Books are timeless treasures that travel beyond the confines of space and time. The popular notion is that the best books of the 20th century do not have an expiration date and carry something useful for everyone in every generation, irrespective of the gender, age, or general circumstances of the reader. It is popularly believed that a man who chooses not to read is no different than a man who can not read. Being a reader is a journey. When you start reading the best books of the 20th century, you start with easy books, move on to more complex writing, and eventually end up developing a taste for a particular genre or writer. Whatever stage of your reading journey you may be, it is always a good idea to read the classics or the books that were so popular when they were published that millions of copies are being sold and read by people even today.
Every reader will agree to the fact that there are many benefits of reading good books, and sometimes these benefits are even life-changing. Are you an avid reader who hasn’t read the best books of the 20th century yet?
Well, it is time we change that.
20th century had books from every genre and if you dig deeper, there’s something for everyone in those books. Here are some of the best books of the 20th century that you should definitely read once in your lifetime:
1. The Fountainhead
Author: Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead became a revolutionary modern classic of its time. And not only then, but its philosophy on objectivism and individualism stands true even in today’s world. Revolving around architecture and talking about the examples of great designs, this book will take you to a journey with a young Architect Howard Roark who stands strong on his principles and ideas, to bring the best for the society, with the help of original creativity and modern architecture.
It is a book about how he won’t budge and how the world, which worships compromise and mediocracy, takes the better of him in his fight to sustain his ideologies. Here is an excerpt from the book about his ideology:
The book is more than just about an architect and his thinking. It is more about human nature and how everyone around us affects our decisions and choices.
If you are looking for something of an inspiration to bring belief in your own thoughts and ideas, this book will engage you to read, and simultaneously allow you to draw your own individual conclusions to the actions of the characters.
After all, it is the interpretation of a book that makes it different for every reader, right?
2. A Brief History of Time
Author: Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Time is a well-known science book on the study of the origin and evolution of the universe. The great scientist and theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, attempts to understand the entire cosmos and enlightens us by drawing possible theories.
If you are wondering whether you can read this book without any prior knowledge about scientific theories, the answer is yes. Readers with no prior scientific knowledge can also easily learn and understand his theories because of the way they are explained in the book.
Readers, especially those with an affiliation towards science, are in for a treat. With concepts like string theory, black hole and quantum mechanics your minds will be blown. The book, on the one hand, has helped a lot of young readers understand science better. On the other hand, the book also leaves hints of philosophical touches for its readers to dwell upon. Quotes like ‘‘the universe doesn’t allow perfection’’ and ‘‘only time (whatever that may be) will tell’’ shall leave the readers with imaginative perception.
3. Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
The book by Salman Rushdie is in its true sense an amalgamation of the sparkling and the dark side of a nation’s making. The writing style of the book is utterly moving and it instantly connects with the reader. The story in the book is the tale of a boy, Saleem Sinai, who was born at the stroke of midnight on India’s Independence Day. That made him one of the special 1001 children born at the same hour, bestowed with some extraordinary talent. Saleem, out of all the children, has a psychic connection with all the other children.
The story is the boy’s inseparable destiny with the nation that came to birth along his side. Makes you think about how so many things are so connected, doesn’t it?
This book will take you through all the events, right from the colonial era to each and every event after independence, all things that happened in all the 31 years of India’s nationhood. The intricacy of the book is in its narration and how it will sail you through all vivid joys and the painfully dark sides of the world, wrapped in a beautiful story of a simple yet strong character.
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude
Author: Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Gabriel Garcia Márquez is known to render stories through a child’s eyes. One Hundred Years of Solitude narrates the multi-generational tales of the Buendía family, set in the backdrop of a fictitious town in Columbia. It helps gain insights into Columbian culture and history. Despite a looming war, destruction and death, the book manages to bring about a humorous tone. It enlightens on how life continues to go on no matter what the circumstances with excerpts like ‘‘it’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at the moment’’. It also captures the real sense of loneliness and might leave the readers teary-eyed at the end of it.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Although set in the 1930s, Harper Lee had written this book in the year 1960. It is considered to be one of the most important and significant books in American literature. The book tells a story of two children Jem and Scout Finch from a small town and their learning of principles from their righteous father, Atticus Finch.
It also talks about how these kids explore the society’s expectation and realities of the world in the most innocent and unadulterated way. It also brings us a fresh perspective that often adults fail to give. The tragic events in the book are very well interspersed with subtle humour.
This book is often recommended for children in middle school as it is written through a child’s perspective and offers keen observation for a basic understanding of right and wrong in the society while addressing social issues like racism and discrimination.
Does this mean you can not read it after you grow up? Obviously not.
Definitely, it is fit to be read by people of all ages as such issues are still persistent in our society and have never left the roots of the human race. The book is all things compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving while giving us all insights into the aspects of human behaviour.
6. Goodbye to All That
Author: Robert Graves
Goodbye to All That is a Robert Graves autobiography published in his early thirties. His narrow escape from premature demise birthed the idea of this book. It describes his take on the post-World War tectonic shifts in English society. Considering the tone and genre, the book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The author also states, ‘‘If any passage still gives offence after all these years, I hope to be forgiven’’. The book is famous as one of the finest written books on war. It’s a classic war-time memoir that is also sometimes used for teaching in schools and colleges.
7. Harry Potter Series
Author: JK Rowling
Harry Potter is a series that no one needs an introduction to. J. K. Rowling, the writer, has created this world of magic which will be remembered for decades to come. The series is one of the most loved ones since its first book which was published in 1997. Undoubtedly, it has made its way to our list of the best books of the 20th century.
The novel is all about ancient witchcraft and story of a boy called Harry Potter, and how he fights all the evil for the greater good. The whole series has a total of seven books that are gripping with mystery and thrill. The world of magic created by the author is so surreal and the imaginative description surely takes you to a magical realm.
Here are some of the best quotes from the book:
The series is majorly a children’s book as it is an easy read with an engrossing plot. However, it is not less popular among adults as well. While it may seem all about the fantasy world, the philosophies in the series are so real and with many great phrases written wonderfully. It has one of the excellent depiction of family values, friendship and love. This series is, beyond a doubt, a defining literary work towards the end of the 20th century.
8.The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
The Color Purple is a popular epistolary novel that won the author, Alice Walker, the 1983 National Book Award and also, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is also adapted into a film and a musical. It follows the story of Celie, a girl who is oppressed, humiliated, dominated and forced to accept silence over speech. It portrays how a woman’s ability to think, make decisions for herself, her choices and her will are all snatched away. It later goes on to display how it turns over, how the woman changes from an object to a subject. It’s a story of a woman who breaks shackles in a man’s world and refuses to keep mum about being ill-treated.
A book like this is particularly relevant in the times of today where feminism and women empowerment are only ideologies and goals, despite the efforts that have lasted for about a century, don’t you agree? This is also what makes it one of the best books of the 20th century.
It’s a coming-of-age drama that is sure to sure leave you with a feeling of courage and empathy and respect for the protagonist.
9. The Story of My Life
Author: Helen Keller
This memoir is a beautiful collection of moments from the life of Helen Keller. The book talks about the story of her life for the first 22 years. Keller was 19 months old when she went blind and deaf due to a medical condition. Over a period of time, she went mute too. In her book, she has written how she was feeling lost and locked inside her own disabilities, which affected her mental health and her behaviour with people. Further, how with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, she educates herself and make herself capable of reading, writing and speaking in different languages.
It is a story of Keller’s liberation from her dependence on people; it is the story of how she fought against all odds to find joy and meaning to living.
If autobiographies are your thing, you should definitely read this one! This autobiography is as fresh as it was a century ago and will give you inspiration and hope from the story of this girl with an indomitable will. She has portrayed her determination and strength in her writing, and it engages the reader in her thoughts, emotions and opinions.
There cannot be anything better than this book which can emote the world of people who are blind and deaf. And what they go through in their everyday life, to help everyone understand their existence.
10.Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
The Brave New World is a dystopian novel that was published in 1983. It effortlessly draws parallels between modern-day and fictitious dystopia. It’s filled with paradoxes, quality and state of humanity, moral quandaries all intertwined to enlighten the society we live in. With an exciting topic and abstract writing, it’s surely a consuming and quality read. It’s like an open window to a world that encourages you to challenge yourself even in dire situations. The portrayal of incidences in the book range from vivid to morbid and will extract varied emotions and reactions.
If you love reading books that stir the existing thought process and have the power to create controversies, then this is the book for you. Interestingly, it has been banned for different time periods in Ireland, Australia, and even India, for a variety of reasons.
11. How to Win Friends and Influence People
Author: Dale Carnegie
This book is a one-stop guide-cum-activity book for your self-improvement and motivation. Dale Carnegie wrote this book in 1936, and even today, it is being used by so many people to bring personal as well as professional development into their social life.
The book has different parts, and in each of them, the author tries to provide the reader with some positive tips to improve his/her social interaction. The tips help to bring out the best in you as well as your peers and friends. The lessons are backed up with small stories to make it more relatable for readers and to increase their involvement in the reading process.
You can always pick up this book whenever you feel like you are facing issues in dealing with difficult people and situations. There are techniques and fundamental principles in the book which are quite helpful and can be applied immediately to various situations.
The book is also known to have helped many people who had anxiety and were conscious about expressing their thoughts to people known or unknown. As a pretty straightforward read, the book will give you answers to many of your questions in the simplest way possible.
As soon as you read it and try to apply the tips in your daily life, you will see yourself talking and expressing your thoughts in a better manner without getting nervous or uncomfortable.
12. The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel that is set on Prosperous Long Island in West Egg and East Egg, two fictional towns. It builds up an engaging story and allows the reader to perceive concepts like the power of money and the true essence of love along the journey. It portrays the story of people from different walks of life with different motives and intentions.
It keeps the reader engaged with characters like a man who commits crimes intending to enhance his wealth and eventually win over the love of his love, a cheating husband who realizes his love for his wife much too late, and a proud, wealthy man who does not believe in love and disregards women credits sexism.
If what you are looking for in your books are well-developed characters, you should give this a try!
13. Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
Animal Farm is an allegorical novel where the author has described a world where animals are much smarter than humans. It is a story of the farm taken over by animals by standing against humans. And how over a period of time, the pigs who could speak English better than any other animals take on the leadership and exploit other animals with their tyranny. The other animals then start to question their newfound freedom from humans as they are still under siege.
The book is the best depiction of a revolution gone off course and the political turns in the event. Even though the concepts are portrayed from a perspective and in the world of animals, many similarities can be drawn with the real-world and how over a period of time, humans have become victims of their own counter part’s political agenda.
George Orwell has ironically described the turn of history, which, if overseen by humans, can prove to be true in a longer run. The story, which is a sardonic fable with a sharp turn of events makes a good read for grown-ups.
14. Gone with the Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Gone with the Wind is one of the best books of the 20th century, which is also a classic love story set in Georgia. It also won the author, Margaret Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into a movie. It follows the romance of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’ Hara in the backdrop of American Civil War and reconstruction era. The character detailing and the chemistry between them are so well written that it will leave the readers filled with awe and admiration. Dialogues like ‘‘I’d cut up my heart for you to wear if you wanted it’’ highlight the deep bond that the characters shared.
15. The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
The classic semi-autobiography written with pure brilliance by Sylvia Plath is a story about a woman called Esther Greenwood and how she, despite almost achieving everything she ever wanted in life, feels empty and drifted away from her surroundings and reality. The story is of a woman suffering from a mental illness and is filled with everyday incidents that we face in our lives.
The story brilliantly depicts a sad reality we often face, and also how one feels isolated even though surrounded by people, and how all your hard-worked ambition, drive and passion slip away into a corner of emptiness when the mind is not at the right place. The novel also throws light on how, even though a woman achieves all her aspirations, she is expected to fulfil the conventional expectations of getting married and having children.
It is altogether a different experience to read The Bell Jar, as it is not just a story of a woman, but it is a gripping fiction which resonates with our lives and the grim realities we are surrounded with. It is a reminder of how the flaws in human nature are going to remain the same. This book will surely give you some thoughts and hauntingly real opinion about the world we live in.
Trigger warning: People who are either currently facing or have had issues related to mental illnesses should avoid reading this book as it can trigger those issues.
16. Catch 22
Author: Joseph Heller
Catch 22 is a war novel that mainly follows satirical writing. The book portrays incidents related to a fictional 256th Army Air Squadron in the island of Pianosa, Italy. Through humorous descriptions used with the purpose of reducing the absurdity of war, it leaves the readers wondering if Military Intelligence is just an oxymoron. With the tongue-in-cheek type of humour, the author holds the attention of the readers while parallelly imparting multiple perceptions.
17. The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Do you consider yourself a dreamer? A wanderer? A seeker of meaning in the meaningless universe?
Well, here’s a book from the 20th century, written almost as if directly written for you!
Paulo Coelho has written this immaculate masterpiece with a straightforward yet dreamy story of a Spanish shepherd boy, Santiago, and his quest of pursuing his repetitive dream of a treasure lying under an Egyptian Pyramid. With the help of a king and some magical stones, Santiago sets on the journey to find his treasure. On a path that is filled with endless sand and tribal wars, he finds his one true love and learns alchemy while also striving to find his treasure.
Giving it a pensive and thoughtful storyline, Paulo Coelho has written a deep philosophical tale of one’s own destiny, our endless efforts to climb over our failures and the similarity between the universe and our thoughts.
When you read this novel, it will transport you to some unreal world, yet will bring you back to reality from time to time, to see the truthfulness of the author’s words. It is a phenomenal experience to read a short story and to be able to gauge its importance in our own conscience.
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is the story of Humbert, who birthed the idea of his passion during imprisonment, through a book and named it ‘Lolita’. It encompasses a relationship between a 37-year-old man, who lost the love of his life to premature demise when she was in her early teens, and another 12-year-old girl. It leaves the reader in a dilemma about whether to accept this affection or dismiss it as a lustful paedophile’s desire. The flow of writing is quite intense and alluring and would be admired by 20th-century literature lovers. Although the concept might seem disturbing at first, the perceptions and conclusion seem justified.
19. The Catcher in The Rye
Author: J. D. Salinger
The book is commonly referred to as a ‘coming of age’ novel, as it is a story of a 17-year-old teenager, Holden, and his struggle with facing the world around him. He doesn’t fit among the people of his own age or any age for that matter, as he is tired of the hypocrisy everyone is surrounded with.
When you read the book, you can actually hear Holden’s thoughts and his mind speaking. The part with his three days hiding in New York which includes his opinion about his experiences with people known or unknown to him is an exciting portion for readers.
While sometimes you will find the boy intriguing, the other times you will totally relate to his situation. As the boy keeps his emotions to himself and is unable to find a gateway to express what he feels, the readers get a good glance inside his mind. The book revolves around the themes of rebellion, ideology and independence.
It is an exciting read for teenagers above fifteen as well as adults as it gives an inspirational message of staying hopeful and true to one’s own self by the end. The book is a mixture of angst, pain and pleasure, making it compelling and exciting to read.
20. Sophie’s Choice
Author: William Styron
Sophie’s Choice is a 1979 novel that won the author, William Styron, the US National Book Award in 1980. It follows the story of three very different people, an aspiring writer, a Jew and a Polish woman in a love-hate relationship, sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn. The story is narrated from the perspective and in the voice of a young writer. Excerpts like “Mercifully, I was at that age when reading was still a passion and thus, save for a happy marriage, the best state possible in which to keep absolute loneliness at bay. I could not have made it through those evenings otherwise.” leave the readers wanting more. It is the emotions that it creates, which makes it an important read when you are planning to read the best books of the 20th century.
20th century may seem like a long time ago, but it is only when you read these best books of the 20th century, that you realize how similar it was to the 21st century. It was a golden era for writers as well as readers. The reason these books are so popular as the best books of the 20th century is that they were relevant beyond their years. The significance that most of these books hold in today’s times and society is something that makes you wonder. Whether you are just starting your journey as a writer, reader, or storyteller, or you have read enough books of the 21st century and are looking for something new and different, give these best books of the 20th century a try and we guarantee that you will not be disappointed!