It’s likely you’ve never read, or even heard of, most of the books Atlantic writers have reviewed since the magazine was founded in 1857. Many have gone out of print; others have faded into obscurity in the decades since their original publication, sinking beneath waves of new works and new literary trends. But some have been buoyed into the upper echelons of literature and cemented as classics, must-reads, cultural touchstones.
Among the thousands of book reviews in the archives, some stand out as enduringly strange or significant: an 1886 appraisal of The Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, for instance, or the 1967 reflection on reading Doctor Zhivago from Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. The contemporaneous reviews of books we now recognize as classics are also striking, preserving critics’ unmediated impressions of notable works before they came pre-marked with esteem and consequence.
The reception of such books in our archives is mixed: Atlantic contributors recognized Great Expectations as a “masterpiece” but found To Kill a Mockingbird “undemanding.” And a reviewer wrote that On the Road, now widely beloved and considered a defining work of its artistically rich era, “disappoints.”
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
To Kill a Mockingbird is “pleasant, undemanding reading” (1960)
“It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.”