002 I was on my way out of a cult where we were discouraged from reading the news and watching TV. (Please don’t ask me questions about this. I am writing my story and one day it will be public.) In any case, I was starved for pop culture and had little to no idea of what had been going on in the world for the past 10 years. I had always been someone who learned from books but at the time I wasn’t looking very far into the world except for my own country. I figured that the American fiction bestsellers would be a way to catch up. That is why I began to read these lists.

Since I also planned to write a story about how I ended up where I did, I decided to go back to my beginnings. Then I went back even further to the year when my parents met: 1940. It wasn’t a bad plan because World War II was a turning point in modern life. One way or another, we are all children of that conflict. Along the way I added other books to my reading lists. I read 22 books from 1940. For 1963 I read about 50. Like an atomic explosion my lists have mushroomed and I have branched out to reading books from other countries as well as history.

The idea though has not changed. I don’t know if it is still valid at this point in the 21st century but I have found it possible to get a sense of the 20th century from reading books.

The big topic in the 1964 list is the Cold War. It underlies or influences the stories in seven of the books: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Armageddon, The Man, You Only Live Twice, The Martyred, Convention, and even This Rough Magic. This topic came up in just three novels from the 1962 list, two in 1963.

The next most common topic, though it overlaps with some of those mentioned in the above paragraph, are three books focused on American politics: Armageddon, The Man and Convention.

In earlier years books about the two World Wars often dominated the lists. In 1964 only Armageddon, about the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, and The Martyred, about the Korean War, made the list. I consider the Korean War a direct outcome of WWII. Now instead of looking back at war, we are looking ahead to a possible final war.

Also in earlier years, religion and particularly Christian stories sold well. 1964 saw only two: The Rector of Justin and The Martyred.

Spycraft is probably an up and coming bestselling subject in the ensuing decades. The few spy books in earlier lists were some of Graham Greene’s novels. This list has two: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and You Only Live Twice.

The opening events of the sexual revolution can be found in the lists going back several years but 1964 wasn’t that sexy. Of course it is hard to have fiction without sex but as far as changing mores go all we got was Candy and Herzog.

Another popular subject in the 1950s and early 1960s was class conflict. I see that falling away and in fact only The Rector of Justin took it on in 1964.

Personal growth began being an American concern in the postwar years. It showed up in this list in Herzog and The Rector of Justin. Racism had a slow year with The Man standing alone in spotlighting it. Romance, another former big seller, has taken a back seat, found only in Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic where it combines with the one mystery book. Historical fiction is nowhere to be found on the list.

I have found it true in both in the 1940s and 1950s that a shift takes place about mid-decade and the phenomenon has occurred again demonstrating how the Cold War was so thoroughly on the minds of Americans that it sold books!

Now you have read my thoughts. Do you have anything to add or even challenge? I would be happy to hear from you.


  1. What an interesting concept - studying the culture of the day by reading the best sellers of that particular year. It would seem to be a valid technique for getting a mental handle on the popular culture of the day, limited to a degree, I suppose, by the output of the writers of the period. Are they writing about the topics that concern people in that day or reacting to some past concern? Still, it's a way of rummaging through the attic of the mind of that discrete time frame, and I think you are brilliant to have hit upon it.

    1. It has a partial workability, more so for me because I love to read anyway. In actuality, I stole the idea from a college syllabus I ran across on the internet way back in 2002. It was for a sociology course. So I copied all the lists and off I went. The bestseller lists in the 20th century were a strange alchemy of literature, the book business and marketing. I find it so curious that these 10 books were the ones that sold the most copies, but I do think the topics were both: ones that concerned people in the present or appealed to their ideas of the past.

  2. Quite an interesting analysis Judy. Something I haven't thought too much about -- themes by decades etc. I guess you're right about the Cold War being big in fiction at that time in history, those all seem like good writers from the '64 list. I was trying to think of what else came out around then in the early 60s that I've read .... & perhaps only Revolutionary Road came to mind (1961). The disillusionment with the American Dream theme.

    1. Glad you found it interesting. Yes Revolutionary Road did express that disillusionment, along with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and others. That was a common theme in the late 50s and early 60s I found.

  3. Wow! You are one fascinating person! ;-) I have been curious for a while about your impressions. I hope you make these analyses a common occurrence. I can't add or challenge anything since I've read way less than you have, and I trust your notes anyways. :-)

    It only seems logical that the Cold War would become the main concern from the middle of the decade and the ensuing years, as that phenomenon was at its apex, and most perilous in those years (e.g., the Missile Crisis, the Kennedy years). I imagine that spy fiction took hold of the imagination until the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. I guess we'll have to wait and see what other patterns emerge as you move on to the next year in your BFRP.

    1. Why thank you Carmen. I will keep up the impressions since everyone seems to like what I did. It will take me several more months to get through the rest of my 1964 list: the award winners followed by what I call "others." Then I will see what comes next in the bestsellers.