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21 must-read books that defined the 20th century

By Kobo • July 19, 2020The Bookish Life

20 years after the end of the 20th century, some books stand apart and continue to inspire readers and writers alike.

Here’s our lengthy but by no means exhaustive list of culture-shaping fiction.

Canadian readers can access all of these eBooks by subscribing to Kobo Plus Read. Start your FREE 30-day trial.

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Part of what’s so remarkable about this 900-page novel about army life in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is that it was published in 1951, just a few years after the author was discharged from the US Army. But the sensitive, carefully-crafted story of Private Robert “Prew” Prewitt and his fellow recruits shows no trace of the haste in which it was written.

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The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

The plot of The Tin Drum can hardly convey its impact on a reader: it’s a parade of violence and sex in the Free City of Danzig set against a backdrop of impending doom in the form of the rising Nazi party. The main character is Oskar, a boy with a scream like a weapon and a tin drum he carries everywhere with him.

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Since its publication in 1982, Alice Walker’s novel has been celebrated by readers who’ve been moved by the voice of its protagonist Celie, and targeted by censors offended by its portrayal of domestic violence in the American South. The book won Walker the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first Black woman to do so.

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The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

If the 80s was an era of celebrating everything that was going right, it was also a time to feel confused about things going wrong. Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel is about a family with a lot of baggage to unpack, and a therapist who gets caught up in their mess.

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The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Growing up in rural China, Pearl S. Buck had a perspective shared by no other American writers of her generation. The Good Earth is the story of a poor farmer, Wang Lung, who finds prosperity not through hard work but by happenstance. As a wealthy patriarch, he struggles to pass his values to his children. Shortly after completing the trilogy of which The Good Earth is the first volume, Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Sophie's Choice by William Styron

The title has become a cliché for describing an agonizing choice, the nature of which we will not spoil for you here. Title aside, the novel stirred up controversy for focusing on suffering in Auschwitz endured by Christian Slavs and arguably downplaying anti-Semitism as a cause of the Holocaust.

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The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinksi

Of all the books about WWII in this list, and we realize there are many, this may be the most horrifying. It’s the story of a boy wandering the countryside and trying to evade the Nazis. He witnesses and is subjected to depravity and violence that will strain the reader’s imagination to conjure.

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American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Roth was one of the most ambitious and prolific American writers of the twentieth century, and some cite American Pastoral as his masterpiece. It spans the century, looking back from the 90s on the birth in 1927 of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, the main character (who for reasons familiar to readers of the book we hesitate to call “the protagonist”), and focuses on how the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s tears his perfect family apart in ways he tries to ignore through the final decades of his life.

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Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

There’s cool, there’s ice cold, and there’s Joan Didion’s novels. Precipitated by the collapse of her career, constant anxiety about her young daughter’s mysterious illness, and the deaths of her parents and a close friend, Maria experiences a mental health crisis and is institutionalized in a mental hospital in Los Angeles. The novel paints a portrait of Hollywood glamour and hollow pleasures that connects it to Didion’s reputation-making non-fiction writing about Southern California.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

A classic of Southern American literature that demands to be read on hot summer days. As a novel, it’s less a linear story than a series of vignettes about a small, unforgettable cast of characters, with two friends, John and Spiros, at its centre. Somehow, despite being selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2004, this novel still feels like a secret for serious readers to share with each other.

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Baise-Moi by Virginie Despentes

We’ll never know if Stieg Larsson could have dreamed up Lisbeth Salander (aka. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) if Virginie Despentes, a former sex worker and punk, hadn’t written Baise-Moi. It’s a revenge fantasy about two young women acting out their rage in a spree of sexual violence. It created a genre in French literature of writing from female rage and spawned a highly controversial film.

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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby

Written in six parts in a colloquial prose style, Last Exit to Brooklyn paints a picture of life in a tiny slice of Brooklyn presently known as Sunset Park. Its characters struggle to make a living, they get into fights, raise children, and just try to get by. The book was deemed obscene in Britain, and sale was restricted for several years.

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If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

For some readers, Calvino’s masterpiece is a joke, but it’s the kind of joke that’s a delight to tell even if you can’t help laughing through the punchline. You, the reader, are a character in this book, which is about you attempting to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Since you’re in it, if we tell you how it ends, is that a spoiler?

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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A monastery in the 14th century, during a conference intended to settle a theological dispute, becomes the scene of a series of murders. And book thefts. What suffices for evidence in a medieval murder investigation? For these monks, all paths of inquiry lead back to the library. Eco is the brainy and bookish postmodern yin to Calvino’s playful yang.

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The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago

Portuguese writer José Saramago took the premise that Jesus Christ was an actual human being to its modern conclusion in this realistic novel. If Jesus was raised to work as a carpenter, what did his family think about his preaching? And the downtrodden company he kept? Did he always know how his life would turn out, or were there choices to make and doubts nagging at him? Not surprisingly, the book divided readers, some of whom were moved by its humanity, while others bristled at its down-to-earth depiction of a sacred story.

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

A tale of love, loss, and heartache is told through the story of Cuban musicians immigrating to the United States. Nestor and Cesar are brothers who rode the mambo music craze to near-fame in the 1950s, only to tumble into obscurity as the tide of politics and culture shifted.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This fictional diary of Charlie, an intellectually-disabled man who undergoes a procedure to increase his intelligence challenged readers to place it in a genre. Is it a realistic novel with a science fiction conceit? Is it a science fiction story in a contemporary setting? If you read the book as a student, it’s worth revisiting in adulthood to see if you, like Charlie, have learned to see things differently.

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A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

In this short erotic novel, a narrator of questionable reliability tells the story of a young couple, an American man and a French woman. We can only be certain about the narrator in the moments when he(?) admits to complete fabrication. In this gem of a book we’re reminded how eager we are as readers to be told a tale, any tale, as long as it holds our attention.

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Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “zipless f***,” (commonly defined as a sexual encounter without fuss or commitment) you have Erica Jong, and specifically her debut novel, Fear of Flying to thank. Jong wrote frankly about sex and women’s desire in a way that resonated with a generation looking to shed taboos.

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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

While the story is about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico, Lowry’s own alcohol addiction made the book’s path to publication especially trying as the project derailed several times. But what finally emerged is a masterpiece, with an innovative structure that still dazzles readers and inspires writers: told in 12 chapters, the first chapter takes place exactly one year after the other 11, which themselves all take place on November 2, 1938--the Mexican “Day of the Dead”.

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Collected Stories by Frank O'Connor

O’Connor’s short stories are each marvels of compression and imagination, with whole worlds and characters with rich interior lives and backstories, taking shape in a few paragraphs. The impression his work still makes on writers is so profound that for the past 20 years a festival in his hometown of Cork has attracted talent from around the world as it celebrates the short story as a literary form.

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