The Most Popular Book the Year You Were Born
So many books, so little time—find your birth year's bestselling title based on Publishers Weekly's list for a suggestion of what to read next.
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1950: The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson
Published in more than a dozen languages and with more than 2 million copies sold, The Cardinal was later made into a film starring John Huston. It’s the story of a working-class American’s rise from the suburbs of Boston to become a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Protagonist Stephen Fermoyle’s trials and triumphs prove timeless with this title that’s back in print by popular demand. “This book cannot be disregarded as a propaganda vehicle. At almost every turn, the position of the church is strengthened by analysis, emphasis, and example,” reports Kirkus Review. Find out 15 more hit movies that were books first.
1951: From Here to Eternity, by James Jones
Considered an American classic, From Here to Eternity gives a picture of army life in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Robert E. Lee Prewitt is Uncle Sam’s best bugler and a committed career soldier. But he’s low on patience for army politics, making it difficult for him to stomach that he’s not chosen for the role of First Bugler. His anger leads to a transfer, which spirals downward from there. Some scenes and dialogue have been added to this newer version—previously considered unfit for the original publication. This was the most popular candy the year you were born.
1952: The Silver Chalice, by Thomas B. Costain
This novel takes place soon after Christ’s death and resurrection. The Silver Chalice is a story about Basil’s call to design a case that will hold the silver cup that Christ and his disciples drank from at the Last Supper, his mission is to sculpt their likenesses upon it. He encounters grave danger.
1953: The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas
The Robe digs into the roots and heart of Christianity, set against the backdrop of ancient Rome, as Marcellus, a Roman soldier, wins Christ’s robe as a gambling prize. A story of adventure, romance, and faith—this soldier goes on a quest to discover the truth about the robe in a timeless tale of spiritual longing and redemption. “The Robe was the first adult novel I ever read; it changed my mind about religion, about fiction and about the possible relationship between the two,” wrote Andrew M. Greely from the New York Times.
1954: Not As a Stranger, by Morton Thompson
Lucas Marsh has been obsessed with becoming a doctor since he was a young child when he viewed the profession from a naive perspective. The journey of medical school and starting his own practice in a small town give him a realistic picture of the job, including how much sacrifice is involved. His hardest lesson is coming to grips with the reality that doctors are also human. “One gets glimpses of the functioning of a town in which what affects one seems to affect all,” according to Kirkus Review.
1955: Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk
Marjorie Morningstar is a cautionary tale of love and destruction, set in the world of theater. Marjorie Morgenstern is a 19-year-old Jewish woman, who leaves New York for her dream job—working for Noel Airman, the outgoing director at a summer-stock company. This classic love story, blended with humor and sorrow, covers two decades across two continents. And if sad books are your favorite kind, here are some other powerful reads.
1956: Don’t Go Near the Water, by William Brinkley
Don’t Go Near the Water is set on a remote Pacific island during the last days of World War II. Focused on the public relations sector of the Navy, the story follows the adventures of a group of young naval officers (without the influence of any intervening naval training). Full of good clean fun, the cast of characters is sure to entertain. Brinkley was born in 1917, the youngest of five kids and the son of a minister.
1957: By Love Possessed, by James Gould Cozzens
Arthur Winner Jr. is a second-generation lawyer in a small unnamed American town, where life is fairly contemporary. Raised with a strong moral code from his father, he begins to wrestle with shifting morals and social boundaries. The tension escalates when his skeletons threaten exposure. Coming via a series of flashbacks, By Love Possessed is sexually explicit, with lengthy descriptions. One Goodreads reviewer refers to this book as a literary monster, explaining the text as dense and cumbersome but beautiful. Cozzens’ novel was a National Book Awards finalist in 1958.
1958: Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
This book focuses on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution for a bourgeois family. Dr. Yury Zhivago (Pasternak’s alter ego) is known as a physician, poet, and philosopher. Not only does the war disrupt his life, but also his heart, for he is in love with Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His beautiful poems contrast with the harshness of the Bolsheviks. Doctor Zhivago was not published in the former Soviet Union until 1987. “As a public speaker, he [Pasternak] was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate,” according to the Guardian. For more romantic literature, check out the best love poems for every mood.
