Baby Boomers and Books: A Love Affair With Literature

When Harper-Collins recently rolled out its new line of large-print books aimed at the aging boomer market, I was riled. "I don't need no stinkin' large print," I grumbled. Then I picked up the first book in the new format, Michael Crichton's "Next," and I had to admit that—well, it was a little easier on the eyes. So this is what we've come to, I thought as I sat down to write this essay—and immediately jumped the typeface on my computer to 16-point. These days, boomer literature isn't any particular kind of writing. It's just books with big print.

Though really, boomers should probably be flattered that someone still considers us a target audience at all. But the underlying suggestion is valid enough: was there ever a time when the boomer generation could be defined by a common bookshelf? Certainly most people can, without much trouble, think of titles and authors and characters that serve as a kind of shorthand for readers who came of age in the '60s and '70s. Holden Caulfield needs no introduction. "Fear and loathing" is a catchphrase that won't die. Green eggs and ham are on everyone's menu. I haven't seen a copy in 30 years, but I can still remember the faux-hippie lettering on the cover of "The Greening of America," and the way everyone's copy of "The Medium Is the Massage" fell apart because the spines always cracked. I can see the Ballantine Books logo on the spine of "Lord of the Rings." "Soul on Ice," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" were oversize paperbacks, so they got separate shelf space from the smaller books, while The Whole Earth Catalog and "Our Bodies, Ourselves" were always on their sides, because they were too tall for any shelf. If you went to someone's apartment, you surreptitiously scanned the bookshelves (wood planks, cinder blocks) to see what kind of person this was. When did this first start? Prekindergarten, most likely: She's got "The Cat in the Hat." OK, she's cool.

Chances are that no single baby boomer read every single title on the boomer hit parade. Older boomers were more likely to own a copy of "On the Road." The youngest were more likely to go with "Bright Lights, Big City." Books are almost never the cultural markers that songs or movies are, if only because it takes a lot more effort to read a book. Who hasn't spent time squirming at a dinner party while everyone else was rambling ecstatically about Frodo or Dean Moriarty or some other character in a book that you know only by reputation? You didn't have to be a Dylan fan to know what Dylan was all about, because sooner or later you heard some, like it or not. But if you hadn't read Marshall McLuhan or Erica Jong, then you just had to sit there hoping someone would change the subject.

It's easy to write about the counterculture and think that you are writing about the '60s, when in fact you are writing about a very small part of the '60s. In the pop-culture version of rock-paper-scissors, movies and music will beat books every time in terms of the sheer audience numbers. But there is a ripple effect with books. The most direct ripple goes through Hollywood. The film version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made Nurse Ratched a household name across the country. "Lord of the Rings" has been read by millions, but when the movie versions appeared, millions more saw it. And now and then a book gets into the culture all on its own and stubbornly refuses to leave. It's hard to imagine the '60s turning out the same way without "On the Road," "The Feminine Mystique" or "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." The noteworthy distinction with boomer books was the missionary zeal with which readers pressed their favorites on other readers. There were books that changed our lives, or we thought so at the time we first read them, and we wanted to spread the word. Maybe your book was "Understanding Media" or "The Catcher in the Rye." Mine was "To Kill a Mockingbird," a book I read until it threatened to fall apart in my hands. I still have my dog-eared copy, a paperback with a still from the movie as the jacket illustration. I still take it off the shelf and reread passages from time to time. But I don't love it unconditionally any longer. In fact, I find it a somewhat curious book to have taken to heart. I didn't grow up in a small Southern town. I had no siblings. The first time I read the novel, I didn't even know what rape was. The circumstances of my upbringing were, to my adolescent mind, much too bland. I grew up in an apartment in a middle-size Southern city, and as far as I could tell, nothing exciting ever happened there, to me or to anyone I knew. The childhood of Scout and Jem and Dill was not the childhood I had. It was the childhood I wanted.

Looking at the books that boomers read when they were young, you see a good number that embody such fantasies. Some of them are fantasies outright ("Lord of the Rings," "Stranger in a Strange Land"). Some set forth a utopian ideal ("The Greening of America"). But it wasn't all jolly elves living in cozy burrows. Quite a few books on that list embody surprisingly hard-nosed visions of life. "The Catcher in the Rye" verified what we already knew about the harshness of adolescence. "Catch-22" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" confirmed our suspicions that we were living in a world that made no sense. This was, after all, a generation that came of age in a world where assassinations were the norm and where soldiers could say with a straight face that they destroyed a village to save it.

The most noteworthy thing about that list, however, is that almost none of the books on it were written before 1950. Given the choice, we weren't the least bit interested in what tradition had to tell us. We didn't want to read what our parents read. We wanted to start with a fresh slate. Because … well, if for no other reason, because we could.

You can easily write history by sighting through the lens of technology, and when it comes to recent history, it's all about delivery systems. The digitization of music has remade the record industry in less than a decade. My children don't own many CDs, but their computers and iPods are packed with songs. My generation's equivalent of the iPod was the paperback book. My mother was a card-carrying library patron. But for the first time in history, after World War II, books were ubiquitous, plentiful and, most important, cheap. When I went to college in 1970, most paperbacks cost about $1, roughly the price of a 45rpm record. They were affordable even to teenagers, and they were available even in cities like mine where the bookstores were really stationery stores that stocked a few books. You could buy a paperback in the drugstore (or just stand there and read it until they threw you out), the grocery store, the bus station. When I was a teenager in the '60s, the only people I knew who owned hardcover books were my friends' parents who belonged to mail-order book clubs. Everyone my age read paperbacks.

