Modern First Editions 1960-1969
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Its influence on American society and its legacy in the modern literary tradition is well documented, and it is one of the most common books found in American high school required reading lists. Indeed, it is quite difficult to be educated in the United States and not be exposed to this fine piece of American literature. Not only is there great historical and societal significance in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there is also interesting personal conflict behind the authorship as well. Lee was close friends with fellow writer Truman Capote, and the publication of the book strained their relationship. Capote, best known for In Cold Blood, argued for many years that he was responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird. Some in the literary community believe Capote either authored or heavily edited large parts of the novel. Although there is much evidence disputing that rumor, the conflict between Lee and Capote has remained a fascinating footnote in the book's history. Signed or inscribed first printings of To Kill a Mockingbird are exceedingly difficult to find, but this remains one of the most collectible and beloved pieces of American literature. If you happen to find such a copy, be sure to treasure it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Never before had a logical fallacy inspired such a tremendous work of literary achievement. Written in eight years by author Joseph Heller, Catch-22 is a work of satirical fiction, and it served as a heavy indictment on warfare and governmental bureaucracy. An immediate hit when it was published in 1961, Catch-22 has remained one of the most quintessential American novels of the 1960's. The circular logic that forces the protagonist to remain a soldier in serving during World War Two is a sharp critique of the military industrial complex and the governments that supports it. The darkly funny novel was the subject of raving reviews by renowned author Norman Mailer, although some critics were offended by the irreverent tone it had towards wartime tragedies. But perhaps most intriguingly, it was also part of a controversy regarding the 1962 National Book Awards. Catch-22 was the favorite to win, but dark horse nominee The Moviegoer won instead. Ever since, there has been speculation that the fix was in to ensure The Moviegoer won the prestigious award, but losing the award never hurt the sales or the legacy of Catch-22.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Everyone fears Nurse Ratched, and they have a good reason. Nurse Ratched was the lead antagonist in Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the good nurse inspired quite a bit of terror in not just the characters under her care, but in readers as well. The novel is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a half-Native American inmate patient in a cruel and sad mental hospital. Through his eyes, we see the protagonist, a clever criminal named Randle McMurphy, enter the hospital and begin to incite rebellion and power struggles against Ratched. The book is at times funny, thought-provoking, and certainly tragic, and it captured the attention and imagination of readers everywhere. In fact, the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel went on to feature Jack Nicholson and win five Academy Awards. The novel addresses many issues that at the time consumed America, including psychiatry, mind-altering drugs, emotional manipulation, and authoritative abuse. Due to its content, it has remained one of the most highly banned books. When it was first published, it was well received and is now considered one of the best books published in the 20th Century. If you are looking to collect really trippy and anti-establishment literature, you definitely want to find a first edition copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Continuing the pattern of fiction regarding the messy topics of mental illness and self-destructive behavior, The Bell Jar ignited a firestorm in 1963 when the author, Sylvia Plath, killed herself just a month after publication. Since the protagonist in her semi-autobiographical makes several suicide attempts, Plath's death certainly seemed like a tragic case of life imitating art. Even though The Bell Jar was published to lukewarm reviews, it soon became a classic piece of American literature. Its portrayal of the internal struggle caused by sexism and depression struck a deep chord in readers, and it gained a high level of notoriety and mystique after the death of Plath. Even though it deals with tough subject matter, it has remained a staple on high school and college reading lists. Further, it is one of the most popular examples of modern feminist literature. Its discussion of female sexuality and differing methods of birth control were highly controversial, even in the counterculture decade of the sixties. Even though there are startling similarities between the book and Plath's life, The Bell Jar is a work of fiction. However, given that it was published just a year after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, readers were getting a pretty in-depth look inside the bureaucracies and methods of mental hospitals. Electroshock therapy was indeed all the rage.
