I'm reading a book set in the early 1940s which makes reference to quite a number of books. I was curious to set what books were popular in the 1930s and early 1940s. I ran across this wonderful list of "The Ten Books that Defined Each Decade of the 20th Century" by Emily Temple on Literary Hub https://lithub.com/. I recognized many of them; some I did not. I've read several of them but so long ago that I remember little about them. Each book has a brief defense for its inclusion. I recommend those comments. They're insightful and very informative. Each decade ends with an "also see" section in which other important works, as Temple and the lithub editorial staff sees it, of the decade are listed. https://lithub.com/a-century-of-reading-the-10-books-that-defined-the-1990s/
Temple's comments on the project.
A Century of Reading: The 10 Books That Defined Each Decade of the 20th century
Some books are flashes in the pan, read for entertainment and then left on a bus seat for the next lucky person to pick up and enjoy, forgotten by most after their season has passed. Others stick around, are read and re-read, are taught and discussed: sometimes due to great artistry, sometimes due to luck, and sometimes because they manage to recognize and capture some element of the culture of the time.
In the moment, you often can’t tell which books are which. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller upon its release, but we now see it as emblematic of a certain American sensibility in the 1920s. Of course, hindsight can also distort the senses; the canon looms and obscures. Still, over the next two and a half weeks, we’ll be publishing a list a day, each one attempting to define a discrete decade, starting with the 1900s (as you’ve no doubt guessed by now) and counting down until we get to the (nearly complete) 2010s.
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book per author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I’ll be ignoring Dubliners so later I can include Ulysses), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.
--- Emily Temple
(Head here for the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s)
L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1903)
Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1904 serial, 1906 single volume)
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy (1911)
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (1912)
Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (English translation, 1913)
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914)
Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
W. B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole (1917, 1919)
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles