What Five Works of Fiction Best Explain the 20th Century?

Name in the comments the five works of fiction that you believe best explain - not define or symbolize or exemplify, precisely - but in some way explain the past century to (in Brecht's phrase) 'those who come after. I have been asked this question by some high school students and before responding I thought I would consult the Wider Conspiracy. Particularly if the book is not something super well-known to an American audience, give a bit of description about when it was written, by whom, what it's about, and why it's on your list.

To give the full Brecht quote (from memory so might be slightly wrong and anyway a free translation), from the Three Elegies, written in Santa Monica and set to music by Hans Eisler:

"To those who come after, When man is no longer wolf to man, Remember us with forbearance."

Forbearance is a deeply under-appreciated moral virtue.

Soronel Haetir (mail):
Not sure where on the list I would put them, but one of either Wolfe's The Right Stuff or Mitchner's Space. Probably the latter though I enjoyed the former much more.
6.5.2009 2:16pm
Atlas Shrugged
6.5.2009 2:17pm
RMF (mail) (www):
Catch 22
The Maltese Falcon
Dog Soldiers
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Grapes of Wrath
6.5.2009 2:20pm
I agree - Atlas Shrugged
6.5.2009 2:23pm
MrZoggSK (mail):
I think "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy would be interesting to explain the last century. Especially considering it was written in 1888.
6.5.2009 2:25pm
Allan (mail):
American books, based upon the American experience. It would be rare to find books covering all things for all people.

Bonfire of the Vanities (80s and business)
The Guns of August (WWI, which was the war that seems to have led to all wars in the 20th century, instead of being the "war to end all wars)
The Power Broker (development of the modern city in the 50s)
Grapes of Wrath (depression)
To Kill a Mockingbird (civil rights movement)
6.5.2009 2:27pm
Steve C:
I submit John Steinbeck's "The Winter of Our Discontent" and "The Grapes of Wrath" as two of the century's greater works.
6.5.2009 2:28pm
devil's advocate (mail):
second Atlas Shrugged

and To Kill A Mockingbird

adding an outlier suggestion that works for me:

Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion
kind of the fountainhead\ meets Paul Bunyan meets HEart of Darkness
6.5.2009 2:29pm
MarkP (mail):
Babbit (or, Rabbit, Run?), Homage to Catalonia, 1984 (Gulag Archipeligo or Diary of Ann Frank? do some things require non-fiction?), A House for Mr. Biswas (or Satanic Verses?), I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Personally, thumbs down on Atlas Shrugged.

Great question.

6.5.2009 2:31pm
Obviously 1984. Maybe Brave New World will explain the next century, that would be nice.
6.5.2009 2:33pm
Ass of Catalonia:
The Jungle
Atlas Shrugged
The Catcher in the Rye
Stranger in a Strange Land
American Psycho
6.5.2009 2:33pm
srg2 (mail):
Freud - it's not meant to be fiction, but most of it is, and that tells us a lot about the twentieth century.

Ditto Marx, especially followers of his like Marcuse.
6.5.2009 2:34pm
Anderson (mail):
Allan, I think the specification was "works of *fiction*."

.. For some reason, I find myself wanting to nominate books I haven't read but know by reputation (or read so long ago, I still only know them by reputation).

Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Wright, Black Boy

Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

Updike, Rabbit Angstrom (cheating)

Achebe, Things Fall Apart

.. The glaring problem with the list is the absence of a female novelist; I adore Woolf, for instance, but I doubt I could present her as explaining very much. The question asks for "social novels" in effect.
6.5.2009 2:34pm
srg2 (mail):
1984 and Animal Farm for real fiction that explain a lot. And Darkness at Noon.
6.5.2009 2:35pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
(Note that the question asks for fiction.)

Inherit the Wind (although it may be cheating as it's thinly fictionalized history) gets to what has more recently called the American red/blue split.
1984, as the emblem of the fear of the totalitarian state; it illuminates both WWII and the Cold War.
I'll agree with other posters and take The Grapes of Wrath.
6.5.2009 2:37pm
rosetta's stones:
"All Quiet on the Western Front"

Any "Calvin and Hobbes" anthology.

Frank Zappa's "Just Another Band from LA" (ok, it's music, but they'll need to really know us, and you can't really know without Uncle Frank)

The FY2010 US Federal Budget (much a product of the 20th century, and definitely fiction)

Tie, between "A Farewell to Arms" and "Watership Down"

Honorable mention: "Grapes of Wrath"
6.5.2009 2:37pm
Allan (mail):

Take out Guns of August.

Substitute: All's Quiet on the Western Front

Take out Power Broker

Substitute: The Right Stuff
6.5.2009 2:40pm
HankP (mail) (www):
Heart of Darkness
The Grapes of Wrath
Gravity's Rainbow
On the Road

I think it may be more appropriate to ask which five films best explain the 20th century, since film as an art almost entirely developed during that century.

Very tough question, limiting the answer to only five novels.
6.5.2009 2:41pm
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, brilliantly dramatizes the ways in which people (and particularly, I think, people in late-20th-century America) rely on entertainment, chemicals, and other stimuli to try to deal with certain fundamental human conditions (loneliness, existential dread, etc.). It also shows how technology and entertainment, often developed to facilitate interpersonal communication, have tended to result in greater isolation and solipsism. There's tons of other stuff related to authority and autonomy and politics and lots more. An extremely rich book that, I think, would help people understand what it was like to be alive around the dawn of the 21st century.

JR by William Gaddis is a wonderful black comedy about corporate greed and materialism and the struggle between art and profit. It's very cynical -- consider, for example, the scene where a character glues a quarter to his windowsill and watches his upstairs neighbor spend hours trying to retrieve it with chewing gum on a fishing line -- but it's also beautiful and, in some ways, uplifting. The Recongitions and A Frolic of His Own are excellent, too, but JR probably fits what you're looking for the best.
6.5.2009 2:43pm
Umm, Allan, "The Right Stuff" is non-fiction.
6.5.2009 2:46pm
Animal Farm
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Stranger in a Strange Land
something that deals with the end of colonialism
something that shows the evolution of the middle east
6.5.2009 2:46pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
A century is too big to characterize so easily. In 1901 we had not yet seen Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, or World War I. Go from there to the information age of 2000, in five books? Impossible even if you stick to just the US experience. How much worse if you try to take China from the Boxer Rebellion through Mao to Deng Xiaoping? Or Russia from the Tsars through the Bolsheviks to the USSR to Yeltsin and Putin?

What about the arts? In 1901, Dvorak was still composing. How are you going to get from there to N'Sync singing Bye Bye Bye? Or movies from the original 12-minute Great Train Robbery to the first X-Men film?

And the same for pretty much any other discipline you care to imagine. The 20th century was transformative. There's no easy way to sum it up.
6.5.2009 2:48pm
"Invisible Man"
6.5.2009 2:48pm
MarkP (mail):
I got several quick (and nice) emails asking me to explain my selections (sorry for the double post).

Babbitt (sorry for the first misspelling) and Rabbit, Run are about the life &pressures of capitalism.

Homage to Catalonia, which I treat as fiction (pace to those who prefer to see it as complete non-fiction), to show the conflict of monarchism, democracy, fascism, anarchism, and communism all at one point in time.

1984 to cover totalitarianism, although Gulag Archipeligo and Diary of Anne Frank (again, sorry for the misspelling) probably are better ways to confront totalitarianism. Some things DO require non-fiction.

A House for Mr. Biswas or Satanic Verses to deal with the developing world's forced confrontation with Western modernity.

I Am Charlotte Simmons, to deal with the aftermath of the "counter-culture." When traditional society, whether in the West or the Rest, is forced to deal with: rationalism, egalitarianism, migration, insecurity, feminism, mass communication, and many other aspects of high-tech modernity, there is a cultural vacuum that I Am Charlotte Simmons, in my opinion, highlights.

Sorry for the two entries by Americans -- it just seems like our writers have dealt with the responses to capitalism pretty well.

