Discover the best 1970s books with these modern classic books from 1970s science fiction to popular novels of the Seventies.
When you think about the 1970s, you think of the difficult shift as the post-war boom gave way to conflict as culture continued to shift. In America, Watergate, high gas prices, and the divided opinion on the Vietnam War shaped the Seventies.
As part of my Read Through the Decades series, I wanted to take a deeper look at 20th century literature, examining both historical fiction from each decade as well as books published in each decade.
Along with such famous 1970s books as The Bluest Eye, you’ll find other modern classic books written in the 1970s that showcase how much the world was changing. As progressive ideas continued to expand and the United States began losing its prestige in the world, the Seventies was a period of upheaval.
It’s astounding to think of the staying power of novels written decades ago. If you are interested in modern classics, you’ll want to try one of these classic books of the 1970s.
Best 1970s Books
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison set her debut novel in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio. In 1941, Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old Black girl, desperately wants blue eyes. Tired of being considered “ugly,” Pecola wishes more than anything to fit into white America. Morrison’s novel typifies her writing – discussing race, abuse, class, and gender in a thought-provoking story.
When Fiver gets a premonition of danger, Hazel leads a group of bunnies to establish a new warren in the English countryside while facing predators, men, and neighboring rabbit tribes. You might be expecting a fantasy book, but Watership Down is just a book about bunnies. An extremely compelling story about bunnies that will hook you from the first chapter.
Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg is one of the best books ever written about the American Civil War. With in-depth research, Shaara covers the factual details of the four days at Gettysburg but adds in the thoughts and motivations of the main characters (which makes it a work of fiction instead of a straight history book). Through his writing, Shaara makes the battle come alive and teaches you history in a profound way. The book was adapted into the film Gettysburg in 1993.
Octavia E. Butler
In 1976, Dana, a young African-American writer, finds herself inexplicably sent back through time to a pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy, she finds herself back in Los Angeles. Over and over, Dana finds herself returning to the plantation, which she realizes is where her ancestors lived. As her stays in the past become longer, Dana becomes entangled in the plantation and is forced to make harder and harder choices to survive. Octavia Butler’s genre-bending novel is a must-read among 1970s books.
John le Carré
In this modern classic, a masterwork of the spy thriller genre, British agent George Smiley must hunt for a traitor. With operations going awry and some of its best networks being exposed, there is no question that there is a mole in the highest tier of British intelligence. Someone is a double agent for Moscow, but who is it? But finding their identity is just the first step in this cat-and-mouse game.
You can’t really talk about 1970s books without mentioning Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie. The shock factor is high in this original story of a high school girl developing telekinetic powers. Mistreated by her family and her classmates, Carrie is pushed to the breaking point, setting her on her famous path of revenge.
Douglas Adams’s science fiction satire starts with the destruction of Earth through eminent domain laws for the new galactic highway. At the last moment, Arthur Dent is saved by his friend Ford Prefect and off they go on an epic journey through the galaxy. A perfect blend of dark humor and science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a modern classic that evokes the spirit of the 1970s.
Literary 1970s Novels
Growing up, Alex Haley’s grandmother would tell him stories of his ancestors, all the way back to “the African,” their ancestor who was seized one day and sold into slavery in America. Captivated by the stories, Haley wondered how much was true and set out on an amazing genealogical quest. Haley found documentation of his family’s history all the way back to Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Gambia in 1767, and met his sixth cousins in Africa. More than just his family’s story, Roots shows the rich cultural heritage of African-Americans and the indomitable human spirit of all races.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” So begins Norman Maclean’s classic based on his own childhood spent on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River. On the surface, A River Runs Through It is about fly fishing. But deeper than that, Maclean’s novella uses fishing to relate to deeper questions of life: family, religion, hope, and dreams.
When Stingo, a young Southerner working on his first novel, moves into a cheap Brooklyn boarding house, he quickly becomes entangled with Sophie and Nathan, who are caught in an intense love affair. Nathan is a brilliant American Jew, but his charm often gives way to violence and delusions. Sophie is a beautiful Polish woman with a dark past. As Stingo becomes close to Sophie, she reveals her awful past as a Holocaust survivor and the awful wound that propels her toward self-destruction.
In a comedic look at understanding human nature, Edward Abbey tells the story of a motley gang of eco-terrorists determined to protect the environment at all costs. After returning to find his beloved Utah desert threatened by industrialization, Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III teams up with a feminist saboteur, a billboard torcher, and a wilderness guide to wage war for the environment, laughing their way from one adventure to the next.
Popular 1970s Books
V. C. Andrews
The perfect lives of the four Dollganger children are shattered when their father dies in a car accident. Unable to support the family, their mother seeks help from her wealthy parents. Since their dying grandfather will disinherit her if he knows about her children, their mother hides them away in the attic until he passes away. But months turn into years, and the Dollganger children are locked in the attic and terrorized by their superstitious grandmother.
Louis de Pointe du Lac tells the extraordinary story of his life as an immortal vampire. Turned into a vampire by the sinister Lestat, Louis initially only feeds off animals but eventually embraces the vampire way of life. In New Orleans. Lestat turns Claudia, a lost orphan child, into a vampire to be their daughter who becomes an adult trapped in a child’s body. Years later, Claudia and Louis flee Lestat and go to Paris, where they discover a group of vampires who present dangers they never could have imagined.
Hired as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, Jack Torrance sees his new job as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his family and work on his writing. Yet, as winter comes, the remote hotel begins to take on a dark mood, but only Jack’s five-year-old son seems to see the sinister forces at work.
In 1921, Paddy Cleary, an Irish farm laborer in New Zealand, moves his wife Fee and their seven children to work his sister’s sheep station in the remote Australian Outback. In the ensuing family drama, Paddy’s daughter Meggie becomes enraptured by the local priest, Ralph. Out of jealousy, Meggie’s aunt schemes to keep them apart which has unintended consequences for Meggie and her future children.
In the New York coastal resort town of Amity, a series of shark attacks leaves the entire town paralyzed. Although the mayor originally hushes up the attacks, Police Chief Martin Brody is eventually commissioned to hunt down the massive great white shark along with a famous shark hunter and a scientist specializing in sharks. Although Steven Spieldberg’s classic film adaption is not to be missed, it eliminated several subplots from Benchley’s original novel.
William Peter Blatty
Some of the best scary books are the basis for terrifying horror movies. In Washington, D.C., Chris MacNeil becomes increasingly concerned for her daughter Regan. The sweet-natured eleven-year-old is suddenly seized by convulsions, amnesia, foul-mouthed language, and physical contortions. When doctors can’t explain it, Chris seeks help from a priest who calls in Father Merrin, a specialist in exorcism.
Sci Fi & Fantasy Books from the 1970s
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
One of my favorite classic climate fiction books is this 1977 release about the end of the world. With a gigantic comet headed straight for Earth, Niven and Pournelle spin a tale of surviving not only the resulting earthquakes and tsunamis but also living through the end of civilization. A gripping page-turner, Lucifer’s Hammer will have you questioning what you would do at the end of the world and hoping you never have to find out.
In his second published work, King depicts the tale of Ben Mears, a writer returning to a town of his childhood to write his next book. As a boy, he had a supernatural experience in a haunted house in Jerusalem’s Lot and thinks it would be a great inspiration. Though as he starts his book about the power of evil, vampires start to take over the small Maine town.
Edited by Robert Silverberg
If you are curious about science fiction, but not ready to commit to a full-length novel, you should try reading science fiction short stories. The absolute best collection out there is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. All the biggest names in science fiction got together and voted on the best of the best. Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke. Ordered chronologically, you get to see the evolution of sci fi from the ’30s to the ’60s. A great introduction to classic science fiction.
Seeking to create a modern-day The Lord of the Rings, Stephen King penned what is often considered one of the best dystopian books ever written. After an influenza-like pandemic kills most of the world’s population, the remaining survivors must choose between good and evil. With a heavy dose of supernatural in typical Stephen King fashion, this dark fantasy is his longest standalone novel.
Stephen R. Donaldson
In this classic grimdark fantasy book series, a man with leprosy unexpectedly awakes in a magical fantasy world. Dubbing himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, at first, he doubts this strange new land. Although before he was an outcast, now he is revered as the reincarnation of the Land’s greatest hero, destined to use his power to evil Despiser, Lord Foul. Except, Thomas isn’t sure what power he is supposed to possess.
For 100,000 years, Melniboné ruled the world but 500 years ago the empire collapsed. Now ruling over a dying Melniboné, King Elric only takes the throne because he is the kingdom’s last hope. Cynical and melancholy, the albino King Elric must do all in his power to constantly outlast the attempted coups of his cousin Yrkoon.
Nonfiction 1970s Literature
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
On June 17, 1972, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t think much of being assigned to cover a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Yet, through a series of reporting, Woodward and Bernstein were able to connect to a massive slush fund and a corrupt attorney general and eventually President Nixon himself. Published just two months before Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men showcases the investigative work it took to topple a corrupt president.
Corrie Ten Boom
What would you do if you noticed your neighbors suddenly disappearing? A quiet old maid living with her older sister and elderly father, Corrie ten Boom knew that she had to act. During World War II, her family joined the Dutch Underground and built a secret room to hide Jews within, for which they were to pay the ultimate price. Corrie Ten Boom’s heartrending account of her life will inspire you to have faith, hope, and courage no matter what obstacles you may face.
One of the 1970s books never to be out of print since it was published, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee reframes America’s Westward expansion by detailing its negative effects on Native Americans. Using records and first-hand interviews, Brown documents the history of the battles, massacres, and broken treaties that decimated the Native American tribes.
In his bestselling memoir, James Herriot tells of his decades as a beloved veterinarian in rural Yorkshire. Herriott writes about his diverse animal patients with stories that run the gamut from heartbreaking to hilarious to inspirational. With a keen eye for observation, Herriott displays the scope of human nature and has penned one of the top nonfiction 1970s books.
As a prosecutor in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi has a unique insight into one of the most horrifying crimes of the century. Bugliosi reveals the terrifying details of the Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. Even more intriguing, Bugliosi delves into how Manson selected his seemingly random victims and how he held so much control of young women.
Norman Mailer’s masterpiece work, The Executioner’s Song details the life of Gary Gilmore, a man intent to die to atone for his crimes. After serving time for armed robbery, Gilmore moved to Utah to live with his cousin. After a breakup with his girlfriend, his history of violence caught up to him when Gilmore killed two men in two separate robberies. Convicted and sentenced to death, Gilmore pleaded to be executed as soon as possible even as, against Gilmore’s wishes, his lawyers fought against the constitutionality of capital punishment.
1970s Children’s Books
When eleven-year-old Margaret Simons moves to New Jersey, she desperately wants to fit in with her new friends as they talk about boys, bras, getting their first periods, and religion. Now, on top of dealing with puberty, Margaret must also decide her beliefs about God in this classic coming-of-age 1970s book.
When a new girl dashes Jess’s hope of being the fastest runner in fifth grade, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her. Jess and Leslie end up spending most days in the woods behind her house, inventing a magical world called Terabithia. Celebrating the delights of childhood imagination, the story also shows what happens when tragedy strikes, so keep your tissues close.
If you are like me, you’ve seen the movie adaptation of The Princess Bride a million times and can easily quote it. But have you ever sat down and read the book? Because it is easily as brilliant and hilarious. Combining love, action, wit, and humor into one fairy tale retelling, Goldman has written an instant and unforgettable classic that will certainly leave you laughing.
A staple of 1970s literature for older young adults, Go Ask Alice was originally marketed as the actual diary of an anonymous teenage girl, it is now generally credited as a novel by Beatrice Sparks. Told in a series of diary entries, the unnamed protagonist accidentally ingests a coke laced with LSD at a party. Soon, she is doing drugs willingly and begins a harrowing downward spiral of drug abuse.
Mildred D. Taylor
In 1933, nine-year-old Cassie Logan realizes that her family’s situation is unique, as they are one of the few Black families to own their own land in their Mississippi town. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry chronicles various interactions between Cassie’s family members and white residents as each individual must weigh the cost of sticking up for themselves. And in the Jim Crow South, that cost can be deadly.
When eccentric millionaire Sam Westing dies, Turtle Wexler and 15 other tenants of his nearby Sunset Towers are shocked to find that are invited to the reading of Westing’s will. The will declares that one of them murdered Westing. Formed into pairs, the 16 tenants race to figure out who the murderer is for the winning pair will inherit Westing’s entire fortune.
How Do You Feel About 1970s Literature?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my 1970s Books list? What books published in the 1970s have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
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