If one wants to understand humanity over the course of any period in its civilized history, I believe the best place to start is by examining the literature of the epoch. Our writings, both fictional and real, have always mirrored the hopes and concerns permeating in society at any given point.
Needless to say, there are far too many books for us to be able to read, especially with how limited free time is these days. Thankfully, we’ve largely been able to rely on public opinion to determine which books are worth our time, even if it does leave a few diamonds in the rough behind.
The bestsellers of any given decade, or even century, aren’t simply the books which sold the most copies. They are the works which resonated the most with The People at large, representing aspects of their inner worlds and societies better than anyone else could. While they’re definitely not the sole books worth reading, they’ve definitely earned a special in the pantheon of literature.
In this category you’ll find some of the bestselling books arranged by the decades they were released in. For those looking to explore the minds of people in the last few decades through their literature, there is no better place to start.
Bestsellers of the 70s
Peter Benchley has left his mark on the worlds of literature, cinema, and ocean activism, but few of his works have withstood the test of time in the way Jaws has. The novel takes place on a seaside resort on the south shore of Long Island, where a giant killer shark begins to make minced meat of the swimmers. Despite political and personal conflicts swirling around them, three men decide to undertake the perilous journey to send the shark back to the depths it came from.
James A. Michener has shown himself capable of penning profound novels over the course of his career, the kind to explore the human condition at depths few are capable of reaching. The Drifters is one of his best-known novels, telling the story of a young group of people in the 1960s who, by pure chance, all meet at a bar in Spain, and decide to travel the world on hedonistic and philosophical pursuits.
Frederick Forsyth has shown himself more knowledgeable than most of his peers when it comes to writing espionage thrillers, as is evidenced by the success of his works, both on paper and on the silver screen. In The Odessa File, one of his more lauded novels, he tells the story of a German crime reporter who lands on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in Hamburg, leading him on a winding investigation with far-reaching consequences.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes Short Summary William Peter Blatty has certainly written many novels worthy of our attention, but I think it’s safe to say none of them have stood the test of time like The Exorcist, which also received a timeless silver screen adaptation. It tells the story of Regan MacNeil, a young girl who becomes possessed by a demon, and the two priests who are brought in to fight for her life, facing an evil none have ever seen before. Read more …
Thomas Pynchon might not be a very prolific author, but his books have often had a powerful impact when they were published, with the most prominent of the lot arguably being his 1973 classic bestseller, Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s an unusual kaleidoscope of a novel, taking place against the backdrop of the Second World War, exploring through a large number of characters the madness and all-consuming paranoia it gave birth to.
Stephen King has added nearly innumerable chapters to his legacy over the past few decades, but I still firmly believe none of his new works can hold a candle to the classics which defined him, such as The Shining. Having defined the horror genre in its time, the novel tells the story of a caretaker and his family stuck in a haunted hotel, slowly driven insane by its paranormal inhabitants.
Richard Bach is one of the few authors whose works continue to stand the test of time, with his classic Jonathan Livingston Seagull still being as current as back when it was written. A tale of inspiration, it follows the titular seagull as he learns the art of flight and finds his own way through life, despite his peers’ lack of approval.
Robert Maynard Pirsig was recognized numerous times as a unique and exceptional author for the depth of reflection found in his unusual books. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was arguably his greatest work, telling a largely autobiographical story of a road trip he took with his son, learning quite a bit about life in the process.
Frederick Forsyth might have very well written one of the absolute best criminal espionage novels when he published The Day of the Jackal back in 1971. Following a nameless English hitman known only as The Jackal, the story focuses on his methodical preparation to carry out what might be the most ambitious assassination of all time: killing Charles de Gaulle.
E.L. Doctorow is revered as one of the greatest and most influential authors of the 20th century, and I think anyone who picks up his works, whether they like them or not, can understand why.
Ragtime was considered one of his best works and a true classic, presenting a relatively disjointed narrative following many characters, some real and others imagined, across their trials and tribulations in a snapshot of early 1900s New York City.
It’s hard to believe it has already been over forty years since Robin Cook introduced the concept of medical thrillers to the world in true style, by penning his classic novel Coma which still holds up to this very day. Following a third-year medical student, we follow her investigation into the Boston Memorial Hospital, where people seem to be dropping into comas on the operating table at a suspiciously higher rate than usual.
