Discover the best 1980s books with the these books published in the 1980s ranging from literary modern classics to popular novels of the Eighties.
When you think about the 1980s, you think of the mix of uncertainty and hope. The Cold War was on its last legs, creating political and economic upheaval throughout the world. The AIDS epidemic struck new terror across the country, yet, technological advances introduced the internet and the Atari game system, adding new interests and shifting culture.
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 1980s books as The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll find other modern classic books written in the 1980s that showcase how much the world was changing. As the Cold War and AIDS epidemic caused uncertainty, technological advances brought plenty of excitement to people in the Eighties.
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 the best books published in the 1980s.
Best 1980s Books
During a Little League baseball game, Owen Meany hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. Believing himself to be God’s instrument, Owen seeks to fulfill his own prophecy. Narrated by Owen’s best friend John Wheelwright, A Prayer for Owen Meany isn’t just one of the best books of the 1980s, it is one of the best literary fiction books of all time.
After the fall of the United States, the theocratic patriarchal society Gilead is now in power. Due to an epidemic of infertility, most of the elite women cannot have children. Instead, they use handmaids, women of the lower caste forced to submit to men to bear children. The Handmaid’s Tale is written as the diary of one such handmaiden, Offred, as she struggles to survive in this brutal society, hoping to one day escape.
In this classic 1980s novel, poor young Black girl Celie writes letters to God in the early 1900s, begging for help from her father who beats and rapes her. After Celie is married off to an abusive man and helps her sister run away, Celie begins writing letters to her sister. Talking frankly about domestic and sexual abuse and homosexuality, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
Orson Scott Card
In a future where humanity is at war with an alien enemy determined to destroy life on Earth, Ender Wiggin is a third child in a family of extraordinarily gifted children. Sent off to battle school at only six years of age, Ender – with his perfect mix of compassion and ruthlessness – is forced to become the military genius humanity so desperately needs. Ender’s Game is an amazing novel – not only thrilling enough to intrigue teenage boys who never read – but also so packed with complex themes and deeper meanings. You’ll want to read this novel again and again.
John Grisham’s debut novel didn’t receive much attention until after he published the bestsellers The Firm and The Pelican Brief, but it’s my favorite page turner book of his. After the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl, her father seeks his own justice and murders the rapists. With the Mississippi town aflame, young attorney Jake Brigance must decide how much he is willing to risk to defend the father. Just be warned, the beginning of the book is horribly graphic and extremely hard to read.
Carefree Gus McCrae and duty-driven Captain Woodrow Call, two retired Texas Rangers, embark on one last adventure – a crazy cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Far from the easy paycheck they expected, the journey turns dangerous time and again, weaving a tale that showcases the changing American West. McMurty paints his characters better than almost any author I’ve ever read, bringing them to life with incredibly realistic complexity in a story that showcases the Wild West without glorifying it.
You can’t have a list of 1980s books without including Tom Clancy’s thrilling Jack Ryan series and the book that launched Clancy to stardom. Hidden in the Atlantic Ocean, the commander of the Soviet submarine Red October makes the fateful decision to defect to the United States. Both sides desperately want the Red October, leading to an epic chase in one of the best military thrillers ever written.
How well do you know your mother? In 1949, four Chinese women, all recent immigrants to San Francisco, gather together weekly to play Mahjong, chat about their pasts, and hope for the future for their daughters. This tale of mothers trying to pass on their wisdom to their American-born daughters who don’t truly understand them will make you want to learn more about your own mother.
Literary 1980s Novels
At midnight on August 15, 1947, India celebrates its independence. Born at the midnight hours, Saleem Sinai finds himself endowed with special powers connecting him to his nation. His actions and health seem to mirror the state’s well-being. Yet, Saleem is not alone, connected to a thousand other children also born in that midnight hour, all gifted with magical abilities.
Gabriel García Márquez
As teenagers, Florentino and Fermina fell passionately in love, but Fermina went on to marry a well-respected doctor instead of her first love. Although still in love with Fermina, Florentino passes the years but building his business and having numerous love affairs. After Fermina’s husband dies, Florentino returns after almost sixty years to declare his love to Fermina once again.
