A conversation with a colleague this week led me on a not-entirely successful search for the “best” books of 1972.
The gist of the conversation is something like this: Asked about the “best” books that came out last year, I admitted I don’t read that much new fiction, so I had no idea.
I also said something cavalier along the lines of, It takes like half a century to know if a novel is important or not. (This is not a statement I entirely believe in.)
So what did folks in 1972 think the best books published that year were?
The first thing I did is check the bestsellers of fiction that year.
(I should be clear that I’m mostly interested in novels here, or books of a novelistic/artistic scope, whatever that means–so I didn’t really pursue nonfiction stuff that much here.)
The New York Time’s fiction bestsellers for 1972 is dominated by two novels: Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (21 weeks) and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (26 weeks). Fiction bestsellers are often (but not always) entertainments that we don’t expect to last over time, and while Wouk and Bach’s titles still get reprints every decade or so, they aren’t exactly Ulysses (published fifty years earlier in 1922).
So I looked for what titles the NYT critics deemed the best books of 1972. The contemporary NYT comes up with a list of ten titles each year (five fiction, five non-), but things were a little looser fifty years ago. In December of that year, the NYT offered just “Five Significant Books of 1972.”
This list is entirely nonfiction:
The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, edited by Robert Manson Myers (“…a loving work of scholarship. From 6,000 letters written among several branches of a Southern family between 1854 and 1865, Robert Manson Myers has woven 1,200 of them into a massive and touching portrait of a bygone society.”)
The Master by Leon Edel (“With…the fifth and final volume of his biography of Henry James, Leon Edel brings to a close a literary labor of 20 years.”)
Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (“…the richest kind of contemporary history; it places political and military events in cultural perspective—something rarely done in the hundreds of books written about Vietnam during the last dozen years.”)
The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Patrick O’Brian (“…confronts a subject of universal private anguish and universal public silence…she has single‐handedly established a history of and a rhetoric for the process of aging.”)
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (“…a magisterial exercise in ‘moral geometry.'”)
Rawls’s book is the only one I’ve heard of and de Beauvoir is the only other author whose name I recognize on the list (I did know that there was a ridiculously long multi-volume biography of Henry James). Beyond the list’s being all nonfiction (if there was a fiction version somewhere, I could not find it), it’s also remarkable how long each of the books is: the shortest is 491 pages; the longest is 1,845 pages. Those are long books!
I tried searching for other newspaper and magazine lists of best books of 1972 but came up short. If anyone has anything else to offer for contemporary thoughts on the best of ’72 (by which I mean, folks in ’72 on the best of ’72), I’m all virtual ears.
I then looked into what Goodreads had to say.
I have no idea how their list works, but Richard Adams’s Watership Down tops it. That book completely fucked me up as a kid, which is maybe why I didn’t press too hard when both of my children were reluctant to read it when I pressed it on them. I think it’s a classic though (oh, and it made The New York Times year-end list in 1974–I guess it didn’t get an American publication until then?).
I don’t really think Watership Down is a children’s book, but rounding out the top three on the Goodreads list are two classics of the genre: Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together and Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing comes in way too low at #44.)
And now, because I’m lazy, I will use the rest of the list to offer an incomplete, inconclusive, and ultimately unnecessary list of the best books of 1972. There are many books on the list I’m pilfering from I have not read (including ones by authors whose books I esteem, like Nabokov, Welty, DeLillo, and Atwood), and these books may deserve a spot, as might the many many books that have failed through no fault of their own to wind up under the right eyes, ears, hands.
Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Angela Carter
Watership Down, Richard Adams
The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. LeGuin
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
Roadside Picnic, Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky