How to describe the 1950s in one word? Try BOOM.
People around the world felt an overwhelming sense of optimism in 1950 following the end of WWII. With eyes looking forward to a future of peace and prosperity, the world experienced a boom. Economies boomed as big things like highways and schools were built at a rapid pace. Military spending reached highs, and massive quantities of consumer goods were produced and consumed. Inflation was low, unemployment was low, and wages were high. What was the result of these good times: a giant baby boom. Estimates are that roughly 4 million babies were born in the United States each year throughout the 1950s. Suburbs boomed as families embraced the dream of homeownership. TV and movies boomed as more and more families could afford these types of leisure activities. Life was good.
Paradoxically, global tension was also booming. The Cold War was well underway, simmering angrily beneath the surface of all this hope. The threat of communism and its horrific effects was ever-present, as was the feeling that “it could happen here.”
Racial tensions were also on the rise as civil rights issues began to take center stage. Marginalized groups, such as women and African Americans who had enjoyed unprecedented freedoms during the war years, expressed their frustration at being again relegated to the “back seat” in society.
By every measure and in every circumstance, life in the ‘50s was booming. Literature was no exception. Books produced during the 1950s reflect the drama and intensity of the decade. Choosing only 10 books from this prolific decade is a nearly impossible task. That said, we think this reading challenge will give you a sense of what the ‘50s were all about. Are you ready to find a new favorite? Let’s go!
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury, 1950
This novel is a collection of stories about American settlements on Mars undertaken in the aftermath of a terrible world war. Mr. Bradbury projects all the horror and devastation that he and others faced after WWII into a fictional post-apocalyptic dystopian future.
Interestingly, in the original book, the events took place between 1999 and 2026; recent publications have bumped those dates ahead by 30 years. While the stories were set in the future, the themes were the 1950s through and through. The fear that militarism, technological advancement, and prosperity could lead to global nuclear war was the topic of the day.
Ian Fleming, 1953
This book marks the beginning of James Bond, British secret agent 007. In this debut novel, Bond is tasked with bankrupting Le Chiffre, a Russian agent. Fleming used his own personal WWII experiences in naval intelligence to craft his series of spy stories. The relationship between the US and Britain in the aftermath of WWII feature prominently in Fleming’s tales.
If you’ve never given one of the books a try, now’s a perfect time. You’ll find them to be rich, satisfying reads, especially if you love a good spy story.
Lord of the Flies
William Golding, 1954
This compelling but decidedly unsettling book tells the story of a group of British boys stranded on an island during an amorphous nuclear WWIII. Their attempt to govern themselves is an unmitigated disaster. Still, the story of their downfall is rife with essential questions about the value of morality, the perils of groupthink, and emotional versus rational decisions.
It’s an allegory that defines the conflict between human impulses towards both civilization and power. For 1950s readers, this conflict had played out in real-time on the world stage with equally dire consequences.
Gift from the Sea
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1955
This beautiful collection of personal meditations is a breath of fresh sea air. Lindbergh gently questions the value of modern technologies (1950s technologies, no less) that promise simplicity but actually complicate life. She shares her thoughts about the many commitments that take women away from their families—her insights about what it means to be a woman at every stage of life. You’ll discover timeless themes as you savor every word. This book is truly an escape to the 1950s.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Sloan Wilson, 1955
Do you love the show Mad Men? Then this is the book for you. Mr. Wilson’s famous book looks at the consumerism and single-minded pursuit of more that characterized much of the 1950s.
The hero, Tom Rath, is a WWII vet with a wife, kids, job, and a house in the suburbs. He has every reason to be happy, but he isn’t. Is life about more than money, status, and things? You’ll have to read this book to find out.
Ayn Rand, 1957
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the influence Atlas Shrugged had and continues to have on American society and politics. This book is an epic treatise on Objectivism, the idea that happiness and productive achievement are the “be all” and “end all” of human activity.
This book forces its readers to face difficult and uncomfortable questions, one of which is how governments respond to a crisis. This was a big issue for folks in the 1950s, and we’re still grappling with it today. That said, this is a fun book to read with a gripping storyline and complex characters. What’s more, you’re sure to have something to think about when you’re done.
Anatomy of a Murder
Robert Traver, 1958
The characters in this crime drama are as fresh today as in 1958 when attorney John Voelker wrote about them under the pen name Robert Traver. The story is based on an actual murder and trial that occurred in Michigan in 1952.
This book quickly became a best-seller, was made into a film starring Jimmy Stewart, and is still considered the most popular courtroom drama in all of fiction. If you relish true crime and courtroom stories, this is a classic you can’t miss.
Leon Uris, 1958
The events of this book take place in 1947 on the immigration ship Exodus. Mr. Uris uses this ship and the lives of an Israeli freedom fighter and an American nurse to tell the story of the birth of the Jewish state of Israel following WWII.
This novel will take your breath away while giving you tremendous insight into one of the most dramatic and far-reaching events of the 20th century.
A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry, 1959
This play was the first play written by a black woman and directed by a black director to ever be played on Broadway. It tells how a poor, black, Chicago family tries to improve their financial circumstances.
Ms. Hansberry was passionate about her work. She wanted to tell a story about the struggles of racial discrimination and have her characters make heroic choices. The challenges faced by the Younger family resonate just as strongly today as they did when their story was first told.
The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson, 1959
Do you love a good horror story? The Haunting… is considered to be one of the finest literary ghost stories of the 20th century. In fact, it might be the best-haunted house story you ever read. You’ll find yourself on pins and needles from beginning to end. Don’t read this one alone in the house.
Take the 1950s Reading Challenge
Discover the great literature of the 1950s and immerse yourself in a different time and place. We suspect the questions and concerns that prompted authors from 70 years ago will feel familiar. One thing’s for sure: reading through the decades simply proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
At Discover Books, you’ll find all these classics as well as many, many others from the 1950s. 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!
1920s Book Challenge list, click here.
1930s Book Challenge list, click here.
1940s Book Challenge list, click here.