At the orphanage in St. Cloud, Maine, Dr. Wilbur Larch takes in troubled mothers and either helps them provide care for their child or assists in an illegal abortion. Having grown up in the orphanage, Homer Wells has become Dr. Larch’s assistant, helping in running the facility but refusing to participate in abortions. Until one day a young man and his beautiful fiancé arrive and Homer begins to rethink his worldview.
One of the top 1980s books on racism, Toni Morrison’s horror story shows the scars left behind by slavery. Although she escaped slavery by running to Ohio, Sethe is still not a free woman. She can’t seem to get the horrors of her past at Sweet Home out of her mind and is haunted by the ghost of her baby. When a teenage girl arrives claiming to be her child, Beloved, Sethe’s past finally catches up to her.
Growing up poor in Kentucky, Taylor Greer’s one goal when she grows up is to get away and not become pregnant. Setting out in her beat-up car for the West, she never imagined that by the time she reached Tucson she would acquire a three-year-old American Indian child. Now Taylor must learn to trust others enough to build a village to help her as a new mother.
One of the best historical fiction books of the 1980s, Ken Follet’s epic first book in the Kingsbridge series focuses on the building of a 12th-century English cathedral. Set against the major historical events of the period, The Pillars of the Earth focuses on the intertwined lives of Kingsbridge’s inhabitants: a master builder, a beautiful noblewoman, a stonemason, the prior, and a cursed woman of the forest.
Stevens, an old English butler (à la Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey) decides to take a vacation and contemplate his many years of service and his unrealized love for the former housekeeper. A thoughtful portrayal of the importance of balancing personal and work lives, The Remains of the Day is one of the best books to read if you love thoughtful literary books published in the 1980s.
Popular 1980s Books
You can’t deny that when you think of popular 1980s authors, Stephen King immediately comes to mind. After a car accident, bestselling author Paul Sheldon finds himself lovingly nursed back to health by Annie Wilkins. She is Paul’s biggest fan and has no intention of ever letting him leave. Instead, she insists that he write a new book bringing her favorite character in his Victorian romance series back from the dead.
In this World War III story written in 1986, terrorists attack the Soviet Union’s oil supply, crippling the nation. Using clever political maneuvering to keep NATO distracted, the USSR plans to seize the Persian Gulf’s oil production. With epic military battles and layers of international intrigue, Red Storm Rising is an epic page turner just as good as his well-known Jack Ryan series.
A man is fished out of the ocean with a bullet wound and retrograde amnesia. Through flashbacks, he remembers the name Jason Bourne and he seems to be an assassin with millions in the bank. Teaming up with a woman he takes hostage, Bourne must try to remember what is real, who he is, and who he is working for because someone wants him dead. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, don’t be fooled into thinking you know what happens next.
Among the most popular 1980s books was Sue Grafton’s bestselling Alphabet series. Kinsey Millhone, a former cop turned private investigator, has a thing for underdogs. That’s why she takes on the case of Nikki Fife. Recently out on parole for killing her husband, Nikki wants Kinsey’s help to find the real killer. But when a second body turns up, Kinsey finds that she may be for more than she bargained for.
In the 1980s, Clive Cussler introduced the literary world to his thrilling adventurer Dirk Pitt. A deep-sea expert, Pitt is tasked with finding a US Navy submarine that vanished in the waters of the Pacific Vortex. In a race against time, Pitt must find and salvage the ship before it explodes, but Pitt is not the only one looking for the sub.
A “maddog” serial killer is terrorizing the Twin Cities with crimes that are insanely gruesome but also the work of a deeply intelligent killer. Taunting the police has become a game for him as he prides himself on the clever obstacles he leaves behind. When the brilliant Lieutenant Lucas Davenport is put on the case, the killer feels like he has finally met his match.
Bestselling 1980s Books
In his bestselling allegorical novel, Paula Coelho tells the story of a young Andalusian shepherd who sets out on a journey through the Egyptian desert to find a treasure he saw in a dream. Along the way, he meets various characters who point him in the right direction, until he finally realizes the treasure he seeks is within. Full of insightful comments on life, The Alchemist is one of those literary 1980s books that are simple yet profound.
Blood Meridian is an epic novel about the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, this book brilliantly subverts the conventions of Western books and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.
After the death of their mother, Ruthie and Lucille are raised by a series of relatives in a small Western railroad town: first, their competent grandmother, then two comical great-aunts before finally being raised by their aunt Sylvie. At first, the girls love Sylvie’s eccentric lifestyle, but her haphazard rearing begins to negatively affect the sisters.
After losing his job and finding out about his wife’s affair, Tom Wingo travels to New York City to help his twin sister Savannah after her latest suicide attempt. Wanting to help, Tom meets with Savannah’s psychiatrist Susan and recounts their troubled upbringing in South Carolina. As Tom slowly unravels their family history, he begins to realize that helping Savannah might be the only way to help himself.
Among all of the 1980s books, The Bonfire of the Vanities best captures the racism, politics, and social class of New York City at the time. Young investment banker Sherman McCoy is ruling Wall Street but his wife is running through money faster than he can make it. While driving in the Bronx with his mistress, Sherman is involved in a freak accident. When an alcoholic journalist gets ahold of the story, he creates a firestorm that an assistant district attorney sees as his big chance.
Isabel Allende’s debut novel catapulted her to literary acclaim as one of the most important Latin American voices. Recounting four generations of the Trueba family, The House of Spirits begins with Clara del Valle who can see the future. After her sister Rosa’s shocking death, Clara is left mute and eventually marries Rosa’s fiancé Esteban. Esteban’s temper and political machinations slowly estrange him from Clara and their daughter Bianca, but he becomes close to his revolutionary-minded granddaughter Alba.
Sci Fi & Fantasy Books from the 1980s
In The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett introduces the fantasy-comedy universe of Discworld, a flat world that resides on the back of four elephants atop a turtle shell. Rincewind, an incompetent and cynical wizard, falls in with Twoflower, a naive and insanely rich tourist, who travel around Discworld unaware that they are actually just pawns in a game the gods are playing.
Redwall Abbey has long been a refuge for the peace-loving mice and any woodland creatures that need assistance. When Redwall is threatened by a savage band of rats led by Cluny the Scourge, a young apprentice mouse sets out on a journey to find a legendary lost weapon. Along with his loyal woodland friends, Matthias must find the courage to save Redwall in this delightful fantasy series.
When an American expedition searching for diamonds discovers the lost city of Zinj, they are brutally killed by a group of gorillas. Mounting a new expedition, Karen Ross is determined to discover the lost city and the rare diamonds within. Karen brings along with her the famous African mercenary Charles Munro as well as primatologist Peter Elliot, and Amy, a highly intelligent female mountain gorilla who can communicate with humans through sign language.
Stephen King brilliantly blends science fiction, fantasy, and Western books together in The Gunslinger. In a parallel version of the American West, Roland of Gilead, the gunslinger, pursues the man in black on his way to the Dark Tower. Along the way, he teams up with young Jack Chambers and they tackle numerous obstacles as they trek across the desert.
One of the best grimdark fantasy books out there, The Black Company is the first book about a company of mercenaries. While the battle between good and evil plays out, the members of the Black Company just do what they are paid for. As chronicled by Croaker, the company historian, The Black Company displays its own moral code in a grim and dark world.
Nonfiction 1980s Literature
Stephen R. Covey
Among the best 1980s books is Covey’s groundbreaking classic that took the business world by storm. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shifts focus away from personality toward character traits that promote success while also caring for those things which produce the results. Organized as seven habits, Covey aims to help you build yourself up, work better with others, and continually improve.
Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for this memoir, detailing Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. Often published together, Maus was written as two separate graphic novels. In the first edition, Vladek recalls his life as a Polish Jew, trying to survive as the restrictions became tighter and tighter, moving to the ghetto, and then going into hiding. In Maus II, Vladek and his wife Anja are both sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. A must read, Maus brilliantly tells not only a horrifying tale of the Holocaust but also shows what the author experienced as a child of the survivors.
In this stunning autobiographical story, Ann Rule gives an intimate look at Ted Bundy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers. While working at a crisis hotline in Seattle, former law enforcement officer Ann Rule meets Ted Bundy. For two years, the two coworkers developed a close friendship at work. The next year, after Bundy had left the crisis hotline, a sketch of the serial killer plaguing Seattle appeared in the paper, and Rule called in the tip for Bundy, still not believing him capable of murder. As Bundy moves to Salt Lake and is under further investigation, Rule keeps in touch, eventually understanding that she was horribly wrong about Bundy.
