10 Literary Classics Turn 50

1970 came packed with beloved books. Here are 10 timeless volumes.

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As hard as it might be to believe, 1970 was 50 years ago. It was the decade of Watergate, the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the expansion of the women’s movement, and the rise of the gay rights movement. Environmental concerns moved to the forefront. The era of cable expansion would begin in television, and music would welcome genres like hip-hop, punk, and disco. In literature, 1970 would see the release of a number of print classics. Here are 10 beloved novels that made their debut 50 years ago.

1. Deliverance – James Dickey

Cover for the book, Deliverance
(copyright James Dickey/Houghton Miflin)

Regularly placing on lists of the great books of the 20th century, Deliverance is a harrowing novel of a canoe trip gone horribly wrong. Adapted into John Boorman’s equally disturbing 1972 film, the book charts the journey of four city men who find themselves in the midst of unforeseen danger and moral crises in the Georgia wilderness. It’s the rare book that is praised for both its beauty and its unflinching brutality.

2. Love Story – Erich Segal

Cover for the book, Love Story
(copyright Erich Segal/Harper & Row)

At 41 weeks on the The New York Times best seller list, Love Story was far and away one of the most popular books released in 1970. Though tragedy is telegraphed from the opening line of the book, the titular romance between a rich boy and a poor girl captivated readers. Made into a Oscar-nominated movie before the year was out, Love Story remains a pop culture constant.

3. Islands in the Stream – Ernest Hemingway

Though not regarded quite as highly as some of his earlier work, Islands in the Stream earned enormous recognition as the author’s first posthumous release. It was one of a remarkable 332 works that his fourth wife and widow Mary Hemingway found after his death. Written in three sections, the book deals with the life of a painter named Thomas Hudson, with each segment examining a key series of events across Hudson’s life.

4. This Perfect Day – Ira Levin

In his nonfiction examination of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King likened Ira Levin to the Swiss watchmaker of suspense, noting that his novels are such perfect constructions of plot and intent that you can’t remove a single piece without damaging their effect. Levin is of course widely known for Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives, but This Perfect Day is also classic Levin. While his most well-known novels take place in a recognizable modern America with a crucial twist here and there, This Perfect Day is fully embraced science fiction, a dystopian work in the vein of 1984 or Brave New World. The book suggests a world run by a single computer with a populace that’s continually drugged to stay happy; of course, the carefully regimented world hides a secret about what’s actually in control.

5. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Eventual Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Morrison was already a groundbreaker before her own work was published. Working for Random House in the ’60s, she was the first black woman to be a  senior editor in the fiction department. Her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, firmly established the painfully honest way in which she would tackle racism throughout her literary career. Today, the book is widely included in reading lists for college literature classes and high school AP programs, though its inclusion has frequently been challenged by peopledisapproving of its explicit content.

6 Ringworld – Larry Niven

Cover for the book Ringworld
(copyright Larry Niven/Ballantine Books)

Larry Niven has been one of the leading voices in science fiction for decades, and one of his most famous and significant works appeared in 1970. Ringworld is a crucial and significant part of his Known Space continuity, generating nearly a dozen sequels and prequels itself. The action of Ringworld centers around a crew journeying to investigate a huge ringed construct that’s supporting life. The character Speaker-to-Animals is a Kzin, a member of the cat-like Kzinti race that Niven first introduced in his short stories and that have appeared in a number of his works; they also exist in the Star Trek universe, first appearing in Star Trek: The Animated Series when it adapted one of Niven’s stories. The Ring structure was an important influence on the Halo gaming franchise. Ringworld won the science-fiction “triple crown” of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.

7. The Crystal Cave – Mary Stewart

One of the most important modern retellings of the Arthur legend, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave focuses on the youth of Merlin. Stewart would eventually write four more books in the cycle, using Merlin as the point-of-view character for Arthur’s reign. The Crystal Cave itself was a bestseller and an important element in the wave of fantasy novels that would gain popularity through the decade. Her positioning of Merlin as a POV character and instigator of events has filtered into popular culture, with  films like Excalibur using similar tones of characterization.

8. The Naked Face – Sidney Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon’s resume is loaded with classics. He won an Oscar for his screenplay of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer in 1947 and a Tony for the musical Redhead in 1959. Sheldon produced and wrote The Patty Duke Show and created and wrote I Dream of Jeannie. With stage and both large and small screens firmly in his grasp, Sheldon published his first novel in 1970. He promptly received a Best First Novel nomination by the Mystery Writers of America. The page-turner about a psychoanalyst who becomes a suspect in a string of murders was adapted for film three times in three different countries: the U.S., Ukraine, and India.

9. Nine Princes in Amber – Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny was firmly established as a top-notch writer of fantasy and science fiction with two Hugos and two Nebulas to his credit by the time that he put out Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in his Chronicles of Amber series. The tale of a battling family struggling across multiple realities grew into a series of 10 novels published over the course of 21 years. Zelazny is considered one of the leaders of the New Wave of science fiction and fantasy; write Neil Gaiman, creator of The Sandman and Good Omens, among others, considers Zelazny a huge influence on his work.

10. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West – Dee Brown

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee
(copyright Dee Brown/Holt, Rinehart, & Winston)

Dee Brown grew up with a love of history and a particular interest in the American West. He became a writer and a librarian, serving in the librarian capacity for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of War during World War II, and as the agriculture librarian for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Throughout his career, Brown wrote constantly, publishing both novels and nonfiction. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was his eleventh history book, but it’s easily his most famous. It deals honestly with how the United States government treated native tribes during Westward Expansion, casting a harsh light on the government’s frequent efforts to eradicate the people and their culture.

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