Top Ten Boomer Books? A hit-and-miss list

You were either on the bus, or you were off the bus...

You were either on the bus, or you were off the bus… published this (but it seems to have disappeared since I first wrote a draft of this post several days ago — sorry) and attributed it to AARP, although I can’t find anything about it at that site. Anyway, it’s supposedly books that “defined a generation,” yadda-yadda:

  1. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). OK. A model for alienation, which would be big in the 60s. But didn’t it first affect people who were older than boomers?
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). OK. Again, but… I see this as a timeless American classic, and don’t particularly associate it with boomers. Wouldn’t you agree, Scout?
  3. Catch-22by Joseph Heller (1961). ABSOLUTELY. It doesn’t get more definitive than this.
  4. The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan (1963). I wouldn’t know. If you’re one of the boomers who became a feminist, maybe so.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, (1964). Yeah, I think so. It made a big impression on me, I can testify. Although we were assigned to read it in school, which takes off some of the luster. Odd thing, showing the way we thought in those days and at that age: I read this during the 1970-71 school year. And to me, what I was reading was history, tales of the way things were long ago. But some of the later events in the book occurred in the ’60s, I believe. Malcolm X had not died until 1965. But you youngsters should go back and look at pictures of the way people dressed, and the way cars looked, and listen to the music of the time, in 1965. Then do the same for 1971. You’ll see a much, much wider difference than between now and 2008. Or even, say, 1995. The times in which we live are far less dynamic. So much happened that six years was a long time then.
  6. Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann (1966). NO. I can’t say why, but I think of this as a book that the older generation read at the time, not boomers. I don’t ever remember any of my friends talking about it, but it was out there, and I just thought of it as an old people thing.
  7. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe (1969). YES!!! Because, you know, Wolfe would use extra exclamation points. If you had to pick only one boomer book, this might be it. Even though it’s not from a boomer perspective, it puts the era under a microscope and pulls you in doing so.
  8. The Godfather, by Mario Puzo (1969). Yeah, I think so. I read this the same summer as Catch-22 (that would be 1970). My only doubt is that while it’s a cultural icon of the era — or actually, the movie is — it’s not really about anything that has to do with the time that boomers grew up. Neither was Catch-22, but that helped define a certain ’60s sensibility. Puzo didn’t do that. He was more about posing timeless questions about what happens when we revert from a society of laws to one of men.
  9. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach (1970). NO. Did not read it, did not consider reading it for a second, because everything I ever heard about it made me want to run the other way.
  10. Love Story, by Erich Segal (1970). Oh, God, NO. Went on a double-date in Hawaii to see the Steve Miller Band (in the “Your Saving Grace” phase, before they got all commercial), and it got rained out. So we said, “Let’s go to a movie.” The girls wanted to see the film version of this, so we went. It was as bad as I had imagined, and the emotional manipulation at the end just made me angry. After it was over, the other guy and I had to stand around in the lobby for 20 minutes while the girls cried in the bathroom. And my date was a really cool girl, too, but she succumbed. So I’ve got nothing good to say about this. And no, didn’t read the book. (This and the seagull book occupy their own unsavory category in my mind.)

There are some in the honorable mentions that should have made the list, such as Fahrenheit 451, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, and maybe Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I’m not sure about the last one, because I didn’t read it. I figured the book couldn’t improve on the title, so why bother? Books that should be on the list:

  • Stranger in a Strange Land — This would be right up there with Catch-22 and Acid Test. Maybe more so. A real cult book for a generation — although, as a literary work, not as good as the other two.
  • On the Road — Yeah, it’s about guys who were much older than boomers, and is rooted in their cultural references, but this had a big collective impact on us. We saw it as a wellspring of our times. After all, it shared a main character with Acid Test — Neal Cassidy.
  • Something by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not a huge fan of his, but although he wasn’t of the generation (he and my father-in-law both served in the 106th Infantry Division, and were both captured at the Battle of the Bulge), he was definitely an important author for boomers. Maybe Cat’s Cradle, I’m thinking.
  • Fahrenheit 451 — Between this and 1984 and other things we read, we tended to eye the future with a certain amount of suspicion. I’d toss Brave New World into that category as well, except that it came out in 1932. I remember a huge debate we had in my English class over whether one would want to live in the world Huxley envisioned. I was shocked by those who said “yes,” and saw nothing wrong with a society given over totally to hedonistic materialism. I argued the other side so strenuously that some people in the class tried to recruit me for the National Forensic League. They wanted me on their debating team. I declined the honor.
  • Dune — Maybe. Sci-Fi fans would probably rate it higher than Stranger In a Strange Land, but the Heinlein novel makes the list because it was such a free-love, hippy-dippy cult thing, whereas Dune was not. But it was very popular among Boomers, who were painfully betrayed by David Lynch in 1984.

That’s enough for now. I’m thinking, though, that since this list is so skewed toward things we read when we were kids, maybe there should be a list of books Boomers loved as adults. Say, Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” series. Or, to return to the Tom Wolfe well, The Right Stuff

28 thoughts on “Top Ten Boomer Books? A hit-and-miss list

  1. Doug Ross

    Only read The Godfather off this list. Avoided most of the others because they didn’t seem very interesting or just plain dumb (Seagull, Valley of The Dolls). I’m on the tail end of the baby boomer generation so I never cared about early Tom Wolfe, Catcher in The Rye, etc. I also never had much interest in Sci-Fi after growing out of the Tom Swift series.

