It’s all about counterculture.
The word “counterculture,” a term used to describe a group or system with a conflict with mainstream values and norms as its primary and defining purpose, was first coined in the 1960s and for a good reason. Whereas the 1950s marked a boom in all things mainstream, the ’60s were most decidedly about turbulence, social change, experimentation, and general unrest. Major wars had dominated life for three decades – WWII, Korea, and now Vietnam—a dismal reality that generated considerable disdain for all things conventional.
Authors in the 1960s captured this upheaval as they told powerful stories about race, gender, politics, and war. Many writers from this decade drew their inspiration from all things counterculture, whether they chose fantasy or reality.
Are you ready for a journey back to the 1960s? It’s a memorable decade. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, moon landing, Woodstock, Cuban Missile crisis, sit-ins, construction of the Berlin Wall, JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. — are just a few of the people and events that shaped this decade.
Our 1960s reading list will take you back into this world. You’ll find old favorites as well as a few titles you may not have tried. You’ll also find a handful of challenging books that will stretch your reading muscles and ask you to think in new ways. So grab your go-go boots, put on your tie-dye, pull up a comfortable chair, and start reading.
The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick, 1962
This Hugo Award-winning, science fiction masterpiece paints a dystopian picture of what life in 1962 America might have been like had the Axis powers prevailed in WWII. In this scenario, the Japanese control the west, the Germans control the east, and corruption and racism run rampant. The writing is exceptional, and the story is unforgettable. Read the book and then enjoy the Amazon series as well.
The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan, 1963
Is this the book that launched the entire feminist movement? We’re not sure, but if there was a list of possible suspects, this would undoubtedly be among the contenders. So, what exactly is the “mystique?” You’ll need to read the book to fully understand. Briefly, Ms. Friedan defines the feminine mystique as the inexorable connection society falsely creates between femininity and the ideal image of mother and homemaker.
Women who neglect these traditional roles and choose to work or pursue other interests deny the essence of their femininity, which is the source of their unhappiness. The author debunks this “mystique” and instead posits that women can be feminine while pursuing any and all interests and striving to reach their full potential. The book sold millions of copies and made a lasting impression on society, still being felt today.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey, 1963
When you think of books from the 1960s, chances are this is one of the first that comes to mind. This fictional tale of a mental hospital in Oregon where the wardens are arguably less sane than the inmates captures much of the decade’s spirit. The story is narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style which speaks to the author’s real-life fascination with altered consciousness and hallucinogenic drugs. Themes of repression, domineering women, and defying authority abound in this haunting story.
This Rough Magic
Mary Stewart, 1964
One of our favorite authors of romantic suspense, Mary Stewart, was prolific during this decade. This Rough Magic, a story set on the island of Corfu, is one of her best. It’s a spine-tingling tale featuring a strong, smart woman capable of holding her own in difficult situations. You’ll find that her books are incredibly satisfying to read, with chewy sentences, remarkable imagery, and finely crafted mysteries. In addition to romantic suspense, Ms. Stewart also wrote The Merlin Chronicles. These four books tell the Arthurian legend with a mix of fantasy and history. Once you find Mary Stewart, you’ll never have to worry about what to read next.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965
You’ve heard of Malcolm X, but do you know anything about him other than the headlines? He was—and arguably still is—a significant force in our society. This book influenced hundreds of young people in the 60s to attend their first demonstrations and act for themselves to create change, and those who read it today feel that same pull. It’s political. It’s controversial. It’s inflammatory. It’s life-changing. You’ll find yourself completely absorbed by the story of this complex historical figure.
In Cold Blood
Truman Capote, 1966
If you’re a fan of true crime, then this is your next must-read book. Truman Capote tells the story of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Mr. Capote reconstructs the events of the day, describes in detail the ensuing investigation and takes you deep into the minds and hearts of the killers. You won’t be able to put this book down.
S.E. Hinton, 1967
The Outsiders, a novel written by the author while she was still attending high school, follows two weeks in the life of Ponyboy Curtis. This fourteen-year-old’s world is made up of two groups—the rich kids and the outsiders. It’s an intimate glimpse into the mind of a young person grappling with ideas of right and wrong in a society filled with confusion, senseless grief, and that simply doesn’t seem fair. Ponyboy’s struggles are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s. This book also set the stage for the entire YA genre.
In Watermelon Sugar
Richard Brautigan, 1968
This 138-page tale defies description. It’s a love story that’s both bizarre and dazzling. In the surreal world of iDeath, the sun shines a different color every day, everything is made of watermelon sugar, and there’s a chef who cooks nothing but carrots. It’s a post-apocalyptic allegory about individuals trying to create order out of destruction and chaos. You’ll love the peculiar, poignant beauty of this singular book.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Joan Didion, 1968
Joan Didion is considered a critical chronicler of America in the 1960s and, after reading this collection of essays, you’ll understand why. She observed and wrote about a country she loved during a time when institutions, civility, and traditions seemed to be crumbling. She tells stories of people who replaced values and responsibilities with drugs and promiscuity. This book is a precisely rendered portrait of people who experience bleakness in their lives because they’ve disconnected themselves from the grounding of the past. But it’s also a book about hope.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Tom Wolfe, 1968
It’s impossible to think of the 1960s without thinking about hippies and, if you want a glimpse into the lifestyle of hippies, then this is the book for you. Tom Wolfe, the author of, The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities, tells the story of Ken Kesey’s (yes, it’s the Kesey from Cuckoo’s Nest) band of Merry Pranksters and their journey across the country on their psychedelic bus named Further. This book is full of experimental writing techniques such as free association, onomatopoeia, and unconventional punctuation used to convey the manic ideas and personalities of the characters. It’s also an unapologetic look at hippies, hippie culture, LSD, and all things 1960.
Take the 1960s Reading Challenge.
Discovering notable books from the 1960s immerses you in a different time and place. We think you’ll find these and other stories from 60 years ago fascinating and relevant. The 1960s were a challenging time, and the events of that decade continue to resonate through our culture today. Expand your understanding of this critical decade by sampling the works of authors who lived in and wrote about life in the 60s.
At Discover Books, you’ll find all these books as well as many, many others from the 1960s. Discoverbooks.com carries millions of gently used books starting at $3.85 with free shipping on orders of $12 or more to the lower 48 USA. Shop now and discover something new!
Did you miss our earlier reading challenge posts? Click here for books from the 1950’s. The 1940’s are found here and the 1930’s here.