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Memory Kits: Books of the 1960s

Memory kits are for people with dementia, memory loss, or cognitive impairment. They are intended to stimulate conversation or reminiscence with a person with cognitive issues

Books of the 1960s

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)


I probably don’t have to underscore the enduring importance and influence of this novel for you, but just as a reminder, it was an instant phenomenon when it was published in 1960, becoming a bestseller and winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year. According to Christopher Metress’s 2003 essay “The Rise and Fall of Atticus Finch,” it ultimately sold more than 30,000,000 copies worldwide, third bestselling American novel of the 20th century. In a 1991 “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conduced by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, it was mentioned second, after the Bible, as a book that made a difference in respondents’ lives—in part, no doubt, because of the culture-wide lionization of Atticus Finch.

Though it has suffered a bit with age (and with the release of the “sequel”), it has been widely assigned in schools for decades and is still firmly an American classic, in part because of its readability. “Sometimes novels are considered “important” in the way medicine is—they taste terrible and are difficult to get down your throat, but are good for you,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in The Guardian on the novel’s 50th anniversary. “The best novels are those that are important without being like medicine; they have something to say, are expansive and intelligent but never forget to be entertaining and to have character and emotion at their centre. Harper Lee’s triumph is one of those.”; accessed October 13, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 13, 2022.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)


According to Friedan’s obituary in the New York Times, this book (can we call it “seminal?” I don’t know) “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world.” It sold millions of copies and established Friedan as one of the chief architects of the women’s liberation and second-wave feminist movement—which, despite being rather passé now, made a monumental difference in American society. Social theorist Alvin Toffler described it as “the book that pulled the trigger on history.”; accessed October 13, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 13, 2022.

Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr. (1964)



Why We Can't Wait is a 1964 book by Martin Luther King Jr. about the nonviolent movement against racial segregation in the United States, and specifically the 1963 Birmingham campaign. The book describes 1963 as a landmark year in the civil rights movement, and as the beginning of America's "Negro Revolution".

The seed of the book is King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The letter became nationally known and received interest from the New York publishing world, which Stanley Levison relayed to King in May 1963.[1] Soon after, Levison made a deal with New American Library publisher Victor Weybright, who suggested that the theme of not waiting be used for the title. Weybright also gave permission for "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to be republished in national newspapers and magazines; it appeared in July 1963 as "Why the Negro Won't Wait".[2]

King began working on the book later in 1963, with assistance from Levison and Clarence Jones.[3] Some early work on the text was done by Al Duckett (also a participant in the movement). King and Levison eventually dismissed Duckett and then Nat Lamar, and Levison did some work on the text himself. Bayard Rustin also contributed, as did editor Hermine I. Popper.[4][5]

Rustin said: "I don't want to write something for somebody where I know he is acting like a puppet. I want to be a real ghost and write what the person wants to say. And that is what I always knew was true in the case of Martin. I would never write anything that wasn't what he wanted to say. I understood him well enough."[6]

The book largely reproduces the text of "Letter from Birmingham Jail", with some editorial changes.[7] King writes in a footnote: "Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author's prerogative in polishing it for publication."[8]; accessed October 14, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 14, 2022.



Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)


It’s a little unfair to choose Ariel, because it came out after Plath’s death. But it would be just as unfair to choose The Bell Jar, which was only published just before, and while being very famous, is not really her best work, or The Colossus, where she was holding back. So in order to represent Plath’s enormous influence on the literary landscape of the decade—and of the decades since—I will choose Ariel, which includes most of Plath’s best and best-known poems, including “The Applicant” (always my personal favorite), “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy.” Plath won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982, for her Collected Poems.; accessed by October 13, 2022.

Image: accessed October 13, 2022.



Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)


Dune is set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which various noble houses control planetary fiefs. It tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the planet Arrakis. While the planet is an inhospitable and sparsely populated desert wasteland, it is the only source of melange, or "spice", a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities. Melange is also necessary for space navigation, which requires a kind of multidimensional awareness and foresight that only the drug provides. As melange can only be produced on Arrakis, control of the planet is a coveted and dangerous undertaking. The story explores the multilayered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the factions of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its spice.; accessed December 7, 2022

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)


Even if Joan Didion wasn’t on a certain tote bag, this collection would hold its own as an essential text of the 1960s—one that defines and describes it, particularly if you live in California. In 1979, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Didion “has created, in her books, one of the most devastating and distinctive portraits of modern America to be found in fiction or nonfiction—a portrait of America where “disorder was its own point.” A gifted reporter with an eye for the telling detail-the frayed hem, the shaking hand-she is also a prescient witness, finding in her own experiences parallels of the times. The voice is always precise, the tone unsentimental, the view unabashedly subjective. She takes things personally.” She is still the foremost chronicler of the American 60s, and one of the most important living American writers. October 14, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 14, 2022.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)


Despite its strangeness, mixing science fiction, historical fiction, autobiography, and satire with a strong postmodern hand, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five achieved cult status after its publication, which landed smack in the middle of the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement. The novel, wrote critic Jerome Klinkowitz, “so perfectly caught America’s transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age.” The repeated phrase “so it goes” entered the lexicon as well, a response to death and destruction that, according to the Times, “became a catchphrase for opponents of the Vietnam war.” But even outside of the context of Vietnam, this novel has become a touchstone for young readers, and despite its popularity, I’d still categorize it as a cult classic today—it remains a shibboleth for a certain kind of reader, at a certain age.; accessed October 14, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 14, 2022.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)


The Godfather is a crime novel by American author Mario Puzo. Originally published in 1969 by G. P. Putnam's Sons, the novel details the story of a fictional Mafia family in New York City (and Long Island), headed by Vito Corleone, the Godfather. The novel covers the years 1945 to 1955 and includes the back story of Vito Corleone from early childhood to adulthood.

The first in a series of novels, The Godfather is noteworthy for introducing Italian words like consigliere, caporegime, Cosa Nostra, and omertà to an English-speaking audience. It inspired a 1972 film of the same name. Two film sequels, including new contributions by Puzo himself, were made in 1974 and 1990.

In The New York Times, Roger Jellinek wrote that the book was "bound to be hugely successful, and not simply because the Mafia is in the news. Mr. Puzo's novel is a voyeur’s dream, a skillful fantasy of violent personal power without consequences. The victims of the Corleone 'family' are hoods, or corrupt cops – nobody you or I would actually want to know. Just business, as Don Vito would say, not personal. You never glimpse regular people in the book, let alone meet them, so there is no opportunity to sympathize with anyone but the old patriarch, as he makes the world safe for his beloved 'family.'"[1] The novel remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 67 weeks and sold over nine million copies in two years.[2]; accessed October 24, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 24, 2022.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)


Heinlein’s classic was the first science fiction novel ever to become a New York Times bestseller. “It didn’t just sell to science fiction readers, it sold widely to everyone, even people who didn’t normally read at all,” Jo Walton wrote. “People claim it was one of the things that founded the counter-culture of the sixties in the U.S. It’s Heinlein’s best known book and it has been in print continuously ever since first publication. Sitting reading it in the metro the other day, a total stranger assured me that it was a good book. It was a zeitgeist book that captured imaginations.” The book is certainly problematic by today’s standards, and I even thought it was pretty corny when I read it as a teenager, but there’s no denying its cultural influence. (This kind of observation has led at least one critic to call it the Catcher in the Rye of SF.) It got thousands of readers into science fiction, and was so famous that one of its essential invented terms—to “grok“—made it into common usage and even the OED. For another, it invented a religion— the “Church of All Worlds”—that was eventually actually founded by a guy named Tim Zell. It also probably made the waterbed happen. No big deal.; accessed October 13, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 13, 2022.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)


Catch-22 is a satirical war novel by American author Joseph Heller. He began writing it in 1953; the novel was first published in 1961. Often cited as one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century,[3] it uses a distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration, describing events from the points of view of different characters. The separate storylines are out of sequence so the timeline develops along with the plot.

The novel is set during World War II, from 1942 to 1944. It mainly follows the life of antihero Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th US Army Air Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy, although it also covers episodes from basic training at Lowry Field in Colorado and Air Corps training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in California. The novel examines the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of Yossarian and his cohorts, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home.

A "Catch-22" is "a problem for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule."[14] For example, losing something is typically a conventional problem; to solve it, one looks for the lost item until one finds it. But if the thing lost is one's glasses, one cannot see to look for them – a Catch-22. The term "Catch-22" is also used more broadly to mean a tricky problem or a no-win or absurd situation.

In the book, Catch-22 is a military rule typifying bureaucratic operation and reasoning. The rule is not stated in a precise form, but the principal example in the book fits the definition above: If one is crazy, one does not have to fly missions; and one must be crazy to fly. But one has to apply to be excused, and applying demonstrates that one is not crazy. As a result, one must continue flying, either not applying to be excused, or applying and being refused. The narrator explains:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)

Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs' explanation of one of Catch-22's provisions: "Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating." Another character explains: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of force with specious and spurious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.

