Fifty years ago, they were putting out some darn good books

Published April 12, 2024

In 1974, the Cold War and space race were in full swing, Richard Nixon got into a spot of bother, and the U.S. population reached 213 million. It was the year of The Godfather Part II and the first few disco hits.

But it was also a year for literary bangers. If you don’t believe us, well, obviously it’s what this article is about. Fifty years later, the top five six books of 1974, according to Goodreads users, have held up remarkably well:

1. Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein died 25 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped much of anyone from reading him. A profound, endearing, and funny collection that he also illustrated–remember, one of his first gigs was drawing cartoons for Playboy–Silverstein’s poetry debut uses beautiful metaphors and simple language to subtly communicate childhood concerns while also appealing to adults. Like a 20th-century Bluey! And since Goodreads was founded in 2006, more than 1.4 million readers have stopped by to signal their agreement.

2. Carrie, Stephen King

Released almost exactly 50 years ago, on April 5, it’s not hard to see the enduring appeal of Stephen King’s debut. Highlighting the relatable tropes of teenage life, bullying, and how they push a shy (and in this case, telekinetic) girl over the edge, Carrie delivers an emotional buffet of shame and rage, culminating in one of modern literature’s most famously bloody climaxes. Not only do Goodreaders like it, but the novel is widely credited with bringing back horror as a genre after decades in the wilderness. Not bad!

3. Jaws, Peter Benchley

Even more than Sissy Spacek as Carrie, Jaws is a book that’s been retrospectively overshadowed by its film adaptation (which happens to also be #3 on the all-time best movies with one-word titles). But the book dominated best-seller lists for 44 weeks, so before Spielberg got his teeth into it, Benchley had clearly already hit a sweet spot with readers who were (and still are) both frightened and fascinated by sharks. Later in his life, the author became a conservationist, regretting his unfair portrayal of sharks as vengeful killing machines. And, well, he sure made enough royalties to contribute to the cause …

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré

Surprisingly the fifth George Smiley book, this one tasked him with finding a Soviet mole in the British Intelligence Service (where Le Carré himself once worked). Still considered a classic spy novel, the book was most recently adapted in 2011, with Gary Oldman starring as the aging spymaster. In 2022, the 70th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, it was also selected as one of 70 exemplary “Big Jubilee Reads” by Commonwealth authors. (The queen herself probably didn’t get around to reading it though, because… well, you know.)

5. (tie) Centennial, James Michener

Brimming with stories of America’s past, like so many Michener novels, this one specifically follows the history of Colorado—the Centennial State—from 1795 to the mid-1970s. The book is a patchwork quilt of all of the people who shaped the West, with a heavy focus on the Arapaho tribe, but also the Comanche, cowboys and ranchers, trappers and traders, goldseekers and homesteaders, lawmen and lawbreakers. Plus we get the true story of Winston Churchill’s colorful-ass mom visiting ranches in the region, and you won’t get that from Stephen King. 

5. (tie)  The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

The second book of a Civil War trilogy, The Killer Angels covers Gettysburg, the “most bloody and courageous days in our nation’s history.” And Shaara must have done a pretty good job, since he picked up a Pulitzer the next year. None other than Gen. H. Norman “Desert Storm” Schwarzkopf called it “the best and most realistic historical novel about war that I have ever read.” Say what you will about the dude, but he probably read a lot of historical novels about war.

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