1959: Exodus, by Leon Uris
The reader gets two parallel stories, both about reclaiming their homeland, in this epic novel. The first is about two 19th-century Jewish brothers seeking refuge in Palestine. The second is the 20th-century story of Israel gaining its independence after World War II. The 1960 film adaptation, starring Paul Newman, was nominated for three Academy Awards. One Goodreads reviewer refers to this book as a story of perseverance and hope.
1960: Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury
Known commonly as the “Washington novel,” Advise and Consent begins with Senate confirmation hearings for a liberal Secretary of State. Debate and controversy lead to a political crisis for the president, resulting in a battle of morals. Full of intrigue, including a smear campaign, jealousy, and martyrdom—this read sheds light on the stormy nature of politics. “His mid-20th-century senators certainly speak better than those serving today, most of whom, during debate, could scarcely pronounce, let alone deploy, its orotund courtesies and barbs,” wrote the New York Times in 2009.
1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone
The artist and the man are brought to life in this biographical novel about Michelangelo, esteemed creator of the David, painter of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and architect of the dome of St. Peter’s. This tome gives insight into his fury and brilliance. One Goodreads reviewer calls The Agony and the Ecstasy a feast for art lovers. Stone also wrote biographies of lawyer Clarence Darrow of the famed Scopes “Monkey” trial and the Chief Justice to the United States, Earl Warren.
1962: Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter
This story is set in the summer of 1931, aboard a cruise ship bound for Germany. The melting pot of characters includes a Spanish noblewoman, a drunken German lawyer, an American divorcee, and a pair of Mexican Catholic priests. Ship of Fools is considered iconic for its various themes, including cultural and ethnic pride, nationalism, and human frailty. Porter worked as a newspaperwoman in Chicago and in Denver before leaving for Mexico in 1920. Ship of Fools is the first entry to this list written by a woman—here are 10 more of the best books written by female authors every woman should read.
1963: The Shoes of the Fisherman, by Morris L. West
Cardinals gather from around the world to choose the pope’s successor. Surprisingly, he is the youngest of them all and a bearded Ukrainian. Kiril Lakota steps up with reluctance to lead the Catholic Church—battling his haunted past and the issues facing the contemporary world. “A powerful and challenging book overrides its transparent weaknesses,” reports Kirkus Review.
1964: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
Known for his suspense fiction, Le Carré’s third novel earned him international acclaim. A British agent, Alec Leamas, plans to end his career but decides to take on one last assignment before he goes. When the last agent under his command is killed, he decides to call it quits. But his spymaster has other plans—bringing on an intense plot twist. But I won’t give too much away here. “Its tone, if anything, is dourly 1950s, its colours grey, its weather depressing,” reports the Guardian. The Spy Who Came in from The Cold made our list of best thriller books of all time.
1965: The Source, by James A. Michener
Tracing the profound history of the Jewish people, Michener takes the reader back through time. Seen through the predecessors of four modern men and women, the reader experiences the history of the Jews. Included in this history is the impact of Christianity, the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition. The Source concludes around the conflict between modern-day Israel and the Middle-East. Michener, a prolific author, wrote more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction.
1966: Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann
Three women: Anne, Neely, and Jennifer become best friends when they are young and struggling in New York City. Eventually, they reach the top of the ladder inside the entertainment industry, where they realize there’s no place to go but down. Vodka and pills fill the pages, so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But one Goodreads reviewer says Valley of the Dolls is one of the most entertaining books she has read in her life. Susann became the first novelist to have three consecutive #1 books on the New York Times Best Seller list.
1967: The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan was a three-time Academy Award winner, a five-time Tony Award winner, and a four-time Golden Globes winner, so it’s no surprise The Arrangement was received so well among readers. It’s a story about Eddie Anderson, the guy who’s got it all—the nice house, the beautiful wife, and success. But he wants more, so he ends up with a mistress named Gwen. The plot thickens when she wants to change the arrangement. Food for thought: some readers hypothesize that Gwen resembles Marilyn Monroe.
1968: Airport, by Arthur Hailey
Suspense is high when a blizzard threatens thousands of lives around Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago. Stuck in the air, one plane struggles to reach its destination. Over the course of seven hours, a brilliant airport manager, an arrogant pilot, a tough maintenance guy, and a beautiful stewardess all try to figure out a way to land the plane safely. Some critics say Hailey’s novels are formulaic, where an ordinary character always gets involved in a crisis; however, Hailey researched extensively.