The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994's Closing Time, Heller's sequel to Catch-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of some of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tail gunner Sammy Singer.; accessed November 18, 2022.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley/Malcolm X (1965)


Highly inflammatory, highly influential, and highly political, Malcolm X himself was a major force in America in the 1960s—and he was only around for half of it, because in 1965, he was assassinated. His autobiography, as told to Alex Haley in the two years preceding his death, was published later the same year, and it is a truly inspirational, angry, and transformative text, working with incendiary ideas as well as postmodern literary techniques. It sold millions of copies and galvanized its readership—in Revolution in the Air, Max Elbaum calls it “without question the single most widely read and influential book among young people of all racial backgrounds who went to their first demonstration sometime between 1965 and 1968″—to protest, make art, and change minds. In his essay “Malcolm’s Mythmaking,” originally published in 1992, David Bradley writes:

“When I was a young college student in the early seventies, the book I read which revolutionized my thinking about race and politics was The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” wrote bell hooks in “Sitting at the Feet of the Messenger: Remembering Malcolm X.” She is not alone. Ask any middle-aged socially conscious intellectual to list the books that influenced his or her youthful thinking, and he or she will most likely mention The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Some will do more than mention it. Some will say that, back in the sixties (by which they really mean the late sixties and early seventies), when they were young and earnest but callow, and oh, so confused, they picked it up—by accident, or maybe by assignment, or because a friend pressed it on them—and that they approached the reading of it without great expectations, but somehow that book . . . took hold of them. Got inside them. Altered their vision, their outlook, their insight. Changed their lives.; accessed October 13, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 13, 2022.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)


Originally published as a four-week serial in The New Yorker, starting with the September 25, 1965 issue, then published by Random House the following January, Capote’s “nonfiction novel” was among the first of its kind, and was also the first real blockbuster of the New Journalism movement, becoming a bestseller and rocketing him to fame. “I’ve been staggered by the letters I’ve received, their quality of sensibility, their articulateness, the compassion of their authors,” Capote told George Plimpton in 1966.

The letters are not fan letters. They’re from people deeply concerned about what it is I’ve written about. About 70 percent of the letters think of the book as a reflection on American life, this collision between the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life, and the other, which is insular and safe, more or less. It has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control.

“It is hard to think of any murder case involving six relatively unknown individuals that has captured so many imaginations,” wrote Ed Pilkington in The Guardian 50 years after the book’s release. “In Cold Blood" has sold millions of copies and been translated into 30 languages. It was made into a black-and-white film of the same name in 1967 and there was a colour remake in 1996.” He cites the precision of the prose and the depth of the research as possible reasons for its instant and ongoing cultural relevance. “There is also something monumental about the timing of the book,” he says.

America in 1959 was at a crossroads. It was still bathing in the victory of the second world war and ensuing economic boom. The country was confident and secure, and the body blows of Vietnam still lay ahead.

Nowhere was this sense of purpose more evident than in the US heartlands, with their hundreds of tight-knit communities, like Holcomb, scattered along railway lines across the Great Plains. Capote noted with satisfaction that Holcomb itself lies almost in the exact middle of the continental US.

If Holcomb was representative of that small-town rootedness that defined 1959 America, then the Clutters were representative of Holcomb. “Of all the people in all the world,” Capote quotes a local detective, “the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.”; accessed October 13, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 13, 2022.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)


Angelou’s first book, a memoir of her childhood, became a bestseller upon its publication, “confounding the stereotype,” as her obituary in the New York Times put it, “pervasive in the publishing world, that black women’s lives were rarely worthy of autobiography.” Her work was widely praised, widely assigned, widely read, and opened the door to many writers to follow her. “When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" came out, in 1970, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist,” wrote Hilton Als in The New Yorker. “Relegated to the margins of life, [black women] found it difficult to rewrite themselves as central characters. Only in private could they talk about their personal lives. But Angelou took those stories public. She wrote about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense.” But this wasn’t actually new territory, Als argues.

The success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, like that of many memoirs, had less to do with the originality of its writing than with its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist. By the time [it] was published, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were dead, and the only hope for black politics, it seemed, lay in the voices that were just beginning to be heard: those of such strong-willed female politicians as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, two of the first black women to serve in Congress. Chisholm and Jordan, products of the colonial West Indies and the Old South, respectively, pinned their speeches to the idea of a changing United States, and it was their brand of rhetoric—a fierce criticism of the past blended with a kind of survivor’s optimism, a belief in the future of the urban family—that cleared the way for Angelou’s narrative of damage, perseverance, and eventual triumph.