Reading lists

Books that shaped the 1980s

Rubik's Cubes, Stephen King and Margaret Thatcher – the Eighties have plenty of cultural touchstones. But where to read about them? From Toni Morrison to Tom Wolfe, Alan Hollinghurst to Alice Walker, here are some of the writers who captured the decade best. 

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Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

Hold your boombox in the air for the 1980s... surely the most photogenic decade in history.

It was the decade 24-hour news was born and the Cold War died. The decade Diana became a princess, Prince Rogers Nelson became just Prince; greed got good (for a while) and poverty got worse. There was a Very Important war over an island somewhere near Argentina, and a pop concert to relieve a famine in Africa.

How could anyone forget Top Gun, The Smiths, Dallas, MTV, yuppies, powersuits, IBM and Rubik's Cubes? It was the decade Millenials were born, just as Mr. T pitied his first fool. 

History has not forgotten Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev or Michael Jackson, either. Nor the AIDS crisis and the rampant, structural homophobia that it spawned. 

A lot happened in the 1980s: a decade of massive social, political and cultural change the influence of which has dripped through every decade since. And, as usual, there were plenty of writers itching to make sense of it all. Here are 20 of the most significant.

“The Color Purple lingers as perhaps the cultural touchstone for black women in America"

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

This is the book that made Alice Walker the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. And two years later, Steven Spielberg adapted it into a film that featured the screen acting debuts of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

A heart-puncturing tale of one woman's spiritual awakening in the Deep South, it tells the story of Celie and her struggles to escape the cycle of brutality and humiliation meted out on her by men – raped by her father and married off to an abusive husband until she finds love in the arms of a vivacious female blues singer named Shug Avery.

But there's so much more to it than that. So much, in fact, that – as Victoria Bond wrote in The New Republic, "The Color Purple lingers as perhaps the cultural touchstone for black women in America, a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship."

“It captures the quality of daily existence in media-saturated, hyper-capitalistic postmodern America so precisely"

White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)

In its review of Don DeLillo White Noise, the New York Times called the novel: "timely and frightening – precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness."

That numbness, in DeLillo's mind, was a result the soul-ossifying impact of mass-media and consumerism on contemporary America that was eating society alive.

It follows a university professor of Hitler studies, who grows angry, paranoid and terminally obsessed with his own mortality after a toxic spill near his home. So when he discovers his wife has been taking an experimental drug to combat the fear of death, he vows to get his hands on the drug at any cost in this lucid reflection of the anxiety, self-absorption, and alienation of the 1980s.

"White Noise," wrote Lev Grossman in TIME, "captures the quality of daily existence in media-saturated, hyper-capitalistic postmodern America so precisely, you don’t know whether to laugh or whimper."

“No other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian”

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

"I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian," wrote the powerhouse American critic Harold Bloom in 2019. "It is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed."

It follows the experiences of a boy, known as The Kid, with the Glanton gang (led by the blood-boilingly satanic The Judge), a historical band of scalp hunters who slaughtered native Americans and others along the Texas–Mexico borderlands in the 1840s for bounty, pleasure, and eventually just habit.

It is a story soaked in menace, and awash with nuance, and with blood festooned across almost every page. And yet, McCarthy's primary-colour prose lifts it from the realm of camp horror into a genuine devastation of the senses – a story so troubling, fearsome and intense that it has never lost its relevance. One of the greatest American novels of all time.

Did a fear of clowns exist before Stephen King wrote IT?

IT by Steven King (1986)

Did coulrophobia (the irrational fear of clowns) exist before Stephen King wrote IT, about a psychotic dream clown who murders children and feeds on their fear? It had to, because, in King's own words, “Clowns are scary … I mean, if I were a sick kid and I saw a f***ing clown coming, all the red lines would go off on my gear, because I'd be scared to death!”

Anyway, you can't talk about books of the 1980s without a shout out to Stephen King. It was the decade he wrote Cujo, The Running Man, Christine, Pet Sematery, Misery, The Tommyknockers... take your pick.

But for sheer impact on popular horror, IT was the book that made clowns definitively scary for a whole generation. And the fact that Pennywise is still paying King's bills 30 years later with the recent double-movie adaptation starring Bill Skarsgård as the homicidal harlequin of Hell is testament to its timeless appeal.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

It's quiet. It's subtle. It's agonisingly English. Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-winning novel about the life and private tortures of an ageing butler with an upper lip as stiff as his starched collar was the heartbreaker Britain seemed to need in 1989.

Set between the wars, but published as the Berlin Wall was coming down, Y2K was looming, and Britain stood at the edge of a cultural cliff, maybe it was the nostalgia for a forgotten time when “things were always better left unsaid” that resonated.

Whatever it was, this haunting tale of lost causes and lost love rang a bell that echoed through the collective imagination from London to Los Angeles and all the way to Stockholm where, 18 years later, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for his ability to reveal “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

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