How do the bestsellers of March 1966 match up to the bestselling fiction and nonfiction books today? We compared the New York Times bestseller lists to see what people read then and what they read now, and we declared a winner. No surprise that 1966 was far more impressive when it came to fiction (Graham Greene, John O’Hara) and nonfiction (Truman Capote, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.) than what people read today (Clive Cussler, James Patterson). Welcome back to the 1960s.
1. 1966: In Cold Blood.
By Truman Capote.
2012: American Sniper.
By Chris Kyle with Scott McEwan.
THEN: People knew then (Capote made Newsweek’s cover) what people know now: it may not be the first nonfiction novel, it may not even all be true. Somehow it doesn’t matter. It is, as Rebecca West said, “a grave and reverend book,” and a helluva read.
NOW: A SEAL sniper recounts his long-distance kills.
2. 1966: The Proud Tower.
By Barbara Tuchman.
2012: The Power of Habit.
By Charles Duhigg.
THEN: Never condescending, never dumbing-down, Tuchman describes the decline and fall of old Europe into the funeral pyre of World War I with lucid intelligence and graceful prose.
NOW: Why we do the things we do.
3. 1966: A Thousand Days.
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
2012: Steve Jobs.
By Walter Isaacson.
THEN: Rarely do we get to read the first draft of a legend-in-the-making but that’s exactly what historian and Kennedy confidante Schlesinger did with his account of Kennedy’s presidency. Too fawning to be considered authoritative, too revealing to be ignored, it still bears reading.
NOW: The first draft of the Steve Jobs legend.
4. 1966: The Last Hundred Days.
By John Toland.
2012: Killing Lincoln.
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.
THEN: The last months of World War II in Europe saw the liberation of the extermination camps, the Yalta summit, and Hitler’s bunker Götterdämmerung.
NOW: Fox host narrates the death of Lincoln.
5. 1966: Games People Play.
By Eric Berne.
By Susan Cain.
THEN: One of the first pop-psychology books ever. Berne’s mega-seller promised to explain what really happens when people interact through the sexual, power, and other games people play.
NOW: Cain’s book follows in that seductive tradition of trying to help people better understand themselves, even if they don’t always listen.
WINNER: Berne, just.
6. 1966: A Gift of Prophecy.
By Ruth Montgomery.
By Laura Hillenbrand.
THEN: The biography that made Jeane Dixon the most famous psychic in America. Dixon’s big claim to fame was predicting the death of, yes, John F. Kennedy.
NOW: Heroism, impossible odds, and triumph in the life of Louis Zamperini.
WINNER: Hillenbrand, easy.
7. 1966: Kennedy.
By Theodore C. Sorensen.
By Mark R. Levin.
THEN: Bob Woodward cry your heart out—Sorensen was actually there, a buzzing fly at the table of the most significant moments of JFK’s presidency. He saw it all, he gave Kennedy his words, and then he wrote just what America needed.
8. 1966: The Last Battle.
By Cornelius Ryan.
2012: Bringing Up Bébé.
By Pamela Druckerman.
THEN: From the honeyed pen of a veteran war correspondent, all the bloodshed, voices, and terrifying “you are there” account of the desperate final battle for Berlin. (Hint: Think Ambrose but better.)
NOW: French kids eat spinach and ours can too.
NOW: How the left is destroying America (take that, Jack).
9. 1966: I Saw Red China.
By Lisa Hobbs.
2012: Thinking Fast and Slow.
By Daniel Kahneman.
THEN: A memoir by the first newspaperwoman to visit Communist China, who became entranced with the country’s great experiment.
NOW: Nobel Prize winner revolutionizes how we think about how we make decisions.
10. 1966: The Lady of the House.
By Sally Stanford.
By Elaine Pagels.
THEN: Memoirs by madams were hot in the ’50s and ’60s. Stanford ran a popular San Francisco brothel in the ’40s, about which Herb Caen claimed “the United Nations was founded at Sally Stanford’s whorehouse.”
NOW: How the Bible ends put in context.
WINNER: Devil’s delight.
1. 1966: The Source.
By James Michener.
2012: The Thief.
By Clive Cussler and Justin Scott.
THEN: Chronicling an archeological dig in Israel that allowed him to expose thousands of years of history, Michener tweaked the formula that he would use in doorstop-size novels for decades.
NOW: Scientists on an ocean liner have something everyone wants.
2. 1966: The Embezzler.
By Louis Auchincloss.
2012: Lone Wolf.
By Jodi Picoult.
THEN: Auchincloss chronicled the lives of Manhattan’s rich and WASPy in this shockingly contemporary novel of a financier who steals money, with echoes of Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and our whole era.
NOW: A wolf researcher faces family tragedy.
3. 1966: The Double Image.
By Heather MacInnes.
2012: A Rising Thunder.
By David Weber.
THEN: A death-camp Nazi accidentally exposed after World War II, glamorous European settings, a smart but baffled hero-these were the sorts of ingredients with which she created bestselling thrillers for decades.
NOW: Galactic freedom is at stake.
4. 1966: Those Who Love.
By Irving Stone.
2012: Fair Game.
By Patricia Briggs.
THEN: He more or less invented the modern biographical novel-this one is a double portrait of John and Abigail Adams.
NOW: Werewolves help FBI track serial killer.
5. 1966: Valley of the Dolls.
By Jacquelyn Susann.
2012: Kill Shot.
By Vince Flynn.
THEN: This story of three young women trying to make it in New York show business is a lamely written book that succeeded in spite of itself. Its infectious prurience about sex and drugs hit a national nerve.
NOW: Red-blooded CIA agent slaughters terrorist hordes.
6. 1966: The Comedians.
By Graham Greene.
2012: Private Games.
By James Patterson and Mark Sullivan.
THEN: Yes, a writer as stylish and entertaining as Greene used to regularly show up on the bestseller list, as in this dark depiction of Haiti under Papa Doc’s swinging machetes.
NOW: Patterson, again.
WINNER: Greene, who else?
7. 1966: Up the Down Staircase.
By Bel Kaufman.
2012: Chasing Midnight.
By Randy Wayne White.
THEN: Today it would be called a memoir. This frank, funny account of a newbie high-school teacher is built on the kind of detail-kids, curriculum, teachers’ lounge shoptalk-that can’t be faked.
NOW: All goes wrong on a Florida island for Doc Martin.
8. 1966: Billion-Dollar Brain.
By Len Deighton.
2012: Celebrity in Death.
By J.D. Robb.
THEN: Double agents, dead drops, communist sympathizers, it’s the world of John le Carré, who quite honestly did it better, but it’s hard not to miss the crisp, gripping Deighton.
NOW: Famous detective finds herself starring in her own movie.
WINNER: Reader’s choice.
9. 1966: Tell No Man.
By Adela Rogers St. Johns.
2012: Defending Jacob.
By William Landay.
THEN: A businessman enters the clergy, upending his marriage and much else.
NOW: D.A.’s son is charged with murder in New England town.
10. 1966: The Lockwood Concern.
By John O’Hara.
By Jonathan Kellerman.
THEN: Another of his family sagas but lively for late O’Hara, who never lost the coldest eye in American fiction. He thought he should be hailed as Fitzgerald’s equal (no, he wasn’t nuts). He had to settle for being popular.
NOW: Bloody, vicious serial killer terrifies Los Angeles.
Sources: The March 27, 1966, and March 26, 2012, New York Times bestseller lists for hardcover nonfiction and fiction.