How did the universe begin? What makes time possible? In his landmark book, printed in 1988 and then updated 10 years later, Stephen Hawking explains how the universe works. From quarks to black holes, Hawking delves into the theoretical, the unexpected, and the astounding ways our world is the way it is.
Carl Sagan’s science bestseller was published along side the hit PBS miniseries of the same name, with each illustrated chapter matching each of the series’ episodes. Sagan explains fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution, sharing how our planet came to be and highlighting the forces and individuals that shape modern science.
Acclaimed historian David McCullough writes an encompassing biography of the coming-of-age of Theodore Roosevelt and the heavy influence his parents had on him. Roosevelt’s father was from an old-money New York family who married a Southern belle. After a privileged childhood, Teddy Roosevelt attended Harvard and married, only to have his young wife and mother die on the same day. Escaping to the West, Roosevelt settled in the Badlands, transforming himself into the hardened cowboy who would later return to captivate American politics.
1980s Children’s Books
Roald Dahl has many classic fantasy books to choose from, but Matilda in particular stands out among the 1980s books. Misunderstood by her self-centered parents, book-loving Matilda finds solace in her wonderful teacher Miss Honey. But when the evil principal Miss Trunchbull threatens her beloved teacher, Matilda rallies to her defense.
Told in a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street shows snippets of the day-to-day life of Esperanza Cordero, a young Mexican-American girl living in poverty. With no central plot, the story hints at the characters, events, and settings around her as she struggles to find where she belongs in a world that doesn’t seem to want her. Short but powerful, The House on Mango Street conveys the reader right into Esperanza’s world, making it one of the best coming-of-age 1980s books.
While Brian is on his way to Canada to visit his estranged father, the pilot of the small plane suffers a heart attack. Brian is forced to crash land the plane into a lake. With only his clothes and a hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive in the remote Canadian wilderness in this classic children’s novel.
In 1943, life in Copenhagen has changed dramatically since the start of World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen have grown accustomed to the food shortages and Nazi soldiers. When the Jews of Denmark begin to be relocated, Ellen pretends to be in Annemarie’s family and Annemarie must risk a dangerous undertaking to save her friend’s life. Winner of the Newberry medal, Number the Stars is an excellent way to introduce the Holocaust to children.
In the late 19th century, Anna lives on a farm telling her brother Caleb tales of their mother, who died in childbirth when he was born. When their father sends out an advertisement for a bride, he is answered by Sarah Elizabeth Wheaton of Maine. When Sarah comes to visit, Anna and Caleb immediately fall in love and are desperate for her to stay. A sweet little tale, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a great short 1980s book for children to read.
Diana Wynne Jones
In this fantasy novel, the oldest daughter of the family, Sophie, has been cursed to fail miserably if she ever leaves home. To make things worse, the Witch of the Waste transforms her into an old lady. Now Sophie must live at the Wizard Howl’s ever-moving castle in the hills. As Sophie tries to break the spell, she discovers she is stronger than she ever knew.
Lynne Reid Banks
On his ninth birthday, Omri is given a little Indian figurine – not exactly an exciting gift. But when Omri puts it in the cupboard and turns the key, his figure comes to life. As Omri realizes that Little Bear, an 18th-century Iroquois Chief, is an actual human being, he must rethink the stereotypes he has learned about Native Americans. But when Omri’s friend learns about the cupboard’s magical properties, he wants to bring his own cowboy figurine to life, creating problems for both Omri and Little Bear.
Told from the point of view of the horse, Joey, who was born a beautiful red foal with a distinctive cross on his forehead. Joey loves his life on the farm working with Albert, the farmer’s son. In 1914, Joey is sold to the Army and thrust into the chaos of the Western Front of World War I. Through the horrors surrounding him, Joey’s courage inspires the soldiers who fight with him. Yet Joey dreams of one day returning to Albert and his peaceful life on the farm.
More 1980s Books for Children:
How Do You Feel About 1980s Literature?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my 1980s Books list? What books published in the 1980s have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
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