    I’d put Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Cheever’s short stories on the list. I’d also suggest that Atlas Shugged and The Fountainhead had much more lasting impact on more people of that generation than drivel like Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

  2. Karen Pearson

    Since I’m one of the older boomers, I tend to agree with your list. I’ve read, and enjoyed, almost all of them. I know the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was written much earlier, but it was very popular, also. I might add “2001: A Space Odyssey” since it did such a good job of making us nervous about computers. I enjoyed Heinlein’s works during my teenage years especially, since he was so able to write sci-fi from so many different viewpoints (try “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” for a libertarian viewpoint, and “Starship Troopers” from a National Socialist” model.
    Camus’ “The Stranger” was also quite popular as I remember.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I liked Jonathan Livingston Seagull when it came out when I was a teenager. I am technically a baby boomer, too, and for those of us younger and female, it was very important.

    1. Doug Ross

      On JLS:

      Wikipedia: Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the book was “banal,” and that “The Little Engine That Could is, by comparison, a work of some depth and ambition.”


    2. Dave Crockett

      I clearly remember the last time I read JLS. My college roommate at the time was going through a hard time in a relationship and I was a wee bit afraid that he might do something stupid with sleeping pills. So I read JLS to him, in its entirety, from cover to cover. Put him right to sleep. Me, too.

      Even so, the book read better than the breathless narration I was forced to sit through when it was adapted for the big screen. Now THAT was truly awful.

  4. Bart

    Not much to talk about after the first 3 on the list. The other author I liked more than anyone else is James Thurber. His collection of shorts in “My Life and Hard Times” is one of my favorites. I still have the 1978 First Perennial Library Edition with the yellowed pages and green cover with a sketch of Muggs, the Airedale, “the dog that bit people” on it. Although it was written in 1938, it still applies to human behavior today.

    One story in particular that reminded me of the snow closings is “the day the dam broke” and how humans react when they are faced with a perceived emergency and what happens when word of mouth is the only source of information and how it can change from person to person.

    Worth reading.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    For the younger boomers, Bonfire of the Vanities, Less Than Zero, Bright Lights, Big City–boomers aren’t all former hippies. Some were too young and are more preppie/disco….

    1. Doug Ross

      Yes, I read all those… and can’t forget The World According to Garp. That one was probably the most influential for me during college.

      1. Doug Ross

        I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a couple of John Irving’s books on high school reading lists in while my kids were in school.

  6. Elliott

    I am a Boomer and read all of the top ten except Valley of the Dolls. I do not think of that as being as a Boomer book either.
    I want to comment on how our world changed between 1965 and 1971. I visited the Furman campus in 1968 and began school there in 1969, graduating in 1973. During those 5 years Furman became a different place, and so did I. I went there with no blue jeans and graduated after going a semester wearing nothing but jeans. I think change may have been a little slower to come to southern campuses than northern ones. Men were only allowed in the parlor of women’s dorms in ’69. Before I graduated colleges were experimenting with coed dorms. Had I not been a student, going through radical change myself, I might have realized how revolutionary this change was. When we moved our daughter into a dorm on a southern campus in 1994, things were far more like 1973, than 1969 was like 1973.

  7. Bryan Caskey

    As a non-boomer, I guess my opinion doesn’t really count, but I would throw in:

    1. Something from Hunter S. Thompson.
    2. Something from Ian Fleming
    3. Something from Dr. Seuss

    Looking through the shelf of “1950” and “1960”, there are lots of candidates.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely on Dr. Thompson! His Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs is a must-read on the era. I didn’t think of it because, though it came out in 1966, I don’t think I read it until 20 years or more later. So it wasn’t a formative thing for me. However, it was obvious, from having read Acid Test, that Wolfe had read it. In fact, I think he mentioned it favorably. There was a lot of overlap in the subject matter, due to the relationship between the Pranksters and the Angels.

      Dr. Seuss may have been around when I was a kid, but I never read him. I remember seeing his books — after I was a little old for them — and not liking his drawing style. I was more favorably conscious of him when my kids were coming up. And my grandchildren love him.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for Fleming — did his books have that much of an impact, for themselves? I think the main cultural impact on Boomers was the Bond movies. I don’t think that many of us actually read the books

        He was different from le Carre, and for that matter Graham Greene and Len Deighton, in that respect. I think their fans usually read the books.

  8. Juan Caruso

    ”To Kill a Mockingbird were required by high school literature courses. It was very readable.

    The summer before college I was required to read 6 of the most inane and boring books ever written, of which “The Catcher in the Rye” fit the mold. The written assignment letter from the college (also mandated wearing of a freshman beanie while moving onto the campus) was designed simply to teach pre-law and engineering students not to waste time on the ridiculous (there were no beanies and never later discussions of those required books).

    ‘Catch-22’ was loaned to me as a college freshman. Again, i was very disappointed. My freshman English class was quite another matter. Excellent selections from Prof. Freund, including tites by Gunther Grass.

  9. Elliott

    Juan Caruso, Where did you go to college?

    To everyone who is criticizing these books, No one said they were great literature, just books that defined Boomers. If you aren’t a Boomer, I doubt you will understand.

  10. Rose

    I’m in the group after the boomers. Mockingbird, Catch-22, and some others I read in lit classes. And the Sound and the Fury which I despise. In middle school I worked my way through a series of classics – the list was printed on the back of each book. Ivanhoe, The White Company, White Fang, Call of the Wild, The Yearling (wept so hard my mother became alarmed), Where the Red Fern Grows (ditto) , Old Yeller (ditto), The Leatherstocking Saga, etc. And C.S. Lewis and Tolkien (HUGE Tolkien fan). Laura Ingalls Wilder. Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys. And histories.
    But I don’t know that there were any that were “defining” for me.

    1. Rose

      I haven’t read him.
      My favorite college course was a religion course on the Inklings, which included Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield.


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