1969 was a year like few others. Neil Armstrong took the most famous step in history, Richard Nixon entered the White House, the Vietnam War dragged on while protests raged on, one family’s endless connection with tragedy continued when Edward Kennedy drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, the Beatles gave their final public performance, Woodstock preached love, peace and music but the Manson Family offered nothing but shocking violence.
But what about the books from 1969? What were people reading during this landmark year of change, turmoil and liberation?
Fittingly an anti-war novel - Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five - is probably the finest book to emerge from this year. It achieved both significant sales and critical acclaim, and has stood the test of time very well. Critics still talk in hushed tones about Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth – one of 1969’s most influential novels.
Forty years ago, readers were also gripped by intrigue in Mario Puzo’s complex tale of mafia violence in The Godfather and Michael Crichton’s page-turning techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain. In the UK, the first Booker Prize was given to P. H. Newby for Something to Answer For – a novel that has definitely not stood the test of time.
1969 also saw the creation of Flashman, one of the most popular and enduring anti-heroes of the past 40 years. George MacDonald Fraser’s final Flashman novel, Flashman on the March, was published in 2005.
In terms of non-fiction, little compares with Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That autobiography hasn’t aged a single day and is still capable of reducing readers to tears.
A mention should go to Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, also published in 1969. It’s not Greene’s finest piece of writing but the book inspired many to live to the fullest.
Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe (revealed not to exist) was the literary hoax of the year – a bestselling trashy novel collaboratively written by a group of journalists keen to prove that any old badly written, dumbed down rubbish with a hefty dose of sex could be successful. No change there then.
But what was the real book of the year? The book that never went out of fashion, the book that endured through four decades and has been read by thousands of people day-in, day-out and loved by all of them – The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It only contains 225 words, but has sold 30 million copies.