10 of the most influential novels in the last century | Varsity Education

10 of the most influential novels in the last century

Do you love a good book? Reading isn’t just a nice way to pass the time, it can also help you expand your vocabulary, master grammar and is particularly useful for students for whom English is a second language. Amongst the countless books released over the past century, a few have become true classics, studied and debated in countless book clubs, classrooms and articles. Here are a list of ten of the most influential and celebrated novels of the last 100 years, including two which are comparatively recent.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

Written during the civil rights movement, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book focusing on racial injustice and is widely taught in schools in the United States. Set during the Great Depression in a fictional town in Alabama, the story focuses on a six-year-old girl, ‘Scout’, who lives with her older brother and their widowed father, Atticus, a lawyer. Atticus is appointed by the town’s judge to defend Tom Robison, an African-American accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Atticus agrees to do so and his children are bullied as a result.

During the trial, Atticus argues convincingly that Tom is innocent of the crime and has been falsely accused by Mayella and her father. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, the jury, made up of poor white farmers, nevertheless convicts Tom of rape. It is believed that Lee drew upon several similar real-life cases from the preceding years. Alongside racial prejudice, the book also covers themes of class and gender.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

Catch-22 is the book that introduced the phrase into the English language. It is a satirical novel following the life of Captain John Yossarian, a US airman assigned to a bomber squadron in World War 2. Most of the book takes place while Yossarian’s fictional squadron is based in Italy, much like Heller himself as an airman during the war.

The titular ‘Catch-22’ describes a paradox whereby airmen who are mentally unfit to fly aren’t required to do so, but anyone who applied to stop flying for this reason was showing a rational concern for his safety, and was therefore deemed sane and able to fly. Throughout much of the book, the airmen attempt to avoid flying dangerous missions, often through absurd means. Yossarian comes to regard his commanding officer as more of an enemy than the Germans, as every time he reaches the required number of missions to be sent home, the limit is retrospectively increased. Towards the end the story grows much darker, resulting in the death of most of Yossarian’s friends.

Despite its setting, Heller stated that its antiwar themes were a product of the Korean War and McCarthyism in the 1950s. It became very popular with teenagers during the 1960s, many of whom were in danger of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. More than eight million copies were sold in the United States.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Perhaps the defining book of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, The Great Gatsby is a tale of idealism, decadence and excess. While it sold poorly upon publication, sales picked up significantly after the author’s death in 1940, and it’s now considered a classic of American literature. Set in 1922 on Long Island, the main character is a bond salesman called Nick Carraway. He rents a small house next door to millionaire Jay Gatsby’s mansion and becomes embroiled in Jay’s attempt to rekindle a relationship with his cousin, Daisy.

The book is regarded as a comment on the American dream, demonstrating the limits of social mobility and disillusionment with the materialism and hedonism which defined the era. It has now sold over 25 million copies around the world.

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, 1951

Considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye has become an iconic coming-of-age tale. The story is about Holden Caulfield, a teenager from New York City, who has been expelled from his exclusive private school in Pennsylvania and decides to stay in a hotel in New York until his parents find out about his expulsion. Many regard the book as one of the finest portrayals of New York in the 50’s ever written, while the books themes of alienation and teenage angst resonate widely with many readers to this day.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

The first novel by the Nobel Prize winning English author, Lord of the Flies is about a group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island during a nuclear war. While the boys try to survive by forming a society, order soon breaks down amid a power struggle between the protagonist, Ralph, and one of the other boys called Jack. The theme of this book is the tension between the impulse towards living in an ordered society and abiding by rules, and the desire for power, along with the conflict between emotions and rational thought. Isolated from adult authority and the society in which they grew up, the children degenerate into paranoid, superstitious and violent behaviour.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, 1957

Despite being one of the least known books on this list, it has nevertheless been influential due to its popularity amongst American neo-conservatives. Regarded as a statement of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of ‘Objectivism’, the book’s advocacy of rational self-interest, individualism and capitalism made it popular amongst sections of the American right, especially from the 1980s. Ayn Rand uses her novel to rail against state intervention and nationalisation, depicting a world where, maligned by society and constrained by over-regulation, prominent capitalists go on strike, crippling the economy. The rich industrialists are cast as heroes, while the state, and, by implication, the poor whom receive the benefits of taxation and regulation, are portrayed as parasitical.

The book helped inspire a generation of political and business leaders who, from the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s onwards, were incredibly influential in Western politics and economics. Neoliberal politicians spearheaded the privatisation and deregulation which have characterised America and Britain in the last few decades.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

The book that made ‘Orwellian’ a by-word for intrusive or draconian behaviour, policy or technology, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic political novel, depicting an ordinary man’s private struggle against the ultimate totalitarian state. In this dystopian version of 1984, the world is ruled by three giant superpowers locked in perpetual war. A citizen of Oceania, Winston Smith works for the ruling party in London as a writer, revising history so that it always supports the party line. Despite this, he secretly hates the party, and when he meets Julia, the two embark upon a forbidden romance and conspire against the regime which enslaves them.

In his book, Orwell draws upon his experience of rationing in wartime Britain and his knowledge of life in the Soviet Union to imagine a world of constant hardship, all-pervasive surveillance, endless conflict and complete domination by the state. While Nazism had been defeated by the time Orwell wrote his book, totalitarian communism was spreading ever further from Soviet Russia, and at the time a full scale Soviet invasion of Western Europe was a real possibility. As a socialist, Orwell had volunteered in the Spanish Civil War to fight against the fascist regime of General Franco, but he detested the Soviet Union, regarding it as a betrayal of socialist ideals. His vision of Oceania is essentially England under Stalinism.

Many terms from Nineteen Eighty-Four have now entered into common use, including thought-crime, Big Brother and Newspeak.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez, 1967

Since publication, One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into 37 languages. It’s considered one of the most significant literary works ever written in Spanish, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s native language. The book is a multi-generational story of the Buendia family in the fictional Colombian town of Macondo.

This book has been identified with both the Modernist movement and ‘magic realism’, where the supernatural is presented as mundane and vice versa.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son’s struggle for survival in a dying world, where ash rains from the sky and the only things to eat are found in tin cans. Carrying everything they own in backpacks and a supermarket cart, they travel south towards the sea down empty roads – a revolver with two rounds the only thing standing between them and certain death at the hands of cannibals.

Written in first person, McCarthy’s distinctive, sparse literary style enables him weave an intimate tale of parental love in an uncompromisingly bleak setting. The father, knowing that his death is near at hand, endures unimaginable hardships, living only to keep his son alive for another day. The world in which they struggle through has been obliterated by some unnamed catastrophe: the trees are all dead, the roads are covered in ash, and the cities still burn. The book has received wide critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was adapted into a film of the same name in 2009.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, 2003

The first novel by the Afghan-American author, The Kite Runner is a story of how, after betraying his best friend, Hassan, as a child, an Afghan writer from Kabul seeks redemption by returning to his homeland and rescuing Hassan’s own son. The book was a bestseller for two years and sold over seven million copies in the United States.

Although set prominently in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner is a story about universal themes like the relationship between father and son, friendship, betrayal, guilt and redemption. The protagonist, Amir, still feels the need to atone decades later for his cowardly actions in the first part of the book, despite moving to the United States as a child and leaving his old life behind. The book also paints a dark picture of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and includes a public execution, sadism and sexual abuse. A film adaptation was released in 2007.

What do you think of this list? If you’ve read any of these books and would like to share your thoughts about them, or want to make a recommendation of your own, please get in touch on Facebook or Twitter!