6.5.2009 2:49pm
Homage to Catalonia
Slaughterhouse 5
American Pastoral (the culture wars/60s and aftermath)
The Grapes of Wrath
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (explaining Gen X/Y experience)
Goodbye Columbus/or Dos Passos (immigrant experience)
6.5.2009 2:49pm
Eric (mail) (www):
All the various Heinlein works that deal in some fashion with The Crazy Years, which we are definitely living through (and have been for quite some time). "Stranger in a Strange Land" is one good example. And, of course, on the Heinlein topic, we can't forget "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". The entire time that Mannie and Prof are on Earth, we are really being treated to a view of all the things wrong with the USA in the 20th century, not a sci fi 21st century earth.

Heart of Darkness
Grapes of Wrath
Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes collections
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
6.5.2009 2:50pm
emsl (mail):
For me:

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath
Heller's Catch 22
Ellison's Invisible Man
Rybakov's Children of the Arbat
Miller's Death of a Salesman (I know it is a play, but it is fiction)
6.5.2009 2:51pm
(1) Bonfire of the Vanities

(2) All Quiet on the Western Front

(3) To Kill a Mockingbird

(4) The Great Gatsby

(5) The Grapes of Wrath
6.5.2009 2:51pm
Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy.
Grapes of Wrath
All Quiet on the Western Front
6.5.2009 2:53pm
A Law Dawg:
The first question to answer is, what five things would you pick to best characterize the 20th century. Then find a book for each.

The Guns of August leapt to mind before I realized, like others, that it is non-fiction and therefore doesn't qualify.
6.5.2009 2:54pm
Allan (mail):
To MAM: I think Invisible Man may be a better example than To Kill a Mockingbird (are there any votes for The Color Purple?). It is a close call.
6.5.2009 2:54pm
Homage to Catalonia
Slaughterhouse 5
American Pastoral (the culture wars/60s and aftermath)
The Grapes of Wrath
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (explaining Gen X/Y experience)
Goodbye Columbus/or Dos Passos (immigrant experience)

I would also add Invisible Man
6.5.2009 2:55pm
Jeff R.:
Love in the Time of Cholera
Cryptonomicon (my geek pick here; substitute runner-up Foucault's Pendulum if you find it too much so)
The Satanic Verses
6.5.2009 2:55pm
"A Princess of Mars," Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917

Explains the odd combination of optimism, nostalgia, and escapism with which inhabitants of the last stages of 19th century Industrialism greeted the 20th century. As a bonus, marks the first of a broad stream of escapist fantasy fiction that runs through the culture of the 20th century.

"All Quiet On The Western Front," Erich Remarque, 1929

Explains how the First World War violently terminated the genial patrician Victorian/Edwardian worldview and initiated 20th century cynicism and angst.

"1984," George Orwell, 1949

A better fictional explanation of the dark embitterment and isolation of the socialist/communist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the direct cause of the polarization of worldviews that dominated the 20th century from 1945 on, cannot be found.

"Fail-Safe," Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, 1962

An excellent explanation of the feelings at the height of the Cold War, of being enmeshed in a mad out-of-control machine only originally of our devising, which explains the late 50s through early 80s, including detente, client warfare (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan), and the ennui the frustration with which produced the Reagan Revolution. As a bonus, explains much of the 20th century's anxiety about their machines. Watch the Terminator movies afterward.

"Neuromancer," William Gibson, 1984

Explains the cult of Getting Online, that curious mixture of real-world isolation and loneliness and online-world exaltation and community that defined the coming of age in the 90s of the Millenials, who are now helping set the terms of the new century.
6.5.2009 2:55pm
ooh Great Gatsby, too!
6.5.2009 2:55pm
Atlas Shrugged?!? Give me a break. Don't get me wrong, I've read it a half dozen times, it's a great ... uh, whatever it is — but it doesn't explain much of anything.

Different books explain different things:

* WWI: All Quiet On The Western Front
* The Depression: The Grapes of Wrath I guess
* WWII: The Naked And The Dead or maybe Winds of War (the latter not as good a book, but much broader scope.)
* The end of European colonialism and the rise of American post-colonial hyperpuissance: The Quiet American
(what I find most amazing about this book is that it is a vivid metaphor for the American experience in Vietnam, although it was published in 1955!)
* Life under totalitarianism: A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich or To Live And Die in Shanghai or We, The Living (there, that should satisfy all you Objectivist loons)

Of course, now I'm at five and don't have a books for regular prosperous Western life (something by Roth or Updike?) or life in developing countries (Hemingway?)
6.5.2009 2:56pm
The Great Gatsby
Native Son
Once an Eagle
American Psycho
Fight Club
6.5.2009 2:56pm
jimwillis (mail):
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
The Tin Drum - Gunter Grass
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris - not nearly as well known as the others, but a great, funny read dealing with the job market and how people cope with everyday situations at work. It's even more relevant in the current environment, with so many worrying about job security in what were once prosperous fields.
6.5.2009 2:57pm
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
1984 by George Orwell
6.5.2009 3:00pm
Oh, also The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It captures a lot of the spirit of pre-war Europe, including the clash of different ideologies.
6.5.2009 3:02pm
gsusnake (mail) (www):
To Kill a Mockingbird
Lord of the Flies
Animal Farm
Atlas Shrugged
The Grapes of Wrath

all of which, thankfully, I was forced to read in school. I hated it at the time but I love the fact that I'm so much better-read than my peers.
6.5.2009 3:02pm
A Clockwork Orange
6.5.2009 3:08pm
OhioLawdog (mail):
I keep wanting to respond, "[insert title]?!?! but that book is terrible!"

Anyway, Don DeLillo's Underworld probably deserves a mention. My favorite book mentioned so far was Infinite Jest, but I don't think that really answers the question of the post.
6.5.2009 3:12pm
Bill reynolds (mail):
Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, captures one defining event--the First World War

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon exposed the evil seduction of communism--far better than 1984

Hemingway's For whom the Bell Tolls for its vivid capture of the great proxy war that was fought in Spain

For boys of my generation a Robert Heinlein book is needed. I suggest The Moon is A harsh Mistress

And for young men of the past two generations--The Lord of the Rings
6.5.2009 3:15pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
Animal Farm
Fight Club
Lord of the Flies
6.5.2009 3:16pm
Bob White (mail):
I really like your list. One change I'd make though-rather than Neuromancer, I'd go with Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which shows also the benefit of the new hyper-connectivity, and which also demonstrates the rapid advance of wealth-enabling technologies that was the hallmark of much of this past century. Plus, I like it better.
6.5.2009 3:16pm
Archon (mail):
A Brave New World
Camp of the Saints
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Lord of the Rings Trilogy
6.5.2009 3:18pm
Brett Marston:
Since none of these have been mentioned:

1) Fredy Neptune by the Australian poet Les Murray (really captivating and disturbing account of genocide and ethnic conflict, technology, homelessness and WWI, 1999)
2) Mephisto by Klaus Mann (on the rise of German fascism)
3) Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
4) Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Koetzee (failure of colonialism)
5) Something by Mario Vargas Llosa, either Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (a very funny but also bleak novel about bureaucratic control, military power and religious fanaticism), Death in the Andes (essentially about how to come to terms with past atrocities) or The Feast of the Goat (also about confronting past political repression and its continuing effects)
6.5.2009 3:19pm
MarkField (mail):
I'm going to interpret the question as asking for those books which explain the 20th C as experienced by Americans. If I were to view the century through the eyes of a European, I'd pick very different works (switch WWI for the civil rights movement, for example). I don't think it's possible to do both.

As I see it, these are the defining experiences of the 20th C for Americans:

1. Great Depression: The Grapes of Wrath or All the King's Men.

2. WWII: I'm sure there must be one, but I can't think of it now.

3. Korea and Vietnam: Catch-22 (yes, I know it's about WWII, but I think the theme works much better for the two later wars).

4. The Civil Rights Movement: Invisible Man or To Kill A Mockingbird.

5. The Cold War: 1984.

I second the suggestion to try the same exercise in film. It's also interesting to name the 5 most influential works of non-fiction.
6.5.2009 3:20pm
Revolutionary Road by Yates
6.5.2009 3:23pm
one of many:
Something in the Gulag Archipelago, The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda line is probably necessary to explain the century, I lean towards The Killing Fields but I'm not married to it

I'd throw one of the end of the 20th century handbooks of cultural literacy on (various names as it is a genre although several are named Handbook of Cultural Literacy). It should be one of the more extensive ones which gives an overview of what we considered to be the important parts of the past which created the (20th century) present.

An environmental scare book. You can go with a classic like Silent Spring or one of the extremes like We Almost Lost Detroit, either will demonstrate a major chunk of the evolving worldview we labored under during the 20th Century.

Taylor's Principals of Scientific Management. The impact of 'scientific management' cannot be underestimated, it has permeated our culture.
6.5.2009 3:24pm
First of all you should not take this question at face value and simply respond in kind. There is no apparent reason why these need to be works of fiction.

I do not understand what is meant by "explain" in this context. There is no explanation in the sense of rationalizing the past 100 years.

The only explanations you are going to get are descriptions of the modern human condition, a kind of struggle with nihilism. Since this goes back quite a way in intellectual history you could pick a lot of them.

Robert Musil wrote something called "The man without qualities" which is a gigantic unfinished novel set immediately before WWI in Austria

Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain

Orwell 1984
6.5.2009 3:25pm
richard1 (mail):
Waiting for Godot

Catch 22

The Sun Also Rises


Great Gatsby
6.5.2009 3:26pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
Damn, looking through the thread, I wish I could replace my "Fight Club" pick with "Bonfire of the Vanities". It's similarly US-centric, but it's also another great characterization, particularly of the racial politics and urban problems of the '80s, which I'd probably consider more important than that the lethargic commercialism of the '90s.
6.5.2009 3:27pm
one of many:
Dang fiction, well that means I can keep Gulag Archipeligo &Principals of Scientific Management but have to find something else for enviroscare and past which we found important to create the present (20th century).
6.5.2009 3:28pm
Sunshine is good:
Johnny got his gun / All Quiet on the Western Front.

1984/Homage to Catalonia

The Illuminatus Trilogy

Invisible Man/Grapes of Wrath

Schismatrix Collection / Neuromancer / Cryptonomicon
6.5.2009 3:29pm
anotherpsychdoc (mail):
explain the past century

Donald Rayfield in Stalin and His Hangmen says that Stalin, a voracious reader, had a 'naive and even weird' interpretation of fiction. The Devils, or The Possessed, by Dostoyevski is about about a radical nihilist who would murder thousands to create happiness 'for those who come after.' Stalin may have taken this not as (?) moral satire but, as it were, a companion volume to 'How to Do Plumbing.' Such a book would explore the pathologic narcissism erupting on what is often called the the death of God, above 'the fiction of Freud,' that so 'explains' the twentieth century. The role of narcissism is perhaps even seen in your discussion of the meaning and application of the Constitution.
6.5.2009 3:30pm
Crunchy Frog:
Animal Farm
The Grapes Of Wrath
The Godfather (I can't believe nobody else has picked this yet)
L.A. Confidential
Bonfire Of The Vanities

I really wanted some Heinlein (Starship Troopers is my favorite novel of all time) or Stephen King, but couldn't find the justification for it.
6.5.2009 3:32pm
geekWithA.45 (mail) (www):
The 20th century was radically transitional. The state of humanity and its institutions in the beginning is sharply distinct both qualitatively and quantitatively from the state of humanity and its institutions in the end.

We entered the 20th with the modest accumulation of millenia of human development: barely mechanized industry that was based on burning stuff to boil water and agriculture still based more or less on horses pulling stuff through fields. We passed through an epoch a decade, and left the 20th as something else entirely different.

The only book I've ever read that captures the accelerating pace of change that stitches it all together is Accellerando, by Charles Stross.

As for the rest, the best you can hope for is something that snapshots one aspect or another.

As for Atlas Shrugs, yeah, I think it has a place on the list, explaining much about where we find ourselves.
6.5.2009 3:34pm
Bretzky (mail):
I think you first have to ask what are the five most important themes of the 20th century before you can answer that question. To me those themes are: (1) the fight against totalitarianism; (2) de-colonization; (3) the rise of feminism in the West; (4) the "American" century; and (5) the late century technology boom.

I don't have a book for each theme, but for the fight against totalitarianism I would recommend "Animal Farm" by George Orwell. I think it accurately captures the nature of a totalitarian system.

For de-colonization I think "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe accurately details the effect that colonization and the colonizers had on places like Nigeria and the disorder and disarray that was left when they went home.
6.5.2009 3:34pm
bill_guest (mail):
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
6.5.2009 3:40pm
For his descriptions of bygone American urban life, Saul Bellow certainly deserves a mention; I'd think that Humboldt's Gift or Herzog could certainly make the list.
6.5.2009 3:40pm
Eric Henriksen:
In no particular order:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh - perfectly captures the last dying gasp of the old world as it is consumed by an encroaching modernity.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - not Nabokov's best but it is in many ways the most quintessentially post-war American novel.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes - an almost perfect novel which demonstrates how the history of the entire world collides together into a chaotic mix resulting in the conflicted tensions underlying latino identity.

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch -- a significant milestone in the history of the novel and, like , a probing look at the arrival of modernity.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera -- I'm too close to this book to even attempt a single sentence summation.
6.5.2009 3:41pm
cynner (mail):
Please add Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
6.5.2009 3:42pm
"Invisible Man" is, I believe, much better than "To Kill A Mockingbird", b/c it is so rooted in existentialism, which, in many ways, explains the absurdity of America's racial journey from the perspective of the oppressed.
6.5.2009 3:42pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I'm amazed how close the choices are to a consensus.

I don't think its possible for a novel to explain a century. Having said that, I'll throw out a few that have been overlooked so far:

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann
In Search of Lost Time - Marcel Proust
White Noise - Don Delillo
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne / or The Godfather by Mario Puzo (toss-up here).
6.5.2009 3:43pm
winnie the puzo:
It was Eyore all along.
6.5.2009 3:46pm
AndrewK (mail):
Here are my choices off the top of my head.

1.) The Last Puritan, Santayana
2.) The People's History of the United States, Zinn
3.) White Noise, Delillo
4.) Animal Farm, Orwell
5.) Lolita, Nabokov
6.5.2009 3:46pm
conlaw2 (mail):
Aren't books that do explaining the wrong books to think about when discussing literature at the high school level.

You'd do much better to search for books that define or exemplify and then let the students discover explanations.
6.5.2009 3:46pm
AndrewK (mail):
Duffy Pratt beat me to White Noise: great choice. On its own it's not definitive, but it hits on mass communication, isolation, environmental issues, etc. that the other more politically-oriented books overlook.

I'm reading Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" right now, and that non-fiction book is extremely apt in assessing modernity.

Maybe Eliot's Wasteland?
6.5.2009 3:49pm

Rybakov's Children of the Arbat

That's not a bad one as far as explaining, but not a great one.
Somebody mentioned Nabokov (Lolita is great but I am not sure what it would explain on this kind of a short list). I submit Invitation to a Beheading by the same author. It's a great explanation of totalitarianism while also dragging in some Kafka world.

Mario Vargas Llosa was mentioned too. I would add The War of the End of the World or Conversation in the Cathedral for the mentality and tragedy of the developing world (even though the first title treats events of the 19th century).
6.5.2009 3:49pm
[insert here] delenda est:
In no particular order:
- Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong;
- Darkness at noon, Arthur Koestler;
- Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja), Mario Vargas Llosa;
- All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque; and
- The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.

For films, a bit harder, and I must be more American, but I tentatively suggest:
- Hiroshima mon amour;
- Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir les Enfants (must be seen together for 20thC educative effect);
- Gran Torino;
- Slumdog Millionaire; and
- On the Waterfront.

I will doubtlessly regret that second list in a short while, much more than the first.
6.5.2009 3:49pm
Charles Sims (mail):
Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman. The great novel of WWII, written by the great Russian journalist who covered the war. Extraordinary.
In Search of Lost Time - Proust.
The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom.
Judge on Trial. Ivan Klima, great novel on justice in an unjust society.
Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, or Augie March, by Bellow.
6.5.2009 3:53pm
Eric Henriksen:
Runners up:

<i>Midnight's Children</i> and <i>The Ground Beneath Her Feet</i> by Salman Rushdie

<i>The Trial</i> by Franz Kafka

<i>Hopscotch</i> by Julio Cortizar

<i>Ulysses</i> by James Joyce

<i>Molloy</i>, <i>Malone Dies</i>, and <i>The Unnamable</i> by Samuel Beckett

<i>The Invisible Man</i> by Ralph Ellison

<i>For Whom the Bell Tolls</i> Ernest Hemingway

<i>La Nausee</i> Jean Paul Sarte

<i>Tar Baby</i> by Toni Morrison
6.5.2009 3:54pm
AndrewK (mail):
I think maybe we've missed the original point of the post.
6.5.2009 3:56pm
AndrewK (mail):
In any case, I suggested Lolita on a balanced list as helping to explain radical individualism, obsession with youth and sex, and the sloughing off of traditional mores leading to an id-dominated century and the reinvigoration of masculine tyranny in relationships. It also hits on megalomania and middle-class isolation.

All of that is controversial, but the sexual revolutions are a huge part of the 20th century.
6.5.2009 3:59pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
Lord of the Flies deserves more love, in my opinion. It is a remarkable exposition of the fundamental Hobbesian nature of our humanity. It fully reveals the political economy of our deep tribalist instincts and how much of a struggle it is for humanity to raise itself above those instincts even given a pretense of civilization and rule of law.
6.5.2009 4:01pm
Paul Barnes (mail):
A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter Miller.
LOTR by Tolkein
Til We have Faces by C.S. Lewis
The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Starship Troopers by Heinlein
6.5.2009 4:01pm
LessinSF (mail):
C.D. Payne, Youth in Revolt
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Anything by Danielle Steel
Phillip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint
James Glassman, Dow 36,000
6.5.2009 4:02pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Catch 22
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Love in the Time of Cholera
Palace Walk
To Kill a Mockingbird

1984, incidentally, I think is overrated. The basic premise was that totalitarianism was immutable, which was profoundly wrong.
6.5.2009 4:02pm
Eric Henriksen:
Widmerpool -

You mentioned Bolano's 2666. How was it? I just recently read By Night in Chile and absolutely loved it.
6.5.2009 4:03pm
c.gray (mail):
I like a lot of the books other people have listed, but they are a bit heavy on US authors and US events. Other places have been important to the 20th Century, too.

I think one of the big question future generations will have a hard time coming to grips with is why people turned so savagely on the old imperial systems that dominated the century at its begining when the replacements (Communist "people's republics", Fascist dictatorships, military rule, etc..), were so deeply flawed in comparison. So in that spirit:

The Good Soldier Švejk-Jaroslav Hašek

All Quiet on the Western Front - Remarque

The Trial-Kafka

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
A novel about the European colonization of Africa told from an African character's point of view. I think the reader gets a lot of insight into how disruptive &resented the process was locally and why decolonization in the 60s unleashed chaos.

Another thing I think (hope?) people will have hard time understanding is just how simultaneously horrifying and bone-headed many of the political movements of the 20th century were. So in that spirit:

To Live-Yu Hua
A novel about the fall of a wealthy man into poverty in pre-war rural China, and the subsequent struggle of he and his family to survive the turmoil of Mao-era China.
6.5.2009 4:04pm
The River Temoc (mail):
something that deals with the end of colonialism
something that shows the evolution of the middle east

Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy. My favorite is Palace Walk, the first of the lot — which I included in my list for these very reasons.
6.5.2009 4:05pm
1. Either "1984" or "Darkness at Noon"

2. Grapes of Wrath

3. All Quiet on the Western Front

4. "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis

5. Slaughterhouse 5
6.5.2009 4:09pm

Eric Henriksen:
In no particular order:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh - perfectly captures the last dying gasp of the old world as it is consumed by an encroaching modernity.

How about The Cherry Orchard then ?:-)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - not Nabokov's best but it is in many ways the most quintessentially post-war American novel.

I actually think it's one of the best, but I am not sure what it really explains about the century or especially America (the fact that it was read in Teheran notwithstanding). For the century I would still go with his Beheading.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera -- I'm too close to this book to even attempt a single sentence summation.

Would be a good one in reflecting the spirit of a certain place and period, but less so in the explaining department. Still good.
6.5.2009 4:09pm
Jared Armstrong (mail):
'If I could only choose five novels to share with an alien civilization to convey upon them an understanding of the human race in the 20th Century....'

Satan Burger, by Carlton Mellick III
-- The book I was arrested and thrown in jail for.

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
-- Should be obvious

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
-- Again, should be obvious

Glamorama, by Brett Easton Ellis

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
6.5.2009 4:09pm
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
6.5.2009 4:10pm
bearing (mail) (www):
Somebody mentioned Nabokov (Lolita is great but I am not sure what it would explain on this kind of a short list).

I was just thinking that Lolita was a brilliant choice. What it defines, explains, or exemplifies is a clash between "Old World" and "New World" values and the commercialization of American culture. That whole part where HH and Lolita are driving around the country, eating in diners and staying in sordid little motels is a portrait of America unlike anything else I've seen.
6.5.2009 4:13pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
The River Temoc,

I disagree with you strongly. I think Orwell did a masterful job of predicting and identifying the institutions and mechanisms of "thought control" that modern totalitarian government would employ within 1984, evocatively allowing a more simple reader to identify personal real-life examples of "News Speak" and "Ministries of Love".
6.5.2009 4:15pm
"A World Lit Only By Fire"

by William Manchester.

The book was intended to provide context to understand
the voyage of Magellan. It serves quite well to provide
context for understanding the 20th century as well.
6.5.2009 4:16pm
bearing (mail) (www):
By the way, it would really help to get a better understanding of what it means to "explain" a century.

I would say you're going for a novel which has a strong sense of the time and place, that really makes the external conditions in which the characters live come alive, and also which gets inside the head of the characters and has extremely true-to-life characters devoid of anachronisms.

To explain the century is to make it so that the reader of the future can understand the answers to some of the questions of "How could people have lived that way? How could so many have made the choices they did? What were they thinking? Why did history take the turns it did? How did the choices and beliefs of individuals come together to create the conflicts and movements that shaped history during those years?"
6.5.2009 4:19pm
Heart of Darkness.
6.5.2009 4:19pm

AndrewK (mail):
In any case, I suggested Lolita on a balanced list as helping to explain radical individualism, obsession with youth and sex, and the sloughing off of traditional mores leading to an id-dominated century and the reinvigoration of masculine tyranny in relationships. It also hits on megalomania and middle-class isolation.

All of that is controversial, but the sexual revolutions are a huge part of the 20th century.

I don't think Lolita is the right one to explain the sexual revolution. It played a role in obscenity censorship, yes.

The Good Soldier Švejk-Jaroslav Hašek

I second this one. Probably the funniest of all the entries listed that I am familiar with.
6.5.2009 4:19pm
Those are all such high school books! Let's get a little more upscale...

1) "Heart of Darkness" says everything that needs to be said about the deeper meaning of racism and colonialism.

2) The mystery! One of a very few twentieth-century genres, it expresses a new sort of attitude about the relationship between the individual and the state. ( I know it was invented in the late 19th but still...)
Either something with Sherlock Holmes or by Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye).

3) In Search of Lost Time--for insight into the unreliability of human experience and the fluidity of human personality. Also discusses the sexual decadence which is coming to be more and more part of our lives.
6.5.2009 4:20pm
Eric Henriksen:
ys -

I am especially fond of The Cherry Orchard. Much better than Uncle Vanya in my opinion. But I was restricting myself to novels.

I didn't mean to suggest that Lolita is in any way an inferior work; just not his best. My favorites are Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor. I suggested this work for much the same reason Bearing mentioned above. It has something to do with how Nabokov managed to make all the hallmarks of Americana so inexplicably strange and foreign when viewed through the eyes of HH. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting as done by Francis Bacon.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being just fits so perfectly with my view of the overriding theme of the twentieth century: dissolution of the past and the subsequent longing for certainty which cannot be entirely sated by seeking refuge in the past or projecting our hopes into the future. It's an existential account of the human condition in the 20th Century.
6.5.2009 4:28pm

Cato The Elder
Lord of the Flies deserves more love, in my opinion. It is a remarkable exposition of the fundamental Hobbesian nature of our humanity.

Not particularly 20th century - it's far more timeless.
6.5.2009 4:30pm
A couple of oft-mentioned books are not really 20th century. Heart of Darkness was published in 1902. Parts of In Search Of Lost Time were published before 1900.
6.5.2009 4:31pm
mcbain (mail):
lolita is a great book, but it does not really apply to the 20th century, it might as well have been set in 300BC or 2250 AD, it would not have made any difference.

good soldier schweik
cause wwi started in a funny way and ended like the sopranos

the plague
confronting the world through rationality and failing is a 20th century activity

the world according to garp
i know, but it does a passable job of describing womens lib, one of the most important things that happened in the 20th century

burmese days
explains exactly why the british suck and how they ruined the world

one day in the life of ivan denisovitch
for the reasons described by others
6.5.2009 4:31pm
Eric Henriksen:

"dissolution of the past" should read "dissolution of history"
6.5.2009 4:34pm
Someone raised the possibility of a Stephen King title. The Stand is the only one of his books that I still enjoy as much in adulthood as I did as a teenager. Probably because (for me anyway) it so effectively tapped into the apocalyptic dread of U.S. - Soviet relations in Reagan's first term. It also serves as a larger commentary on mankind's inability to keep from destroying itself, technologically, politically, and spiritually.

I'm not sure if it makes the cut but it's certainly my candidate if you had to pick from the King library.
6.5.2009 4:35pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
When it comes to Conrad, Heart of Darkness is the obvious choice, but what about The Secret Agent for the whole nihilism-terrorism-revolution theme? Under Western Eyes might be an even better choice, but it's been many years since I read it.
6.5.2009 4:36pm
The Unbeliever:
Sticking to fiction and the American experience, and leaving out explanations for picks others have already provided:


Citizen Kane (movie), for its excellent portrayal of the "expected" American work ethic; the proverbial American dream and its potential emptiness; and how we treat public and private lives, and the repercussions when they don't match up.


Bonfire of the Vanities

William Gibson's Idoru; Neuromancer was groundbreaking, but its implied culture is better placed in the 21st century. Idoru, although still "out there", deals with a more accurate picture of anonymous online interactions, isolation as a result of technological advances, fictional identity constructs, and how cyberspace rearranged the spatial relationships we take for granted in the real world.
6.5.2009 4:36pm
Eric Henriksen:
ys -

By the way, I agree with you that Invitation to a Beheading is both a wonderful novel and an entirely apropos choice for this little exercise. Bend Sinister would be another great choice for much the same reasons.
6.5.2009 4:40pm
Jack (mail) (www):
That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis): Does a good job of illustrating the totalitarian mindset which goes a long way toward explaing much of the 20th century. Alternatively, Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand), 1984 and/or Animal Farm (George Orwell), but those seem more specifically tied to Communism so are less general.

All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Remarque): Gotta have something about the horrors of the World Wars. Vonegut's Slaughter House 5 would probably also work here, but it has too much satire to be really explanatory. Likewise Heller's Catch-22 and Celine's Journey to the End of Night.

The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene): Chosen for its portrayal of post-colonial revolution and chaos, though there are probably better examples. I would really like something that talked about the Bandung era in the 50s-60s and the post-colonial breakup of Africa, but I don't know of any fiction on the subject. That is a part of the 20th century that frequently gets missed, probably because it falls under our cultural radar.

The Sum of All Fears (Tom Clancy): OK, this is anothrer punt. There has been a hell of a lot written about the Arab/Israeli conflict, but not much useful. To give Clancy credit, he does decent research and adopts a fairly even-handed pose in assigning blame, but I am sure there is something more weighty on the subject.

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson): This is a great book on the technological revolution of the last quarter of the 20th century which is an era that shouldn't be overlooked. Don't know a better writer than Stephenson for that topic. Besides, it helps to end the list on a happy note.
6.5.2009 4:43pm

Eric Henriksen:
It has something to do with how Nabokov managed to make all the hallmarks of Americana so inexplicably strange and foreign when viewed through the eyes of HH. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting as done by Francis Bacon.

I submit that's how Nabokov himself saw it, minus HH's special proclivities (although Francis Bacon is a bit of an exaggeration here). But that's based on psychology of the viewer and falls short in the broader explaining department, in my view.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being just fits so perfectly with my view of the overriding theme of the twentieth century: dissolution of the past and the subsequent longing for certainty which cannot be entirely sated by seeking refuge in the past or projecting our hopes into the future.

I admit I don't understand what you mean here, even though some of Nabokov's and Lightness of Being's experiences have been my own.
6.5.2009 4:48pm
Laura Victoria (mail):
Great recommendations you guys. They helped trigger my sagging memory.

White Noise

Great Gatsby

Infinite Jest

A Fuentes or Vargas Llosa to be determined

Irene Nemerovky's, Suite Francaise

Picking Five is tough, especially from a world instead of a purely American perspective. Lots and lots of others. TC Bolye's Drop City not only covers the 60s, but the entire American utopian quest for the final frontier.

LA Confidential was an excellent pick too. Proust, Ellison's Invisible Man, something Russian, like Bulgakov's Master and Margarita or A Day in the Life..., Waiting for Godot was another good choice, as was Lolita. Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Morisson's Beloved. Virginia Wolf's The Hours. Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. Richard Ford's Independence Day.. Both the Charlotte Simmons and Bonfire were great choices

I definitely think the picks must be top flight literature, or the "explanatory" power that strikes the heart and the mind as only great fiction can is lost.

Let's change this to be a Top Ten list. It will still be tough. And let's add another category for film. This is fun!
6.5.2009 4:51pm
mooglar (mail):

Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

Since it's not been mentioned again once since you nominated it, I am going to guess that I am one of the few here who have read it. (I've never actually met anyone else who has heard of it, let alone read it, until now, in fact).

I'm curious as to why you think it would be a good choice? I was very disappointed by it; I ordered it from because it was very much along the lines of the novel I was (and am) working on and the synopses I read sounded like it was a great novel.

But I found the formatting (like how he doesn't use quotation marks) distracting and distancing from the story, for one thing. (Not that I'm down on experimental stuff or breaking away from convention as a rule or anything, but in this case I found it made me feel like I was reading a book from an alternate reality where they don't use quotation marks rather than one where Hitler did escape to South America, and I think that's not the right feeling to give the audience for this particular book). And the ending (no spoilers) seemed abrupt for no particular reason, like it was that way just to be that way rather than as an important part of shaping the narrative.

(And, BTW, I'm okay with ambiguous or abrupt endings, too, when done well. I loved the ending of John Sayles' film "Limbo," for instance. Well, okay, I loved it after being P.O.ed about it for an hour or so...)

Anyway, I just didn't find much there. But since I don't know anyone else who has (or is interested in) reading it, I've never had the chance to ask someone who liked it what they thought was good.

So, I'm asking. :^)
6.5.2009 4:56pm
Harry Schell (mail):
Not fiction, but Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver, IMO, predicts with chilling precision the decline of academia and its product, which explains some of the buffoonery of the 20th century and will continue to figure in the US for at least another 3 years (less 100+ days)...from the vantage point of 1946.
6.5.2009 4:58pm
Unintended Consequences - lightly fictionalized sociopolitical history of self-defense law, culminating in the mindset of the pro-RKBA (and related subjects) crowd, both where we ended up and expect it all to go.

Fahrenheit 451 - a similar but broader depiction of the reversal of core principles thru the century, the general acceptance thereof, and the individual struggle to return to philisophical roots.