1969: Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
Portnoy’s Complaint is the novel that put Philip Roth on the literary map. The male protagonist is Jewish bachelor, Alexander Portnoy, who struggles with unappeasable sexuality, held back by the iron grip of his childhood. Considered funny, intimate, and candid, the story is told in an ongoing monologue from patient to psychoanalyst. A popular quote reads, “You can no more make someone tell the truth than you can force someone to love you.”
1970: Love Story, by Erich Segal
The basis for the 1970 tearjerker starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, Love Story has remained an enduring classic. A puzzling attraction no one seems to understand, Oliver and Jenny come from totally different worlds. He’s a rich jock heading toward a Harvard law degree, and she’s from the working class, studying music at Radcliffe. Yet, their connection to one another defies everything they have believed. Snuggle in to read these 10 best romance novels as a couple.
1971: Wheels, by Arthur Hailey
Action-packed and full of intrigue, Wheels portrays the automobile industry at its height, full of greed, monopoly, and abuse of the public trust. American Motors, run by the ambitious executive, Adam Trenton, tries to carve its own path next to the three giants of the industry: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. He’s got big hopes for a new cutting-edge car he’s developing. But his neglected wife is out of control, causing more trouble than he can keep up with.
1972: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
Considered a spiritual classic, the protagonist is about a seagull with the same name as the title. He finds his greatest sense of joy in teaching younger gulls about flying and the power of dreams. Some readers view this book as confusing, more like a children’s picture book. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that there were over 60 million copies of his books sold, he is considered a beloved author by many.
1973: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
Richard Bach’s beloved seagull book hit the list again in 1973. A former USAF fighter pilot, Air Force captain, and latter-day barnstorming pilot, Bach’s flying chronicles have come from a life of exploration in the sky.
1974: Centennial, by James A. Michener
Michener’s Centennial celebrates the Western Frontier, offering the story of Colorado, aka the Centennial State. Romance and adventure are tied together as the cowboy Jim falls for the cultured Englishwoman, Charlotte. Dramatic conflict brings the trappers and traders, homesteaders, and gold-seekers together in a way that shapes the legendary West. Michener’s first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific and won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
1975: Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow
Set in America between the turn of the century and World War I, Ragtime captures the human spirit. On a Sunday afternoon in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family, Harry Houdini swerves his car into a nearby telephone pole. That’s when the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, introducing Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, and Sigmund Freud, just to list a few. Imagined family and fictional characters enter the story as well, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem. In 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Doctorow the Gold Medal for Fiction.
1976: Trinity, by Leon Uris
Ireland’s long and bloody struggle for freedom is among these pages. A young Catholic rebel captures the heart of a beautiful Protestant girl who joins his cause. Trinity is a picture of a divided people, based on class, faith, and prejudice. Love and danger parallel the fiery landscape of this 20th-century classic. Uris is known for his deep research that went into this novel and other historical fiction titles.
1977: The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Characters from The Lord of the Rings, including Elrond and Galadriel reflect back on past events when Morgoth, the first Dark Lord dwelt in Middle-Earth in this account of the Elder Days. The High Elves battled with him to recover the Silmarils, jewels containing the pure light of Valinor, that had been seized by Morgoth and set in his crown. Tolkien was a WWI veteran, an Oxford professor, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis. Discover 13 hidden messages in the Lord of the Rings trilogy you never noticed before.
1978: Chesapeake, by James A. Michener
Michener covers the biologically diverse and rich area of the Chesapeake Bay from the time of the Native Americans to the voyage of Captain John Smith to the Revolutionary War right on up to modern times. This great work of historical fiction brings America’s iconic bay to life. Michener created the Journey Prize, awarded annually to an emerging Canadian writer for the best published short story.
1979: The Matarese Circle, by Robert Ludlum
The Matarese is a group in an international circle of killers that if left unchecked will take over the world within two years—only two spies have the power to stop them. The first is Scofield of the CIA. The second is Talaniekov from the KGB. The two were once sworn enemies but now must come together as allies with one mission: to destroy the Matarese. Ludlum authored 27 novels that have been translated into 32 languages and has more than 210 million books in print.
1980: The Covenant, by James A. Michener
Carving an empire out of a vast wilderness, this chronicle of South Africa is about adventurers, scoundrels, and ministers that make up the best and worst of two continents and the Java-born Van Doorn family tree. Full of rivalry and passion, courage and cruelty fill the pages as generations fight to forge a new world. Michener founded an MFA program that is now named the Michener Center for Writers, at the University of Texas at Austin.
1981: Noble House, by James Clavell
Set in the heart of Asia in 1963, themes of money, opium, and power fill the pages of this novel. In just over a week, the list of intrigue covers kidnapping, murder, and stock market crashes, while natural catastrophes cover the landscape, including fire, flood, and landslide. Various political groups vie for influence in Hong Kong, while the British government tries to prevent this. But no one can get anything done without enlisting members of the criminal underworld. Clavell is also known for his work as a screenwriter and director. He was a WWII veteran and a POW.
1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Storybook, by William Kotzwinkle
Steven Speilberg, director of the smash blockbuster movie gave fantasy writer Kotzwinkle a copy of the script and invited him to create a book off of it. He turned it into a “beautiful book, which deepens and enhances the movie in ways few novelizations ever have,” writes the Dissolve.
1983: Return of the Jedi Storybook, by Joan D. Vinge
Another book based on a movie, The Return of the Jedi Storybook capitalized on the Star Wars’ fandom. Luke Skywalker and his friends in the Rebel Alliance come up with a plan to take on the Empire and its evil leaders: Darth Vader and the Emperor.
1984: The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub
The past drives Jack Sawyer to the shores of the gray Atlantic, near a silent amusement park and a fading ocean resort. His dad is gone, his mom is dying, and his whole life is about to change. Chosen to journey back across America and into another realm, Sawyer must search for a prize across an epic landscape mixed with innocents and monsters while trying to save his mother’s life. While working as a public high school teacher in Maine, King wrote in the evenings and on weekends.
1985: The Mammoth Hunters, by Jean M. Auel
In the third book of the Children of the Earth series, heroine Ayla meets the Mamutoi (also known as the Mammoth Hunters) and settles into a new way of life. The rich pictures of prehistoric life include details about language, culture, myths, and rituals. Auel’s books have been translated into multiple languages and have sold more than 45 million copies worldwide.
1986: It, by Stephen King
Returning to their hometown of Derry, Maine, seven grown ups must confront “It,” a nightmare from their youth. Critics suggest keeping the room well-lit for this one. After moving a few times, when King was 11 years old, his mom brought the children back to Durham, Maine for good. It is one of the 20 scariest books of all time.
1987, The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King
Writer Bobbi Anderson becomes obsessed with digging up something she’s found buried in the woods near her home. With her friend, Jim Gardener’s help, she discovers an alien spaceship that opens up a deadly kind of evil, one that invades the body and soul. One reader comments, “All the elements of a King book are here–great characters, unusual story, and great dialogue.” King is one of the 12 most binge-worthy authors.
1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin, by Tom Clancy
America’s highest agent in the Kremlin, code-named Cardinal and CIA analyst Jack Ryan are the only two in possession of vital information on Russia’s Star Wars missile defense system. The world itself hangs in the balance, depending on how the riveting masterpiece plays itself out. Ten of Clancy’s novels feature the character Jack Ryan.
1989: Clear and Present Danger, by Tom Clancy
The head of the FBI is assassinated by Colombian drug lords. CIA analyst Jack Ryan must investigate who the real enemy is, while assessing which action will be appropriate in response to them stepping over the line. The outside dangers are anticipated, but it’s the threats from the inside he’s least expecting. For non-fiction, Clancy’s works include a series of guided tours of America’s warfighting assets. These 10 true-crime thrillers are guaranteed to keep you up at night.
1990: The Plains of Passage, by Jean M. Auel
Returning to the earliest days of humankind in book #4 of the Earth’s Children series, Ayla goes on a dangerous journey with her companion, Jondalar. Covering the treacherous grasslands of Ice Age Europe, the couple is among strangers. Some are intrigued by their ability to tame wild horses and a wolf, while others feel threatened by what they can’t understand. With a hunger to return to their roots, they must search for a place to call home.
1991: Scarlett: the Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” by Alexandra Ripley
This novel takes readers back to Tara and reintroduces the beloved characters from Gone With the Wind. Surprises and adventures are seen in the faces of Rhett, Ashley, Mammy, Suellen, and Aunt Pittypat. And let’s not forget Scarlett! After all, this book is mostly about the culmination of passion between Rhett and Scarlett. Gone with the Wind is the most famous book set in Georgia. Find out the most iconic book from your state.
1992: Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King
When Dolores Claiborne, a housekeeper, is suspected of killing her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, Claiborne’s response takes the reader back in time. She shares the story of her life, about her failing marriage and the suspicious death of Joe St. George, her violent husband from 30 years ago.
1993: The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller
This story is about the photographer, Robert Kincaid, who searches for the covered bridges of Madison County in Iowa. It’s also about the life of farm wife Francesca Johnson, who waits for the fulfillment of a childhood dream. The Bridges of Madison County was made into a major motion picture starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Waller was also known for his work as a photographer and musician.
1994: The Chamber, by John Grisham
Adam Hall, a 26-year-old lawyer is on the brink of an amazing legal career with a Chicago law firm. But when he gets an impossible case, he risks it all for a death-row killer. Sam Cavhall is a former Klansman facing the death penalty for a fatal bombing in 1967, who just happens to be Hall’s grandfather. Among a web of family lies and secrets, there’s one secret that could save them both. Like many of Grisham’s novels, it was turned into a movie.
1995: The Rainmaker, by John Grisham
If Rudy Baylor can find a way to file a lawsuit about an insurance dispute, he might get the life he’s always wanted and an escape from the creditors who are on his tail. But it’s summertime in Memphis, and when Rudy shows up at court, he realizes he’s in over his head. Barely out of law school, he finds himself warring against a heavyweight corporate defense team. This small case turns into something with much bigger stakes, and it might even cost him his life. The book was turned in to a movie starring Matt Damon. Grisham was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1983 and served until 1990.
1996: The Runaway Jury, by John Grisham
A landmark tobacco trial with hundreds of millions of dollars is at stake in Biloxi, Mississippi. It swerves off course when the jury starts behaving strangely. With such high stakes, the jurors are sequestered. Then an odd tip comes in and changes the game. If the jury is being manipulated, what’s the motivation, and who’s behind it? The Runaway Jury became a movie starring John Cusack and Gene Hackman.
1997: The Partner, by John Grisham
Danilo Silva has been hiding out in Brazil, in a modest home. He speaks the language, looks thinner, and his face has been altered. Nothing about his new environment shows he has the fortune they think he has stolen. But they’ve been watching him, and now they’re sure he’s Patrick Lanigan, a previous partner from the prominent Biloxi law firm who was thought to have perished in a car fire. When money goes missing from the firm’s offshore account, they will do anything to get it back. Grisham’s books have sold more than 225 million copies worldwide.
1998: The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham
Michael Brock has put in his time with Drake & Sweeney, a giant Washington, D.C. firm with hundreds of lawyers; climbing the ladder, he’s just three years away from making partner. But a violent encounter with a homeless man brings back his conscience. Digging deeper into the past, he discovers a dirty secret, connected to his law firm. With a top-secret file in hand, he leaves the firm and decides to become a street lawyer, advocating for the less fortunate. Grisham’s books have been translated into 29 different languages.
1999: The Testament, by John Grisham
With his death mere hours away, Troy Phelan, an angry old man sits in his plush Virginia office rewriting his will. His heirs are circling like vultures, but he flips their world upside down, naming one surprise heiress to his $11 billion fortune. Rachel Lane is a mysterious woman, living as a missionary down in the jungles of Brazil. The disgraced corporate attorney chosen to go find her is Nate O’Riley, fresh out of rehab and unprepared for the adventure ahead.
2000: The Brethren, by John Grisham
Three former judges, now convicted criminals serving time at a minimum-security federal prison in Florida, where they begin a letter-writing scam to earn money off their hapless victims. The trio nicknames themselves the Brethren as the money starts flowing in hand over fist, that is until the target the wrong victim. Next, read on for the 50 books everyone should read before they turn 50.