What is the ‘classic’ book of the 80’s and 90s?
When I was in high school our reading list went something like this:
The Scarlet Letter (colonial America)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (slavery)
The Red Badge of Courage (sometimes for civil war)
The Jungle (turn of the century)
All Quiet on the Western Front (WWI)
The Great Gatsby (20’s)
Of Mice and Men (30s)
Catcher in the Rye (50’s and 60’s)
Fahrenheit 451 (Cold War)
And then if I remember correctly, it sort of dribbles off from there to miscellaneous short stories (The Things They Carried, etc) Yours might be a little different so plug in The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible or Invisible Man as needed.
So what book will be required reading for the 80’s and 90’s? The qualifications being that it says something about those decades, not where it’s publication date happens to fall.
I’m almost positive that it will be American Pyscho or Fight Club and although most people disagree with me, none of them can suggest a decent alternative.
Update: Tyler Cowen picked it up which is awesome
Bonfire of the Vanities got a lot of press, but honestly, it’s not as compelling or observant as A Man in Full.
Guns, Germs and Steel?
The Bourne Conspiracy books by Robert Ludlum for the 80s?
How about Stephen King’s Carrie for the late ’70s and early ’80s?
generation x by douglas coupland could definitely be a candidate
I completely agree with Fight Club, but I’d go with The Bonfire of the Vanities for the quintessential 80s book, if only because it has wider appeal than American Psycho by virtue of being less gory.
How about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?
Although it’s set in the 60’s, I can imagine Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ becoming required reading as part of an examination of the growth of the Gay/Lesbian rights movements that seemed to encounter significant growth through the late 80s and especially 90s.
During my last year of high school (2000) we had to read Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News,’ in my AP English class, so that author is already making her rounds in academia. Considering the popularity of the movie version of ‘Brokeback’ I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s already part of many high school’s reading courses.
I would advocate Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ as required reading concerning the late 90s and early 2000s. I just finished reading the book a few weeks ago and I agree it deserves every bit of recognition it got when it was published in 2003.
Fight club was the first thing to pop into my mind when reading the question. Can’t say for american psycho though.
But just from the buzz around the guy, I do believe that something written by Cormac McCarthy is bound to emerge somewhere on the list.
Another vote for “Bonfire” though I too prefer “Man in Full” in the Wolfe oeuvre.
How about ‘The Human Stain?’
I have a feeling that we’ll see some Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo for the Cold War “classics,” especially American Pastoral and Underworld.
You are a man of many talents.
And I believe The Da Vinci Code will become required. It’s so thought-provoking.
This would make a good thread for the writing board.
I’ll throw in a vote for Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” for the 90s. It’s set in the “future” version of North America (about 2009) but it tackles many pertinent issues of the contemporary Western world that people encounter daily.
I definitely agree with Fight Club, no doubt. Another one that sprung to mind is Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, which I’ve just finished. It’s especially relevant given economic events over the past year or two. I think it’s a great account of the greed that, for me, symbolises the 80s and the 90s.
I read the entire Tom Wolfe canon in high school and loved it, but do you really think that most high schoolers are going to sink their teeth into 1000 page tomes like Bonfire and A Man In Full and truly enjoy/understand it? Even my friends, who are all smart people, enjoy the two books because they’re “well written” and “about ballers” moreso than the themes themselves.
Liar’s Poker is a good pick.
The God of Small Things
Rabbit is Rich
I second Don DeLillo’s books, especially White Noise. If that’s not canonical for the 80’s, I’m not sure what is.
For the 90’s, I dunno. The Corrections was really good. I liked A Man in Full, especially as an Atlantan, but fiction isn’t even Wolfe’s best genre. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff are much, much better.
I’ve never read Fight Club and I’m under-read on Roth and Ellis, but The Human Stain and Less Than Zero both left me underwhelmed. I’ll give Ellis a pass though since that was his debut at 19, and everything I’ve heard about American Psycho is positive.
But on your criterion that the book must say something about its era, I’ll go with:
White Noise (80’s)
The Corrections (90’s)
I think Infinite Jest says more about the 90’s, but it will never be required because it’s such a dense brainfuck.
No book to suggest, but congrats on the plug with MR.
In my opinion “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe would take the late 90’s early 2000’s. Its description of a vapid college life are pretty spot on, and something I see a lot in youth in general.
For me it was “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. I didn’t love it, but thought it was an interesting read. My teacher did lean a bit towards female centric novels, so I’m not sure how apparent it is across the country to see “Beloved” on a high school list.
What about “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for the 80’s. I also second “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” And, as much as I love books like American Psycho, Less Than Zero, Fight Club, and (I would add) A Clockwork Orange, it’s not practical to think that they would ever be read in a public, high school classroom. At least not in the near future. The religious right would throw the biggest hissy fit ever. I also think we’d be a better country if “True Patriot” was required in History, but that’s non-fiction, and a whole nother topic.
Pointless exercise. People too cynical for classic texts to result from past few decades. Writing book very minor cultural feat now. Human life not at all really defined explored or commented on by novels anymore. Was useful when people had limited other outlets. Unsure why this is so hard for people to admit. Insistence upon the novel’s transcendent power a mark of stubbornness and snobbery.
But I pick “The Emperor’s Children” by Claire Messud. Perfectly enjoyable to read, and convincingly captures late 20th century 30something life in NYC for pseudointellectuals-aware of pointlessness of life but grudgingly and hopelessly fond of various aspects nonetheless.
Every one of the books that are already required reading were highly controversial. Some of them are still being burned and blacklisted. To say they’re unrealistic choices is just wrong.
Nobody’s mentioned Murakami?
At least Easton Ellis and David Foster Wallace got some love.
And what about Coupland’s Generation X?
Hence the qualifying sentence, “at least not in the near future.” Still, I’m skeptical that the chronicling of an 80’s yuppie’s killing spree, no matter how psychologically thrilling, will be welcomed into pre-collegiate education.
And Ted, why are you writing like a robot…are you too busy for “be” verbs? Anyways, the problem you are trying to refer to isn’t that the novel is one of many outlets (nullifying it’s importance), it’s that it’s really easy now for a lot of people to write novels (making it possibly more difficult for greatness to float to the top), but that’s not really a problem…that’s evolution baby.
I am inherently biased as Fight Club is my favourite book, but I agree with your choice. I can’t think of another book that sets the tone for the end of the 20th Century and the start of the 21st as well.
p.s. Your link to Marginal Revolution contains an extra closing quote, so is broken.
It will be Fight Club — of this, I have little doubt. I know it will be Fight Club because my close female friend (who was obviously destined to become a teacher and is just now admitting to herself that she wants to teach high school) was the one who let me borrow the book from her after I ranted about how great the movie was. So while it’s a sample size of one, I know that if she has any say in it, her 7 classes a day will read it, and she’ll play the role of advocate for it at all those AP conferences.
Plus it totally works, because it’s one of those stories where you can tell whether the kid read the book or watched the movie.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. instant classic.
American Psycho is incredible. But it might be too much in the tradition of Catcher in the Rye.
Other highly likely candidates: John Gardner, John Barth, Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Isaac Asimov.
I’m going to throw this out there: Bright Lights, Big City. I enjoyed this book so much more than Less Than Zero. It’s funny (and sad and somewhat shocking at times) and it’s creative, as it’s written in the second person. To me, it sums up the vapid, over-indulgent 80’s pretty well.
This discussion may be somewhat over my head. Any thoughts on this novel by Jay McInerney?
80s: Bright Lights, Big City (McInerney)
The Watchmen (Moore)
90s: I’ll second (or third or fourth) Fight Club.
Fight Club is a must. But I always thought it was already on the list. My senior year in high school (2003) we read fight club in AP English.
I also back Guns Germs and Steel. Although non-fiction, it changes the way you see things.
Both these books gave me a thorough mental slap. I enjoyed every minute of both.
Harry Potter, of course.
In terms of Ellis, I see a lot of love for Less than Zero and American Psycho, which were both excellent, and were focused on the Reagan/H.W. Bush years. I am surprised that more people don’t acknowledge Glamorama, which was Ellis’ statement on the 90s. Maybe because I am a child of the 90s (born in ’84), but this book really resonated for its capture of the vapid and hollow expressions of individuality and their unintended effects on global society, which have become even more prescient after the turbulent decade that has followed since its 1998 release.
Don’t forget “Choke” by Chuck P.
Some of my suggestions come from the 2000s, but retrospective writing often better represents an era – in my opinion.
I have to give a nod to ” A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Others to consider: “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” – it may never be read in a school setting, but who knows. “Me Talk Pretty One Day” – Sedaris, though he is painting his own picture does have a “universal” quality to his life. “About a Boy” – Hornby really gets to the heart of being a boy in a generation x/y world. Cormac McCarthy could chime in with “The Road” or “All The Pretty Horses” and – for the sake of this getting long – This will be my last suggestion, “The Life of Pi.”
“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and “Watchmen” by Alan Moore. Also, on a side note, I just found out that you’re my friend Amy’s brother. Crazy stuff.
I’m a big fan of The Road too but tell me what does it say specifically about the last 2 decades?
You know, the potential consequences of the energy crisis and climate change, the numbing of human emotion and connections, etc.
Calling that a stretch doesn’t even begin to express how The Road isn’t a book that fits in the discussion.