Bestsellers of the 60s
Michael Crichton will forever be remembered as one of the main pillars helping to bridge a union between literature and cinema, many of his iconic works having been turned into equally-recognized movies. The Andromeda Strain is one of them, a science-fiction novel following four elite biophysicists racing to uncover the cause behind the near-total decimation of a sleepy desert town and to contain a contagion threatening the world at large.
Ira Levin has populated the realms of literature with some of the most original classics it has seen from the fifties to the end of the seventies, and Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps his best-known work, at least among horror aficionados. The story follows the titular Rosemary and her husband Guy Woodhouse as they move into an ominous apartment building where an elderly couple begins to take an unusual and uncomfortable interest in their lives.
Arthur Hailey was perhaps one of the best at taking a small field and populating it with an interesting and diverse cast of characters, a talent quite well exemplified in his bestselling 1968 novel titled Airport. It follows, over the course of seven hours, the staff working at the Lincoln International Airport in the face torrid blizzard, as well as a lone airplane desperately trying to reach its destination.
Arthur Hailey has been able to pierce and expose various industries over the course of his illustrious career like few others could have hoped. In Hotel (a novel adapted into a television show as well as a movie) he takes us through five fateful days at New Orleans’ largest hotel as the lives of its guests, workers and managers intersect in unpredictable ways.
Alistair MacLean is one of those authors whose works were begging to be adapted to the silver screen, something he helped realize with his screenwriting talents. Where Eagles Dare is likely his most acclaimed work, following the story of Major Smith and his tiny group of commandos, parachuted behind enemy lines to break a general out of a Nazi fortress in the mountains. However, the mission is just a cover, and a much more insidious game is being played by both sides.
Kurt Vonnegut has many novels through which he established his lifelong fame as an essential author of the 20th century, and the first of those was titled The Sirens of Titan. Published all the way back in 1959, it tells the story of Malachi Constant, Earth’s richest and most depraved man, as he embarks on a grand interplanetary voyage against his own will, learning much about the universe in the process, and forgetting even more about himself.
Lem has left an indelible mark on the world of both literature and cinema when he published Solaris back in 1961. It tells the story of a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, sent on a mission to a distant space station for the purpose of studying an ocean which, so far, has managed to defy all scientific explanation. However, when he arrives the situation on the station seems strangely dire, and soon an unexpected visitor appears from thin air.
Joseph Heller forever gifted humanity a slightly deeper understanding of human nature and the utter folly pervasive in war when he published the eternally-current Catch-22. The novel, drawing in part on Heller’s experiences as a bombardier, follows the story of Captain John Yossarian and his mates who experience the incongruous insanity of the Second World War as they fly their missions over Italy.
John le Carre understood like few others the ins and outs of espionage, having personally stewed in it for a number of years. In A Small Town in Germany, perhaps one of the lesser-known novels in comparison to his famous ones, tells the story of a hunt for an embassy worker, Leo Harting, who goes missing with a briefcase stuffed with confidential documents.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, is a figure who needs little introduction among book lovers. His works have always been distinguished by their profound and meaningful nature, and One Hundred Years of Solitude represents those qualities like none other. Telling of the rise and fall of a mythical town called Macondo, the story follows the lives of multiple generations belonging to the Buendia family.
James A. Michener had a rather peculiar specialty as an author, focusing on rather lengthy historical novels profoundly focusing on a specific geographical location. The Source, originally published back in 1965, takes us on a journey thousands of years long through the Holy Land, recounting the origins of Judaism, the rise of the early Hebrews, and all which happened since then until the modern conflict with Palestine.
Irving Stone had a knack like none other for writing poignant biographical novels which still remained true to their sources, with The Agony and the Ecstasy arguably being his most famous and defining work. Fictionalizing the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the all-time famous artist responsible for many immortal creations, the novel takes us on a grandiose and perilous journey through the Renaissance as the artist tries to find his way in life against all odds.
John Le Carre is a man whom I believe needs little introduction at this stage, having authored so many international bestsellers, some of which found their way on our television and movie screens. Already fifty years have passed since he published his first bestselling novel, the one to really launch his career, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Truman Capote may very well have revolutionized the world of journalism when he wrote the novelized yet non-fictional account of the Clutter family murder, but more than that, he created one of the most powerful and compelling true crime narrations that takes us into the emotional and psychological depths of the American tragedy. Praised by one side and criticized by the other, In Cold Blood remains a rather controversial book to this very day, one that is nevertheless deemed an important milestone in American literature.