10 novels written in the 1950s we love even more today
Unlike us forgetful, breakable and generally unreliable human folk, good old books get better and better with age. Or, at least, the books themselves stay the same, but our appreciation of them grows. It’s been over sixty years since the fifties first exploded onto the stage, complete with greasers, the end of UK food rationing and the I Love Lucy show. What a decade! Its books weren’t half bad, either. Here’s a selection of 1950s lit that still rocks our world….
1. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954)
Are we human or are we savages? Or is the human essentially savage? Oh, the moral confusion! This good-boys-gone-bad tale of desert island adventure, cruelty and tragedy is a thriller when you’re ten, but more of a chiller when you’re older an can appreciate the true horror of murderous schoolkids. It’s also the main reason why Golding’s a household name, Nobel Prize notwithstanding.
2. Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952)
A pig and a spider, friendship, love, loyalty, birth and death: we’re not being schmaltzy, but this children’s classic is a proper well of emotion, and it’s not getting any less moving as the decades pass. Plus, for all you lit-geeks, E.B. is the very same White you might recognize from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, the dry-eyed compositional manual to beat all compositional manuals. Is there nothing this man couldn’t do?
3. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
Volume One of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We hardly feel like we need to introduce this one – but if you’ve only seen the movies, it’s time you cracked the spine of this classic of British fantasy, if only to check out the unique musical stylings of Tom Bombadil. Also, if there had been no Fellowship, we’d probably never have invented Dungeons & Dragons! (Hmm…)
4. East of Eden, John Steinbeck (1952)
Two families’ histories become entangled in the Californian Salinas Valley in the early twentieth century. Taking inspiration in part from the Cain and Abel story of the Old Testament, this is the novel that Steinbeck was said to consider his masterpiece. It’s certainly stars one of literature’s most interesting antagonists in the figure of Cathy Ames, a cruel and cold individual who leaves violence and mayhem in her wake. A brilliant family saga (but probably not one for the whole family to share, what with the murders and all).
5. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)
One of the most famous and historically significant African novels to be published in the English language, Achebe’s book tells the story of an Igbo man’s downfall in the context of a white government’s incursions onto his land. As brilliant as the book is, it’s also fascinating as regards its position at the intersection of language, colonialism and power. Given the still marginalized position of African literatures in the Western book-market today, Achebe’s work is still a central text for those who want to expand their literary horizons.
6. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass (1959)
Oskar Matzerath is a German dwarf with questionable sanity who gets caught up with the Nazia, becomes a jazz drummer, gets falsely imprisoned for murder and writes his memoirs from jail. Well, no summary of The Tin Drum is likely to do Grass’s huge and complex novel justice. It’s been accused of being pornographic and blasphemous, like all the most famous books of the twentieth century – Lady Chatterley, please stand up! – and it’s nothing if not fascinating. Well worth a punt, we say.
7. The Borrowers, Mary Norton (1952)
A race of diminutive people, struggling to stay alive under your floorboards – hey, it’s more likely than the Bilbo/dragon scenario. Norton’s book began a series that spawned numerous TV shows and a 2010 Japanese animation, but the original is still the best, and we kind of wish Arrietty Clock would come borrowing our goods.
8. The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing (1950)
Lessing’s first novel is, as you might expect, a book about racial politics in what was then Southern Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe – it’s set on a farm and stars an ill-suited white couple and their black servant, Moses. The 1940s setting made it very relevant to its contemporary readers, but it’s nonetheless got a kick to it today, as Mary’s treatment of Moses still makes for very uncomfortable reading.
9. Under The Net, Iris Murdoch (1954)
Writers, philosophers and bookies rubbing shoulders in London: this picaresque gem was Murdoch’s first novel and it stands the test of time, not least because her prose, here as everywhere, is indubitably brilliant. Under The Net is slapstick existential madness of the highest order and we’re off to reread it right now.
10. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns Carr (1950)
The least well-known novel on our list, we’ll wager, this book by English writer Comyns Carr ought to be more widely loved, because, we cry, who wouldn’t adore a book about an artists’ model in 1930s Bohemian London? It’s witty and compelling, and we dare to whisper, an almost-forgotten classic.
These are some of the novels we think have improved in the last half a century, but there’s doubtlessly plenty more worth a mention. If you’ve got some in mind, please let us know in the comments below.
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The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham should be on this list. My favourite book of all time and one which I read at least once a year. It’s written so perfectly that it still feels relevant today. The characters dont feel like they are from the 50’s and the post apocalyptic Britain in which it is set is both terrifying and believable. Cant recommend this book enough.
The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut. It is one of his earliest well-known novels. I take the time to read every few years. Its a tale of human contact and friendship that takes place across almost-unfathomable stretches of time and space. It has a bittersweet style to the writing, which becomes the hallmark of Vonnegut’s later work. It holds up pretty well, and I imagine has more impact today than the day it was first published.
Good list. The only one I can think of off-hand that you missed is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
I was astonished that Lolita wasn’t on the original list. I re-read it recently, and it’s better than I remembered.
Internet Rule #453: for every list on the internet, there will be comments for additions on the list.
“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis. Read it in freshman lit in 1968; re-read it periodically. Always laugh.
And a good number of readers also shrugged at the lack of profundity in her self described “magnum opus.”
Looking for a 1950’s English/British book called ATTA. About a man that transforms to the size of an ant, then befriends Atta,an ant, and the journey across the park. Dont recall author. Book was sold before I had a say. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks