October 17, 2009

What Are They Reading in 1960?

The contents of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for Winter 1961, when Eisenhower gave way to Kennedy:

A. The Light in the Piazza, by Elizabeth Spencer (1921- ), a literary bestseller by a genteel Southern quarterly doyenne, author of 38 books, five-time O. Henry Award recipient.

The Reader's Digest intro says, “This is a story of how the sensual beauty and warm summer sun of Florence worked their strange alchemy in the life of a lovely American girl – a story to which each reader will imagine his own sequel.”

I love the “his own sequel.” Ninety percent of the audience must have been female.

The opening sentence:

“On a June afternoon at sunset, an American woman and her daughter fended their way along a crowded street in Florence and entered with relief the spacious Piazza del Signoria.”

In other words, the nth dilution of Henry James’ Daisy Miller.

“This little book is a gem…one of the four best novels of 1960.” Orville Prescott, New York Time

But scoffers beware! This book was made into a 1962 movie (Olivia de Havilland-Rossano Brazzi-Yvette Mimieux-George Hamilton) and a well-received, innovative 2005 musical that ran for 504 performances at Lincoln Center and is regularly performed around the world, sometimes in opera houses.

B. Half Angel, by Barbara Jefferis. Lonely young Australian boy finds a mysterious cat with a jeweled collar. Problems arise! I never heard of it, though this was the height of my passion for the New York Times Book Review: I was eight.

C. A Sense of Values, by Sloan Wilson, author of the iconic 1950's executive-suite novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by Jonathan Franzen)and A Summer Place, both hit movies (Gregory Peck-Jennifer Jones, Ricard Egan-Dorothy McGuire), the latter the provenance of the great song "Theme from A Summer Place." A well-known cartoonist (good choice!) grapples with the problems of success, a cold wife, a troubled son, inherited “melancholia” (a much better word for it than what we use now), and alcoholism. Flashbacks to noncombat WWII. Readably written in an intelligent middlebrow style that appeals to Connecticut residents who wish Salinger were more prolific, and which, lamentably, isn’t seen much anymore on the bestseller lists. Contains a lecture by the protagonist’s wise mentor on the dangers of success -– not original but a knowledgeable summary. Undoubtedly Wilson needed to write this after his big bestseller.

Random sentence: “Before going to New Haven that fall, I stopped at the sanitarium and visited my mother.”

D. "Warpath" “A crucial episode from Kenneth Roberts' monumental novel of Colonial history, Northwest Passage….Kenneth Roberts brings alive a little-known incident from the American past in a manner that makes it vital and exciting reading for today.”

This was an oldie even then, first published 1937, source for the 1940 movie with Spencer Tracy and for...yes, the 1958-1959 Buddy Ebsen NBC series (the latter must be why they republished it in 1960). During his lifetime Roberts (“for some time after graduating from Cornell in 1903…not until 1928 did he begin to write the great historical novels which won him a lasting fame…”) received five honorary doctorates and a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”

Sample sentence: “’I’ve often seen you,’ the man said, swallowing.”

C. Marnie, by Winston Graham: source for the 1964 Hitchcock movie, by the author of forty novels including the Poldark series, which was made into a hit BBC series. When you’ve got the touch, you’ve got the touch.

From the intro:

“What were the compelling forces that drove twenty-three-year-old Marnie Elmer from job to job, changing her identity each time….From the first moment his saw this strange and beautiful girl, Mark Rutland was intrigued. When her secret burst upon him with the impact of a thunderbolt, he could not follow the dictates of reason…. How Mark leads Marnie to find the key to the inner prison in which she has locked herself makes a taut, exciting story, full of suspense and sharp compassion.”

Sorry, you’re still not hitting the male audience. But to your credit, you don’t use “impact” as a verb. Today they’d write, “When her secret impacted him like a thunderbolt…” And that’s the sum total of the development of American literacy in forty-nine years.

This volume of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, one of ten on the café shelves, contains by far the most enduring novels in the group.

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