Lord Of The Rings - exemplifies self-reliance and self-sacrifice serving family, country and principles.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes - depicts the enthusiasm and fantasies of the unbridled quintessential American mind.
6.5.2009 4:59pm
Eric Henriksen:
ys -

Recall his casting of the modern world as a "trap" and the role which capital H "History" is made to serve within the framework of Nietzsche's Myth of the Eternal Return. Less cryptically, it's about the failure of ideology to replace culture.

Perhaps it might help you to understand my view of Lolita if I make it clear that I find it representative not because captures the historical milieu especially well, but because it so expertly captures the experience of dislocation and isolation.

If I were to recommend something which captures the feel of that same era, I'd recommend something like Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side.
6.5.2009 4:59pm
Harry Schell (mail):
Also, very much agreed forebearance is an underappreciated and underexcerised moral virtue.

Is this, not to hijack the thread, a failure of humility as a noted virtue, or a lack of admission of or perspective on one's own failures? A learned skill or intutive one?
6.5.2009 5:01pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
The Gulag Archipelago-- see especially Vol. 1, Chapter 4, The Blue Caps This book changed my world view.

1984 How government rules by controlling language.

The Midas Plague-- short story by C.M. Kornbluth, which, brilliantly captures the contradictions of American consumer culture. A must read!

Camp of the Saints-- The SPLC hates it. What better recommendation? Mass immigration in Europe and the US is causing existential changes. This work explores this issue as few do.

Bonfire of the Vanities Greed is good! Captures the 1980s New York.

These are not necessarily the best works of literature, but they help you understand various aspects of the changes that happened in the 20th Century. Solzhenitsyn did not regard Gulag as his major work. That honor goes to August 1914. I have not read it because the original translations were defective. If any can recommend a good one please tell us.
6.5.2009 5:13pm
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
Great question, this was really fun to think about and to read.

I second Sometimes a Great Notion. Definitely portrays the uncertainty with ourselves that has been such a strong characteristic of our age. Second half of the century, anyway.

I second On the Road. It captures the naïve hope we had that we could live only in the present and care only about poetry and friends and all would be well. (I haven’t read it for a while, so that may be a very sloppy summary.)

I guess I have to agree that Catcher in the Rye explains us pretty well (I am not worrying about any definitions here, just going by gut). Narcissism, straight up. (Disguised as adolescence—and you could say our society is valiantly trying to keep that disguise alive!)

My suggestion is Howard’s End. Written in 1910 (I just checked), I think it explains the ascendance of the feminine point of view in Western culture during the 20th century. I suppose it’s politically incorrect to assert that there is such a thing as the feminine point of view, but I will assert it anyway, in honor of Mr. Forster.

(I think the novel also explains some things about changes in English society during the 20th century, but I am not very knowledgeable about that.)

The feminine point of view is symbolized by the house itself (called Howard’s End) and by the thoughts and feelings of Margaret, most famously those in the Only Connect passage (in which she is thinking about her new husband):

“It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
6.5.2009 5:19pm

2666 is a remarkable novel which simply cannot be summed up in a short squib. On the surface, it concerns how the pathologies of nazism and machismo have resulted in the hundreds of deaths of young women in a northern town in Mexico clearly based on Juarez. It consists of five parts, each of which is connected with the other sections but each of which can also stand alone given the section's focus on a particular character (or group of characters). My favorite concerns Oscar Fate which is the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie. A word of warning: Bolano is viewed by some as an acquired taste and the fourth section can be quite off-putting (as it consists of short vignettes typically involving a murdered woman). The title, by the bye, is not explained--though I like to think that the "2" stands for coincidence and "666" for man's (or, more appropriately, woman's) fate.

If you do like 2666, it should be read in conjunction with another great book that has been translated within the last year, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (which is not as good as 2666 but still much better--and much more serious--than what passes for "highbrow" fiction nowadays).
6.5.2009 5:22pm
Eric Henriksen:
Widmerpool -

Thanks. I can definitely see how Bolano would be something of an acquired taste. I recently read Night in Chile--after hearing good things about him for the last decade--and the novel entirely lacks paragraphs and contains some sentences which have to be measured in pages. Slow reading but very rewarding.

Thanks for the heads up on Littell. I've never heard of him.
6.5.2009 5:36pm
CamarilloBrillo (mail):
Just a couple that haven't been mentioned but which I think work quite well for the 1970s through the present:

A Confederacy of Dunces - Toole
Harrison Bergeron - Vonnegut
The Razor's Edge - Maugham
Four Institutional Monologues - Saunders
6.5.2009 5:44pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
I second McCall -- which 20th century?

For a first cut, I'd split it into pre-WWII and postwar.

For prewar (and taking solely a western perspective), Waugh's 'Black Mischief,' Karel Capek's 'R.U.R.'

For postwar, Robert Coover's 'The Public Burning.'

For a non-western view, Amos Tutuola's 'The Palm-wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-wine Tapster in the Dead's Town.'

(As a bonus, with 3 of these 4 you get to enjoy the finest English stylists of the century.)

Plus, my compliments to those high school students. I cannot imagine myself, at their age, asking such a question about the 19th c.
6.5.2009 5:46pm

A world of caution on The Kindly Ones as well. It's about as long as 2666 and is a first-person narrative by one of the most depraved characters in all of literature, Maximillian Aue. Aue served in the SD section of the SS during WWII and relates, in sometimes mind-numbing detail, his work on the Russian Front, including his assignment to an einsatzkommandos unit and Stalingrad. He is eventually posted as a liaison officer with the death camps. This novel is definitely not for the faint hearted--although it was a bestseller in France and was awarded the Prix Goncourt (Littell, strangely enough, was born and raised in the United States but moved to France and wrote this book in French--sort of the modern equivalent of Samuel Beckett).
6.5.2009 5:51pm
Josh Poulson (mail) (www):
Add my vote to Atlas Shrugged, and put in my vote for the 21st Century book: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
6.5.2009 5:51pm
If, rather than just wallowing in good books, one would have to come up with something actually serving the purpose of reflecting/explaining the century, one would first list the things that need explaining. Some people indeed came up with lists and most of course have implied lists. So far I see only limited convergence (out of a potential 5 point list):

1) totalitarianism

2) some call it colonialism or developing world, I would just say non-western and not (necessarily) totalitarian world

3) something about America

4) something about something else, or maybe another thing about America

5) ?

Items 3 and especially 4 vary quite widely, and so do the suggestions. I think beyond 1 and 2 it becomes vague (and even 2 is somewhat more vague than 1). BTW, what does it suggest about the century? I think it would be that the rise and fall of totalitarianism is the main feature of that particular century.
6.5.2009 6:19pm
LessinSF (mail):
So Long And Thanks For All The Fish
6.5.2009 6:21pm
Jer (mail):
1) Federick Pohl &C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1958)

2) Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diaries: a Novel(published 1998 but written in the 1960s)

3) Yukio Mishima, Patriotism (1966)

4) Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Tocklas (1933)

5) Dr. Suess, The Butter Battle Book (1984)
6.5.2009 6:21pm
K. L. Marcus (mail):
Atlas Shrugged
Invisible Man
6.5.2009 6:38pm
Antinome (mail) (www):

The Mouse that Roared, Leonard Wibberly

Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck

Maus, Art Spiegelman

The Joke Milan Kundera
6.5.2009 6:41pm
John A. Fleming (mail):
1. The initial rapture with collectivism in all its variants, and then in spite of its repeated failures, leading inexorably to the horrific killing fields of Cambodia: why we couldn't learn and (even still now) refuse to let go of the vision - Atlas Shrugged, Honorable Mention: 1984

2. The rise and fall of technocracy: Atomic power, the moon landing, and then the retreat. - The Lord of the Rings. Honorable mention: 2001, A Space Odyssey

3. The transformation of art from celebrating life, to cataloging its futility. - Lillian Hellman, The Childrens Hour.

4. The baby-boom culture: how those who were the first in history to be born into a world of plenty, and the Pax Americana, became irresponsible and lazy narcissists. - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (not really a work of fiction)

5. The American Century and American Exceptionalism: how a people who could care less about the rest of the world ended up running it, and became the cause of all its faults. - The Ugly American. Honorable Mention: The Bridges of Toko-Ri.
6.5.2009 6:46pm
The Sun Also Rise - for WWI's effect on a generation

Slaughterhouse 5 - For WWII's effect on a generation, and emotions underlying the subsequent anti-war movement (and because it is one of the best books I've ever read)

Atlas Shrugged - to explain the dominant and competing ideologies of the 20th century

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers) - to explain the particularly peculiar persona of Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers (and how those people affected by the events depicted in Slaughterhouse 5 affected their children and the next generation)

And since my wife absolutely loves Proust, In Search of Lost Time (though I might be apt to throw Harry potter in instead to stand for the escapist nature that technology has allowed in people, including travel, entertainment)
6.5.2009 7:05pm
The Man Who Was Thursday -- GK Chesterton

The Complete Far Side (or any of the other collections) -- Gary Larson
6.5.2009 7:11pm
My #1 vote would be Animal Farm (Orwell) - it is applicable to Communism, fascism, and even arguably current sillyness in places like Iran and perhaps even Putin's Russia.

There are soooo many good possibilities. Others that I especially like:
The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) - Depression, weaknesses of capitalism
Catch-22 (Heller) - bureaucratic systems generally, not just WWII.
Catcher in the Rye (Salinger) - youthful alienation
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Thompson) - the sick 60s
Death of a Salesman (Miller) - a play, but wonderful on individual futility in a corporate hierarchy, banality of middle class life, weaknesses of capitalism

In the nonfiction category:
All the President's Men (W&B) - Not just Watergate, abuse of power generally
The Right Stuff (Wolfe) - American can-do spirit and competitiveness in Cold War era.
Black Hawk Down (Bowden) - U.S. interventionism in a morally ambiguous late 20th Century world.
6.5.2009 7:36pm
aaronM (mail):
Atlas Shrugged is informative, not for its content so much as its illustration of Americans' love of fantasy designed to appeal to people's emotional and ideological instincts.

That said, here's what I would put on the list:

Manchild in the Promised Land (Actually a memoir, but written like a novel)
The Brothers K
Infinite Jest
The Stranger (cliche, I know, but I've looked at others' lists. 1984? Brave New World? Catcher in the Rye? Really?)
(American Psycho might fit.)
A Lesson Before Dying
6.5.2009 7:46pm
Larry K (mail):
Vassily Grossman's "Life and Fate" -- The Soviet Union during World War II from the inside (which of course includes the Soviet Union prior to and, by implication, after that). Also, more about the Final Solution from very close up than one thinks one can bear, and a close-up and mid-range account of Stalingrad that would be, all by itself, a great novel. Totalitarianism in action -- again, and crucially, from the inside.

Anthony Powell's "A Dance To the Music of Time" -- The longest serial work of fiction in English, I believe (12 novels, more than million words), this IS the human comedy. I've read the whole thing several times and favorite individual volumes many more times. Every time through is different.

Philip Whalen's "You Didn't Even Try" -- The first of two novels by the late poet (characterized as one of the "Beats" but always his own man), and a book that remains almost unknown. If Jane Austen had lived in San Francisco and environs in the '50s and '60s and been on her way to becoming a Zen monk (Whalen himself became one), this is the book she might have written. Immensely funny and poignant, and the only book I've ever read in which we watch a character who is an arguable genius believably hatch a genius-like idea.

Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" -- No excuses other than "Down these mean streets a man must go."

I'll save the final spot for second thoughts.
6.5.2009 7:59pm
aaronM (mail):

Good call on the Mishima.
6.5.2009 8:03pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
Animal Farm
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Kavalier and Klay
6.5.2009 8:22pm
Larry K (mail):
I knew I needed to keep at least one spot in reserve:

Conrad's "Nostromo" (with "Under Western Eyes" close behind)
6.5.2009 8:44pm
bearing (mail) (www):
Oh, yeah, Maus is a fantastic idea.
6.5.2009 8:50pm
jellis58 (mail):
IMO the only absolute must book for a list like this is 1984.
6.5.2009 8:58pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
What a bleak century you guys thought it was.

How to explain to the kiddies the optimism before 1914?

How about 'The Wind in the Willows'? 1908
6.5.2009 9:27pm
Billy Hollis (mail) (www):
Winds of War plus War and Remembrance

Captures the zeitgeist of WWII better than any other work of fiction. Rich in detail, very, very accurate to the actual history. Heck, even people from this decade can get a much better feel for those times by reading that duo than any other avenue I can think of.
6.5.2009 9:47pm
Paul Barnes,

"A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter Miller.
LOTR by Tolkein
Til We have Faces by C.S. Lewis
The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Starship Troopers by Heinlein"

This is a nice start at a counter-cultural list. KA, I have no doubt you'll have little difficulty finding works that explain what was wrong with the 20th Century. The challenge will be those that explain what was right.

Two places that might be a good start:

Norman Rockwell's America
In the Shadow of the Moon

If you really wish to catch your students' attention, while challenging them at the same time, this should be a rich vein to tap.
6.5.2009 10:29pm

"How to explain to the kiddies the optimism before 1914?"

There is optimism still - we're stubborn buggers. Yes, we can!
6.5.2009 11:18pm
DNJ (mail):
Albert Camus, The Fall.
Franz Kafka, The Trial
George Orwell, 1984.
Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.
Sir Salman Rushdie, Midmight's Children.
6.5.2009 11:44pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
I'm not sure people are getting the distinction between "explain" and "exemplify."
6.5.2009 11:55pm
Marina Martin (mail) (www):
You guys really need to setup Amazon links when you run open book threads like this; I end up adding a whole bunch to my shopping cart by the end of it.
6.6.2009 12:01am

"'To those who come after, When man is no longer wolf to man, Remember us with forbearance.'

Forbearance is a deeply under-appreciated moral virtue."

Indeed. Though given how man was to man in the 20th Century, wolf might be an improvement.

"All that I care to know is that a man is a human being-that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

- Mark Twain
6.6.2009 12:39am
outback (mail):

Catch 22

All Quiet on The Western Front

Grapes Of Wrath

Atlas Shrugged

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
6.6.2009 7:36am
Bruce_M (mail) (www):
I'd put Don Delillo's "White Noise" on the list.
6.6.2009 8:07am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
If you made me choose a Heinlein work, I would go with For Us, the Living. One of his earliest works (written before WW2) but not published until well after his death. It did an amazingly good job of predicting the loosening of sexual mores as well as a nearly throwaway description of a mechanical internet. As well as touching on other themes such as the tension between public and private lives.

In a way, reading it last you can see nearly everything he would later touch on in a more refined manner already present.
6.6.2009 9:13am
Robert Cosgrove (mail):
We're in a different century from when I taught (public) high school English, and I recognize that the audience is presumably bright, mature students who are soliciting suggestions, but I still have to say that some of the books put forth surprise me. Lolita?

The major addition that comes to mind that I haven't yet noticed on the list is All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren.
6.6.2009 9:37am
MarkField (mail):

The major addition that comes to mind that I haven't yet noticed on the list is All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren.

Beat ya to it.
6.6.2009 10:19am
rosetta's stones:

"'To those who come after, When man is no longer wolf to man, Remember us with forbearance.'

Forbearance is a deeply under-appreciated moral virtue."

Indeed. Though given how man was to man in the 20th Century, wolf might be an improvement.

Lay off the wolves, you species-ist vandals.
6.6.2009 10:43am
Food of the Gods
The arrogance of science in controlling the genie, once out of the lamp.

Fahrenheit 451
The danger of government control of information.

The Castle
In human terms, a pervading bureacracy wins.

Forbidden Planet (movie)
Like Lord of the Flies, it is human nature's sinful inclinations, propensities, that also dooms us.

That Hideous Strength
There is evil in our world but there is help which is also outside of us.
6.6.2009 11:09am
rosetta's stones:
"Animal House" described the atmosphere that incubated all of those who have brought so much turmoil to this great nation.

Sen. Blutarsky... Gaia knows what this guy wrought upon us.

Niedermayer... Went to Vietnam, got fragged by his own men, probably burned huts and loved the smell of napalm in the morning.

Otis Day... now we gotta sit through that noise every time some NBA team goes on a 6-0 run and we get a timeout.

Marmalard... caught in Watergate scandal... 'nuff said.

Otter... a Beverly Hills gynecologist... Cut his teeth hustling a dead coed's roommate, and now probably contributes to the Governator's campaign.

Boone... took over at Rolling Stone... and wrecked it.

D-Day... whereabouts unknown... but anybody playing the "William Tell Overture" on their throat can't have come to any good.
6.6.2009 11:57am
rinseandspit (mail):
Most of the 20th Century can be explained by an individual's or group's or nation's reaction to tradition, reality, history, or the horrors in life and some individual(s) exploiting that negative by (over?)emphasizing the individual, nation, or group.

Also, high school kids like to read interesting or fun stories.

1) Animal Farm - George Orwell

2) Code of the Woosters - P.G. Wodehouse

3) Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer - Philip K Dick

4) Being There - Jerzy Kozinski

5) The Horse's Mouth - Joyce Cary

The following two could replace any of the above except "Animal Farm"

6) A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
7) Blood of the Lamb - Peter De Vries
6.6.2009 12:24pm
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
The Horse's Mouth--a truly great book.

I would argue, however, that it doesn't really qualify for the assignment, again on the grounds of its theme and insights being universal. It's a splendid, experiential portrait of what it means to be an artist. Wouldn't this story be the same in any era? Or did I miss something important in the book? (always a possibility!)
6.6.2009 12:37pm
rinseandspit (mail):
Eh, a shorter version of my blabbitty-blab before the list would be:

The 20th Century: Collectivism vs Individualism

"The Horse's Mouth" is also a grand testament to the glory of the individual and individual dreams.

Gulley Jimson is a bad citizen, someone who couldn't live within and wouldn't be tolerated within a collectivist/socialist society. He's barely tolerated within our relatively free society. And yet, for all that he produces glorious art. His dream is one we can all relate to.

My approach for the list wasn't so much about events of the 20th Century as to get the kids to think about the two big ideas driving all conflict, regression, and progress in the 20th Century. A collectivist solution or an emphasis of the individual and the individual's freedom.
6.6.2009 1:02pm
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
Oh! Network. I watched this again last year and was astonished at not only how well it holds up but also how much of it has come true. It is absolutely chilling. Thirty years ago we took this movie as an outrageous, edgy satire. Now it seems real.
6.6.2009 1:10pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'The 20th Century: Collectivism vs Individualism'

That's a very limited view. I don't think that was how, say, the Chinese who supported communism saw it; nor, for that matter, how the Nationalists saw it either.

That's why I put Tutuola on my list. Not only is he one of the master sylists of English, his first novel was the first novel ever published by a black African, and that happened after I was born.

The story of how it was published also contains a lesson. He sent a letter to Faber -- Eliot's house -- offering "photographs of ghosts." An editor was not interested in a manuscript from a Nigerian thrown over the transom, but was curious about the photographs. Tutuola's father [probably] officiated at human sacrifices.

I think I could get teenagers interested in a book with a buildup like that.
6.6.2009 2:05pm
GeoBarto (www):
The Ground Beneath Her Feet - Salman Rushdie - culture of celebrity

Rhinoceros - Eugene Ionesco - how Nazism, fascism and communism got their foothold (does theatre fall under fiction?)

Thank you, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse - wealthy America, race, the red scare and the decline of the British empire in one comic romp

Stranger in a Strange Land - free love, mystic mumbo jumbo and the rise of the police state

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
6.6.2009 3:40pm
DiverDan (mail):
Alright, I won't try to name all 5, but I'm suprised that so many (almost all, so far as I can tell), leave off The USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money), by John Dos Passos. Yes, All Quiet on the Western Front is a really great book, but it really is focused on personal experience during WWI - it really doesn't do anything to examine the cultural or economic circumstances leading up to or following the war. My initial stab at a list:

1. USA Trilogy, John Dos Passos (the early decades of the 20th Century)

2. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (the Great Depression)

3. World War II is too tough - A Bell for Adano (John Hersey)? Bridge over the River Kwai (Pierre Boulle)? The Good Shephard (C.S. Forester)? The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer)? Tales of the South Pacific (James Michener)? Schindler's Ark (Thomas Kineally)? All worth reading, but all more descriptive than explanational. Not really sure any really fit the category.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee - Racism and its effects.

5. Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe - The Greedy 80's (right on through the 90's!)

I know this list leaves a lot out, but any list as short as only 5 books would.
6.6.2009 5:39pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
In no particular order (and yes, I know it's six):

Lord of the Flies
The Seventh Seal
Into the Woods
Atlas Shrugged
Eat the Rich
6.6.2009 7:06pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
Oh, and the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister
6.6.2009 7:09pm
In a million years, there will be one event of the 20th Century remembered, if there are those to remember it:


No list that purports to explain that Century can credibly omit her most important event.
6.7.2009 12:56am
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
rinse: beautiful, thank you. You're quite right, now that I think about it. And the novel does indeed ask us to look at it that way, since we cringe so much about his behavior. Yet somehow I didn't fully get that until you elucidated it. My reading experience (I have only read it once) was from inside the character.

I guess that says something about how much I take my freedom for granted, emotionally. I have never experienced anything else.

I agree that collectivism vs. individualism is an excellent way to look at the century.

I'm not sure I care how the Chinese who supported communism saw it. But it's an interesting perspective, to try to explain the century from a planet's-eye view.

D, you make an excellent point about Apollo. Is there a book or movie that tells the tale to your satisfaction? If not, perhaps you should consider creating it! I watched most of the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon last year, and I like the way everyday stories are woven together to show the enormity of the effort. "Spider" for example, as one memorable thread. I think Apollo 13 is a wonderful movie.
6.7.2009 10:23am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Individualism v. collectivism was a western preoccupation. It hardly mattered to a Chinese peasant and would have puzzled a Russian one, who was already a member of a collective before the October Revolution.

To me the main thrust of the century was that in 1900, all the modern people were white Europeans and their descendants; and by 2000 there were about as many modern non-westerners as westerners.

So now, Mr. Anderson, what are you going to do? Pick 5 and assign them to everybody in the class?

Are the favorite books here ones that were on your draft list?
6.7.2009 2:59pm
Andy Bolen (mail):
The Brothers Karamazov
The Gulag Archipelago
All Quiet on the Western Front
6.7.2009 3:36pm
"So now, Mr. Anderson, what are you going to do?"

6.7.2009 5:21pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
Hah, funny.
6.7.2009 6:04pm
Randy R. (mail):
I would add "Ship of Fools" by Katharine Ann Porter. I can't quite explain why, but I think it should be on the list.
6.7.2009 7:46pm
Travis Ormsby:
Agreeing w/ several other commenters that the real trick is to pick the 5 most important things about the 20th Century and a book that best explains it.

1) The alienation and brutality of modern warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front is the hands down winner

2) The wonders and terrors of intense technological advancement. Tie between A Canticle for Liebowitz and Neuromancer. Liebowitz for also hitting the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction, Neuromancer for predicting the rise of connected culture

3) For totalitarianism and ideological conflict, I like The Iron Heel by Jack London over 1984, Animal Farm, or Atlas Shrugged. It retains an element of utopianism that was always evident (at least in the US) even in the worst times.

4) Colonialism/Decolonialism. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. Things Fall Apart would be another excellent choice here.

5) The never ending strive for greater material wealth: The Bonfire of the Vanities
6.8.2009 11:49pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
A short piece on the individualist/totalitarianism divide without any of the east-west baggage would be Tolkein's Leaf by Niggle. It does an amazingly good job of demonstrating how superficial our view of events is.
6.9.2009 9:14am

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