Seminal books for each decade

Andrew asks a tough question:

what do you think is more or less the equivalent of the great gatsby in every decade after the 20s?

Here are my picks:

1930s: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

1940s: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler.

1950s: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, with Kerouac’s On the Road as a runner-up.

1960s: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, with The Bell Jar and Herzog as runners-up.

1970s: This is tough.  There is Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Stephen King, and even Peter Benchley’s Jaws.  I’ll opt for Benchley as a dark horse pick, note that these aren’t my favorites but rather they must be culturally central.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another option, as this truly is an era of popular literature.

1980s: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

1990s: The Firm, by John Grisham, or Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible.  Maybe Brokeback Mountain.

2000s: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point.


The books of the 2000s should be The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter series (although the first book came out in 1997).

Atlas Shrugged, 1950s.

I'd have thought that every academic should have read Lucky Jim.

For the 1990s, I'd nominate The End of History -- the others seem pretty disposable. And for the 1940s? Isn't Farewell, My Lovely much better known as a film than a book? I'd suggest Orwell instead -- 1984 or Animal Farm. The case for influence seems sound if the wiki article is correct ("They have together sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author.")

Tipping Point? Am I the only person who found that book practically unreadable?

I'd go for 'His Dark Materials' personally, although I'm aware that isn't a single book.

I'm not sure about your pick for the '40s, although that was the age of manly fiction.

By the way, does this mean fiction ended in the 20th Century or that you consider Gladwell fiction? The New Yorker made a case in the '90s that best-selling novels of the day were really non-fiction in disguise.

suppose Hunter S was instrumental in this transition . Fear and Loathing .. 1970's ?

"By the way, does this mean fiction ended in the 20th Century or that you consider Gladwell fiction?"

Or, perhaps, that neither the question nor the answer ever mentioned fiction.

I can't go with Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, they are not enough "about America."

Hey, you didn't say anything about its having to be about America before.

Cryptonomicon was published in 1999, but if we can bend the rules a little then I think it counts as a definitive book of the 2000s.

I second Cryptonomicon -- and couldn't you say that the 1990s really started only with the Internet as mass phenomenon and ran at least until 9/11, just as the 60s didn't really start until the British Invasion (Jackie Kennedy with her pearls and white gloves was the 50s) and ran up until, say, the last helicopter took off from the roof of the embassy in Saigon? For that decade, I might nominate Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Come to think of it, The Grapes of Wrath, On The Road, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are a pretty good start for a category of 'classic American road novels by decade'.

I have often wondered why Zen and the Art has not endured

It was great literature.

Is it because Lila was so disappointing

For the 2000s I would nominate "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", though perhaps it is not direct enough about life in the 2000s.
For the 60s "Stranger in a Strange Land", it is of the time and captures the contradictions and zeitgeist of that era.

So, starting in the 80's a book about Wall Street excess and privileged. Followed in the 90s by a book about corporate greed and a firm that will stop at nothing, not even blackmail and murder to defend it profits and enrich its executives. To the 2000's with The Tipping Point. . .

I guess the book of the 2010's will be "The Rise and Decline of the American Empire." Not sure I can argue with the trend.

For the quintessential novel of the 1920s, I'd take Main Street over Gatsby.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace must make this list, maybe more for the 2000's than 1990's. Sometimes it takes a while for us to digest our quintessential books, but this one will likely be taught and discussed as a Gatsby for decades.

I don't see it. I think David Foster Wallace will be seen as this generation's Thomas Wolfe: a well-respected, greatly influential writer of autobiographical fiction who died to young, but is no longer read with the same rapture as the readers of his own time. I don't think DFW has the timelessness - especially IJ - that people assume he - or it - has.

I would recommend Spook Country by William Gibson as the definitive novel of America the early 2000's. The book bleeds zeitgeist, and it's the only one in the trilogy set almost entirely in America.

I initially thought this list was a joke, but the comments here are giving me pause. Acting under the assumption that TC is not joking, what explains the rapid post-60's deterioration in quality? Is this related to TGS?

Poor-quality universal education that stifles creativity and wide interests.

Television becomes the source of entertainment and knowledge.

The smartest people now go toward science, technology, law, and finance. The most creative wits now write for the television and movies.

Short attention spans.

For 2000s, I would've suggested something 9/11-related like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" or "Netherland".

For the 40s, I'd think a WWII novel would be needed. I'd nominate Cozzens' "Guard of Honor," though hardly anyone reads it any longer.

Gatsby is so beautifully written and dramatically structured, such a mirror of its age and an expression of sheer genius, that none of the cited books belongs on a list with it.

For the 1990s I'd vote for Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland, with the caveat that it's more early 1990s not late 1990s.

As I understand the challenge, the goal is not to identify the best book of a decade, or the most influential, but one that captures the popular notion of the mood of the era. So, "Bonfire of the Vanities" works well on that score for the 1980s, even if it isn't a particularly good book or a particularly fair or representative portrayal of the 1980s.

Some of the suggestions, while very good books, do not really meet the criteria. For instance, Cryptonomicon -- a favorite book of mine -- doesn't really capture what the 1990s or 2000s were perceived to be about. I'd say that Catch-22 and Brokeback Mountain fail this test pretty clearly, and I'm utterly mystified by the inclusion of the Tipping Point.

For the 2000s. John Strausbaugh's Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps and Stoopits, very trenchant depiction of how America has declined over the past decades.

Not sure if this was intentional, but very telling that in the 80's and 00's, the authors come first. Ahhh, celebrity.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides may deserve to be on this list. So much of it is about the immigrant experience and the past that one might say it doesn't capture the "present mood" but really does encapsulate much of what America makes America...and I can't imagine a book about a hermaphrodite being a bestseller in any other era.

John Fante's Ask the Dusk gets my vote for the 1930's. A William Gibson book (or possibly Neil Stephenson's "Snow Crash") would be good as a representation of "cyberpunk." Although they're all about the future, sometimes books about the future speak more about the present atmosphere than books that take place in the present (eg. "1984").

I like Snow Crash for the 1990s a lot. Middlesex is a great book, but I don't quite see it up there - it just feels a little half-baked and forced in some parts.

"The equivalent of The Great Gatsby" would have to be a bestseller when published that is still read as literature today.

To kill a Mocking Bird ?

I'm in agreement with Salguod. Using Gatsby (published in 1925) as the starting point the challenge is to identify novels that exemplify the zeitgeist of the decade and those novels should have been published in that decade. Grapes is a good choice. I'm a fan of noir fiction but in a decade dominated by WWII, The Naked and the Dead or The Thin Red Line are much more on point. And I've probably ignored a number of important WWII novels that don't come quickly to mind. Memoirs seems right. Zen is probably a better choice for the 60s. The 70s, I'm stumped, nothing jumps out at me. I was reading mostly Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. Bonfires is an almost perfect 80s Gatsby. As for the rest I have nothing to offer.

Zen was published in the 70's

"The 70s, I’m stumped, nothing jumps out at me. I was reading mostly Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. Bonfires is an almost perfect 80s Gatsby. As for the rest I have nothing to offer."

I favor 'The Late, Great Planet Earth'. It's pure fiction, it embodies the 'it's all going to h*ll' feeling of much of the 1970's (in the USA),
and was an indicator of the rising right-wing fundamentalist movement in the USA.

wow, Tyler does not like the 1990s, does he? Those are not very good books... I also doubt either of them will become classics. How about American Pastoral? Isn't that widely considered Roth's best book?

I think both Safran Foer and Franzen are very 2000nds - somehow I don't feel Tipping Point quite counts, although Gladwell is clearly very 2000s, too.

i support microserfs as the best choice for the 90s - it captures important aspects of the internet era even if it is set earlier.

why do you guys read 'fiction'?

I read fiction for the same reason I listen to music and look at art - because fiction adds an extra and interesting dimension to life.

A life of facts is grand, but it's a life spent in Flatland (

What is food without salt? What is life without art?

"why do you guys read ‘fiction’?"

These days it's easier to believe than the non-fiction, e.g. "The Big Short". Sigh.

For a best-selling, still-respected novel that captures the Zeitgeist of the 70s, I nominate "The World According to Garp".

How does the pseudo-scientific drivel in the Tipping Point make this list? It's like a vomit stain on an otherwise amazing list of books. Maybe I'm crazy, but it seems like everything Gladwell writes is based on completely selective anecdotal evidence, shaded in smoke-and-mirror "evidence" to make it seem robust and original. Sure it's entertaining to read (like all of his books and articles); but the cost is a generation bamboozled into spreading his ill-conceived thinking as if it's factual. It makes me wonder if phrenology will soon make a comeback.

For a slightly less rant-y criticism:

Because Gladwell is good fiction...zing!

Doesn't Freakonomics deserve the slot in all ways except for the great head of hair?

For the record, I didn't ask the original question. I flipping hate credit slouchers.

Perhaps this is exactly why Tyler nominated it: it exemplifies the way we relate to reality in the 2000s.

The internet provided non-academics (and academics...ahem) the ability to access lots of research easily, blurring a lot of lines.

No Infinite Jest? Or Underworld? I feel like the book of the 90s should be technology/internet related though very little has been written (in novel form at least) that captures the zeitgeist of the internet. I feel compelled to bring up Snow Crash even though the cheese factor is high.

for the 2000's, I'd suggest Richard Russo's Empire Falls. While it might not capture the global political changes of the last decade, it does reflect the American experience of the those years -- economic decline, cultural nihilism, and violence that can't be explained nor controlled (in the form of a school shooting). It's overall mood is surrender in the face of hopelessness, which is a pretty good description of the 2000s.

Russo hasn't had the same kind of commercial success as gladwell or grisham, but I suspect future literary historians will look back on his work kindly. It wouldn't surprise me if high schoolers in 2020 were reading empire falls to understand the 2000's, just as we read catch-22 to understand the 60s.

Catcher in the Rye deserves a spot - it has all of the necessary quintessential Americanness

Maybe Infinite Jest should be re-released, but this time readers get to choose beforehand the number of pages it is. Watson can edit it accordingly and have it printed right out. This would truly make it the a perfect pick in this list for the 2000s.


Wow. That literary drop off sure has a steep slope.

For American culture Bukowski's Ham on Rye was way more significant than Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe only scratched the surface of culture, something better displayed in movies and television. Bukowski got beneath and showed us what only a writer could show.

Wolfe's only great work was The Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test. I'll take the movie Wall Street over Bonfire for 80's culture. But Bukowski set a tone that inspired post-60's American art from the Coen Brothers to Richard Linklater to Tarantino to Jonathan Ames,

And of course a lot of 90's music was Bukowski inspired.

For the 1970s there are really on two choices: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or William Gaddis's JR. They are far better than your three choices. For the 1990s, Richard Powers's The Goldbug Variations. All are challenging books but well worth the effort to read and reread them.

Okay, I'll do it. The 2010s will either be captured by "The Great Stagnation" or a yet to be written book titled "America: Duh, Winning!"

The problem is big popular books these days suck much more than they used to. The seminal works aren't as popular anymore. Better now to look for sleeper hits which grow in influence over decades.

Tyler, the word "seminal" means "Stronly Influencing later events'". Jaws? Farewell My Lovely (or anything by Chandler)? The Tipping Point? National Enquirer stuff.

Roissy will probably be more influential in American culture than Gladwell. He captures the spirit of the times better, anyway.

Agree with change to Netherlands for 2000s. Would be interesting to take this back a few more decades to Uncle Tom's Cabin....

I'd put Rabbit Redux on the 1960s short-list, if a publication date of 1971 doesn't disqualify it for the previous decade.

For the 90s, what about Primary Colors, or Jurassic Park?

Oh Doc! The Tipping Point. Full disclosure, I did not read it and not reading any of his books anticipate the one I'd like the most is Blink. But how great can it be? At some point a meme or product or technology reaches some point where it quickly becomes overwhelmingly popular. Er, uh.

Anyway, I think fiction is the category. I haven't read much contemporary fiction, but The Corrections was wonderful. Kavalier and Clay was great, but about the 30s. Empire Falls was great. It seems like movies have kind of taken over as the true culture shapers, great fictional novels becoming movies. Star Wars, Matrix, etc.

How about an outlier ... Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?

And you have very seriously consider go with Atlas Shrugged for the 50s, eh?

Good post.

I'd go with Infinite Jest for the 2000s. It's huge, complex, and in hindsight excellent, but not as good as anyone thought at the time.

@ Salguod

I'm with you on Microserfs - I think it nails the nineties, not impossibly artsy, but not pure pulp either.

Why so little love for the 70s in the comments? Orange14's picks are probably the most important quality lit of the decade, but I'm going to go with the idea that it was an era of popular literature and nominate "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong, (I actually remember fellow students in the late 70s having a serious discussion about the concept of the "zipless fuck"). Another title that really reflects the zeitgeist then is "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" by Tom Robbins. Then there's the oeuvre of Carlos Castaneda which we now know was fictional. "The Teachings of Don Juan" was published in 1968, but both "A Separate Reality", and "Journey to Ixtlan" came out in the 70s and were hugely influential. Ramon Reyes' pick of "Fear and Loathing..." is good but does he mean ... in Las Vegas or ...on the Campaign Trail?

Yes, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep's influence on American popular culture remains enormous after all these years.. You can turn on NPR right now and hear Garrison Keillor doing his weekly parody of the wisecracking detective. You might be able to find The Big Lebowski playing.on cable.

This I don't get

Didn't Dash Hammett predate this character

Yes, Hammett did. And Chandler constantly acknowledged the debt. In my view, Hammett was the revolutionary and Chandler the stylist. They both have their virtues, but in my view Hammett deserves the label "seminal" more than Chandler.

Am I the only one who thinks that The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen) is the seminal book of the 2000s?

I agreed with you above. The trouble is that it more captured the times than was somehow a masterpiece. But then again, that might be just the ticket, like Grapes of Wrath, etc.

2000s: "Watchmen"
1990s: "General Theory of Money, Credit, and Interest"
1980s: "DOS for Dummies"
1970s: New Testament
1960s: "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
1950s: "Looking Backward"
1940s: "The Manly Art of Self-Defence"
1930s: "Curses: or, How Never to Be Foiled Again"
1920s: "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail"

Have you considered "Death of a Salesman" for the '40s or 'The Things They Carried' for the '70s? 'Infinite Jest' also, I think, deserves mentioning for the '90s.

It's not as much that books have gotten worse as Tyler's taste in literature gets worse for more recent decades. That Tyler lists Tipping Point as the seminal book of the 2000s is the most shocking thing I have ever read on this blog.

I'll 2nd or 3rd Gravities Rainbow for the 70's, but there were a number of great 70's novels. The 70's were the beginning of the end (TGS?).

As for Breakfast of Champions: piece of shit. Vonnegut had plenty much greater works, too many to mention, but BOC was a piece of shit. Can't believe that was the choice for the 70's.

Tyler is way too literal about what novels are *about* America. Gatsby was literally and figuratively about America. Gravity's Rainbow was literally about WW2 but actually about American culture in the 60's early 70's.

Steve Sailer still sucks cock and I offer to pay for the time machine that will send hime back to the 40s.

Are we saying that The Tipping Point is fiction?

What I notice is that your list consists overwhelmingly of white male authors. Not that I'm surprised, given that you are a white male yourself., though I would recommend that you step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to the wonder of Toni Morrison, Kathryn Sockett or James Baldwin.

Good books are good books. Why drag gender into everything?

now, with that whole smorgasbord of things to choose from/argue about, zelda.....why, i wonder, why would you focus like a laser on the race/gender of the authors listed? was it because "that's what teacher said to do" back in college? i'd recommend *YOU* take a step out of *your* little comfort zone of left-wing groupthink, and try out the radical notion of judging each book **on its merits**, (gasp!), NOT the race/gender of the author.

Another way to come at this is to take Tyler's concept of "culturally central" (it's as good an arbitrary boundary as any) and then ask decade by decade "what's missing and was in it some novel".

Looking at this from my place, outside the USA in N.Z. where there is UK and Euro domination aplenty (and forgive the "non American" flavour) - where is the Cold War? For us probably in le Carre's "The Spy Who Camer in From the Cold".

The other big hole in recent times seems to be the politically correct culture and the debate around that and excess risk aversity. Mein Kampf may have covered that ground earlier.

Brokeback Mountain wasn't a book. It was a short story published in the New Yorker.

1960s - Revolutionary Road

I have to assume the Gladwell entry is a belated April Fool's joke....

There are too many great nominees to settle on a winner for every decade through the 1970s. I basically agree with "Bonfire" for the 1980s. And then literature died. Wolfe recounted many of the problems in his famous essay for Harpers, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast". I'll give kudos to Wallace, Franzen,, but they're in a different game (and one which hardly matters).

1990s: American Psycho

hmm. some unusual taste & sensibilities on display here. can't say i like many (any) of the titles listed, but by far the wrongest in the '70's. if one accepts the premise that the '70's was when we all (ok, america) lost our virginity about belief in the goodness & rightness of government, and business, and the media et al - then what book better illustrates the filth and corrosion of those institutions than trevanian's "shibumi"?

a hero who fights singlehandedly against the faceless hordes of the 'wad' of government. corporations, etc. an antihero to end all antiheroes, raised in japan during the war - although, tellingly, there are no mentions of awkward tidbits like unit 731 or the rape of nanking - whose distaste for americans hardens into open contempt soon after his first love (!) gets nuked at hiroshima. and then of course, he mourns how japan gets all americanized. ("we haven't invaded a smaller, weaker nation in *decades*!!") also, he was killing bad guys with pencils and rolled-up magazines long before jason bourne ever got around to it. where else but the '70's could you have a "hero" whose skill in 'go' (a sort of japanese version of chinese checkers) and a few file cards made him superior to a fascist gov/corp type with his very own cray supercomputer and hordes of well-armed mercs at his beck & call?

if 'shibumi' is too cartoony, ("[the hero] sighed, and went ahead and slept with the strikingly beautiful young woman, but since she was all shallow and materialistic and american, he did not deign to climax."), for a more subtle 70's-style tale, there's trevanian's (even better) opus, "the main". a tale about loss and grief disguised as a cop procedural. deep, magnificent, couldn't have been written in any other decade BUT the '70's.

as for the '90's......tough call. i'd go with "the bridges of madison county". yes yes, i know, go ahead and laugh. it wasn't about wall street; it didn't have a gaggle of hip, struggling-to-make-it, but like TOtally straight 20-something buddies slurping down $6 coffees and living in $7000-a-month apartments in soho; i doubt if the words "stock options" are even in the book. in fact, it was kind of the compete opposite of all that. it WASN'T the '90's we saw on tv and the movies, to be sure. but based on its huge popularity, it sure seemed like it was what a whole LOT of (women, mostly) *wanted* the decade to be.

40s: Death of a Salesman
60s: I'd put To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch-22 together.
90s: Angels in America

I had a similar discussion on my blog in trying to determine a "Mondern Literary Canon"

How about Neil Gaiman's American Gods for the aughts?

Non-fiction, representing simmering political, social and moral controversies which exploded during the decade or so after they were published:

1980s: Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions.

1990s: Mary Ann Glendon's Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, E. J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics and Stanley Fish's There's No Such Thing As Free Speech And It's A Good Thing, Too.

Jeff Deutsch

Comments for this post are closed