The Deep Blue Good-bye by John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 novels Fawcett Publishers commissioned John MacDonald to write in the Travis McGee Series. All of the books in the series include the mnemonic device of a color in the title. The first three books in the series were published just one month apart: Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, and The Quick Red Fox. The rapid succession of publishing was unusual, but the publisher meant for the books to be easily identifiable and quickly consumed. The protagonist of the novels was originally named Dallas, but after President Kennedy's assassination his name was changed because of the negative connotation. McGee is a "Knight-for-Hire," a hard-boiled detective who works alone and generally wants to right-wrongs and get his cut of the deal. Most of the books take place in Florida, where McGee lives on the houseboat he won in a poker game, the "Busted Flush." First editions are paperback, the subsequent first edition hardback was published in 1975.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert's novel Dune is perhaps the quintessential science fiction novel, yet it was inspired by one of the most humble parts of earth: sand. The moving sand dunes in Florence, Oregon were the subject of intensive work by the US Department of Agriculture. The government was working to try and prevent the sand dunes from moving too far and damaging the ecology. This would prove the inspiration for the entire Dune series. Like many other works of science fiction, Dune explores politics, religion, the environment, and the role of the human element in a highly technological world. Dune was published to highly positive reviews, with many claiming it revolutionized not just science fiction, but the literary world in general. It is the winner of the 1966 Hugo Award, and it became the best selling book in the science fiction genre. It also honored with the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. First edition, first printing copies of Dune are rare and can be valued at over $10,000. Dune has been adapted into a 20-disc audiobook, a miniseries, and a 1984 David Lynch film. The wonder and appreciation for Herbert's book has not far diminished since it was first published, and it continues to be the gold-standard for contemporary science fiction.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Even though many consider The Crying of Lot 49 to be a novella, we thought we should include it in this list anyway. This strange and captivating tale of conspiracy was written by author Thomas Pynchon, and it is simultaneously regarded as a highlight of postmodern literature and a mockery of postmodern literature. With characters named Dr. Hilarius and Mike Fallopian, it is quite clear that Pynchon had a fair bit of fun when writing this book about malevolent and possibly hallucinatory waste management companies. The book was met with mixed reviews, with some confused by the intent and message of the work, and others captivated by the numerous allusions to politics, pop culture, and literature hidden in the text. Even Pynchon himself at times seemed lukewarm to his novel. Clearly, even though The Crying of Lot 49 is short, it is a dense read that alienates some audiences. However, if you're looking to explore some pretty weird literature, this book is definitely for you.
Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan
Although the title can be deceiving, Troutfishing in America by Richard Brautigan is not an outdoor manual, but rather a novella consisting of experimental prose with no clear storyline or plot. Using Surrealist descriptions and disruptive writing the chapters are made up of ancedotes mostly involving the author's childhood in the Pacific Northwest, his adult life in San Francisco and a camping trip to Idaho with his wife and infant in 1961, when most of the book was written. The title itself is woven throughout the book and used in multiple ways: as the name of a hotel, a character, to describe a prank, as a noun, and as a state of mind - illustrating how one phrase can serve many purposes. Following in the tradition of Thoreau and Hemingway, both fisherman and lovers of the natural world, Brautigan uses nature to search for the meaning of life, then expresses what he has learned through his story. He is troubled by the commercialization of the world and the shrinking of the American Wilderness and the social values that are associated with a pastoral life, and searches for enlightenment and self-understanding in the natural world.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has remained so popular and relevant, especially after the release of the classic Sci-fi film Blade Runner in inspired by the book, that later editions changed the year the novel was set from 1992 to 2021. After a nuclear global war most useful humans have left the planet and almost all the animals have become extinct from radiation poisoning. Because of their scarcity, owning an animal is a sign of one's status and empathy. Meanwhile, the only thing that differentials the androids living on the planet from humans is empathy. When six Nexus 6 androids escape and attempt to pass for human, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, is sent to "retire" them. The central focus of this Sci-Fi classic is the question of what constitutes an authentic human being.
The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
The Edible Woman is the first novel published by Margaret Atwood and it established her as a writer with a strong voice for feminist concerns. The story centers around Marian, who yearns to be ordinary and conventional, yet feels her identity eaten away by the choices she makes to conform. She is engaged to a rising young lawyer, and has a successful career, but even the firm of marketing analysts she works for serve as an illustration of the consumer culture that slowly begin to take her under as she envisions her identity disappearing after marriage. Seeing women as edible items marketed to the male appetite, Marian loses her own ability to eat, identifying too closely with the food as the novel moves from 1st person to 3rd following her own loss of reality.
Author Bio: Amy C. Manikowski is a writer, bookseller, trail-diverger, history buff, and pitbull lover. She graduated from Chatham University with an MFA a while ago, and after wandering aimlessly settled in Asheville NC.