What we read was our business, and we did it for fun. So we read what our friends read: "Soul on Ice," "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," "Love Story," "A Confederate General From Big Sur," "Lord of the Flies," "The Feminine Mystique," "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," "The Martian Chronicles"—it wasn't all good, but it sure was eclectic. Science fiction and fantasy especially weren't on school reading lists, so there was an element of discovery, of laying claim to something that, as far as we knew, was ours and ours alone: Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and this strange writer named Vonnegut, who mixed sci-fi and fantasy and a sort of droll Twainian humor. And if you didn't like a book, you tossed it or traded it. No matter how bad any of it was, it was better than "Silas Marner."

It was through paperbacks passed back and forth surreptitiously that we discovered most of what we knew about sex: "Candy," "Fanny Hill," "Portnoy's Complaint," "Valley of the Dolls." You might read about love-ins in newsmagazines, but details were scarce. The '60s, for all their reputation as an era of sexual freedom, were, for most of us, an uptight time. Nudity hadn't made it to the movies. Couples in sitcoms still slept in twin beds. There were skin magazines, but they didn't teach you much besides basic anatomy, and that was a boy thing. If you wanted to learn anything about sex, you read, and the search for sex scenes in novels led us from Michener to "The Godfather." I once got a ride home in junior high from a friend's mom who caught me reading Mary McCarthy's "The Group." She gave me a funny look, but she didn't ask and I didn't tell.

Sex helped make avid readers out of my generation, but after a while we were just avid readers. Philip Roth led us to Milan Kundera. Kerouac led to Ginsberg. We learned that there was a lot more to Nabokov than just "Lolita." Despite all that's been said about the boomers' navel-gazing solipsism, no one can deny that those of us who did read were omnivorous readers. At the height of our self-absorption in the '60s, we found time to explore the disparate worlds of Malcolm X, Tralfamadore and Betty Friedan. And we're still at it. The generation that once rather pompously wanted to start the world from scratch now sends practically every book written about the Founding Fathers straight to the top of the best-seller list. The richest irony of all is that as readers we've made a rich man of Tom Wolfe, a writer who's spent the better part of his career dissecting boomer pretensions. We may have all thought of ourselves, at one time or another, as "masters of the universe," but somewhere along the line we learned to laugh at ourselves a little.

Hey, I hear you there in the back. What about memoir, you want to know. The so-called literary art form of our time—isn't that nothing more than the height of navel-gazing and self-absorption? To which I can only reply, I told you it was complicated. But yes, boomer writers (like me) do spend a lot of time in the first-person singular. (Whenever I see Tom Wolfe's phrase "the Me Decade," I always think, "Just one?") Again, maybe it has something to do with our early crash-and-burn disappointments with utopianism and easy generalizations. Because while I agree that you can't write a memoir without a generous helping of self-absorption, I also think that memoir is the last refuge of writers who suspect everything but what they have learned firsthand. And when I read the best of the boomer memoirists, such as Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff, I don't think, what a narcissist. I think, instead, that what's making these stories work is that the writers are as hard on themselves as they are on everyone else.

The best memoirists are cranks at heart. They don't want anyone else telling them how it all happened. They want to do the telling. They're like some old coot down in the basement building a car from scratch. And what is that if not a boomer trait, maybe the best of all? When I was in my 20s, I knew no fewer than four couples who were building their own houses. Boomer writers have always struck me the same way: willing to try anything and use anything at hand to get the job done—the ultimate do-it-yourselfers. And boomer artists in any medium have never acknowledged any high and low in art. It's all fair game. How else do you think they came up with graphic novels? Combining serious narrative with the lowliest of art forms—the comic book—they invented a new genre, a genre flexible enough to contain the weirdness of R. Crumb and the Holocaust memories of Art Spiegelman's parents. Self-reliance, self-invention—these ideas are as old as the republic. But in their art—from rock to graphic novels—the boomers took these concepts about as far as any generation has. There are few, if any, schools of writing, just lots of individualist writers going their own way.

In that light, if I had to nominate one book to stand for my generation, it wouldn't be a novel, or a memoir, or a graphic novel. It would be The Whole Earth Catalog. First published in 1968, the brainchild of Stewart Brand went through many subsequent editions. In it you could find information on raising goats, building a geodesic dome—just about anything. It was the first place I heard of the architectural writing of Christopher Alexander, solar power, paleontologist Gregory Bateson, the tools of Smith & Hawken and the excellent novelist Gurney Norman, whose "Divine Right's Trip" was first published on every other page of the first edition of the catalog. The catalog's subtitle was "Access to Tools," and the first lesson it taught me was that a book is a kind of tool, a thing you use to learn with.

It is, at last, out of print, but that fact belies this ultimate baby-boomer bible's profound influence on the culture—not the counterculture but the whole culture. In a way, you could say that the catalog put itself out of business, because it so successfully anticipated the way we currently gain access to information—to almost everything, really. Not coincidentally, Brand was an early fan of the computer and the Internet. The way I searched for information in the pages of that counterculture wishbook, one reference leading to another, in an endless chain of influence, is almost exactly the way I use a computer. The Whole Earth Catalog was just the first, and very successful, prototype of a search engine.

"We are as gods, and might as well get good at it," Brand wrote in the first edition of The Whole Earth Catalog. When it comes to books, I think we took his advice. I don't know many boomers who were readers to start with who stopped reading later in life. On the other hand, I know a lot of music fans who stopped paying attention long before CDs were introduced. Boomer readers just kept reading, and they aren't just reading the same old stuff—does anyone read Brautigan or Heinlein anymore? We go to readings and join book clubs and, most important, we do everything we can to make sure our children read. And we're still proselytizing! With the exceptions, mercifully, of "Love Story" and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," practically every book mentioned here has appeared on a reading list brought home by my high-school-age children. Who would have imagined it—boomer educators, working for change from inside the system!