With the dawn of a new millennium about to break, the Nineties was a strange, floating decade of positivity, hope and something called the World Wide Web.
Reading lists

Books that defined the 1990s

Charles and Di, Blur vs. Oasis, mobile phones or dial tones... the Nineties were a cultural and technological melting pot. Here, from J. K. Rowling to Jonathan Coe, Ben Okri to Helen Fielding, are some of the authors who best captured the decade in words.

The 1990s was a slippery old decade to define. Concertinaed between the Cold War and the War on Terror, it has been dubbed “the holiday from history” – a decade of relative peace and prosperity, free from the existential angst of decades past. No global conflicts to speak of (notwithstanding Blur vs. Oasis, of course), no economic doom to wallow in, no Margaret Thatcher.

With the dawn of a new millennium about to break, it was (for most people) a strange, floating decade of positivity, hope and a thing nobody yet understood called the World Wide Web.

It was the decade of Girl Power, Neighbours, and New Labour. Thatcher was out, Mandela was free and the Berlin Wall was rubble. Charles and Diana was the new soap opera and "Cool Britannia" ruled the airwaves.

As for books, there were many that sought to paint the times with words. Here, from Michael Crichton to Alice Walker, Sue Townsend to Jonathan Coe, are 20 authors who did it best.

'For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party'

Wild Swans by Jung Chang (1991)

Everyone had watched the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests devolve into massacre two years earlier, shining a harsh light on Chairman Mao's tyranny over China.

But if those images provided a keyhole to life inside one of the world's most secretive societies, Wild Swans flung open the door, and gave ordinary Chinese civilians a voice that had never been heard before.

It obliterated best-selling records worldwide, was translated into 37 languages – including Chinese, where it was instantly banned – and sold more than 10 million copies.

“It arrived at just the right time to satisfy a readership hungry for information about this unknown country,” wrote The Guardian in 2005. “For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party.”

'Bridget unwittingly tapped into the gap between how people feel they are expected to be on the outside and how they actually feel inside'

Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding (1996)

For a novel that began as a newspaper column about the trials of single-girl life in London, BJD exceeded all expectations, becoming one of the most successful British fiction exports of the 20th century.

This hilarious faux-diary of a perennial spinster who lives hard, loves hard and drinks even harder than that, blew in on a cyclone of critical and commercial acclaim, selling 15 million copies, spawning two blockbuster films which each took over £150m at the box office.

As Helen Fielding wrote of the book's success in 2013, "I suspected that what Bridget had unwittingly tapped into was the gap between how people feel they are expected to be on the outside and how they actually feel inside."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (1997)

It doesn't need an intro – everyone knows who Harry is, where Hogwarts is, and what Quidditch is. It was the story that launched the most successful book series in history, and changed the literary world.

The series has sold more than 500 million copies, been translated into 80 languages, inspired a series of blockbuster movies, launched a theme park, and turned Rowling from a single mother on benefits to being named the world's first billionaire author by Forbes. You know the rest.

'it is a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character'

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

Not only did this win Arundati Roy the Booker Prize, but it made her the biggest-selling non-expat Indian writer in Britain at the time. The God of Small Things, in other words, was a very big thing indeed.

It is, first and foremost, a story of childhood, set in Kerala, India, during the political turmoil of the 1960s. Rahel and Estha are twins doing their best to negotiate a weird world of adult imperfection that they can't quite understand.

And from there grows a novel that provided as warm and powerful a slice of Indian life as anything that the British reading public had read before.

“[It's] a novel that turns out to be as subtle as it is powerful, a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character,” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani." It became the literary sensation of the 1990s.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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