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A half century missing the ‘must-reads’

Although I know lists like these are entirely subjective — and the creator of this one even admits such efforts can be “absurd” — I still am drawn to them. Last week, Flavorwire posted a list of a “single must-read book” from each of the last 50 years, together with anywhere from zero to a handful of “also recommended” books for each year. This one intrigued me because it is a fairly close match to my reading life. (But, no, I wasn’t reading The Bell Jar at age seven.)

There were a couple ground rules in coming up with the list, including that no specific author should be chosen for more than one
year and a focus on fiction over other genres. I noticed a couple other things although they also take the recommended books into consideration: there’s a bent toward short stories and the occasional “difficult” Novel (see 1973 and 1996) but also more speculative fiction than I might have anticipated.

Here’s how it breaks down for me with those I’ve read in bold, those on my bookshelves or ebook reader are underlined and the number of recommended books and how many I’ve read are in parentheses. I read less than 10 percent of the “must reads” — there’s even some I don’t know that I’ve heard of — although I’ve read close to a quarter of the recommendeds.

1963 — The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1/5)

1964 — Herzog, Saul Bellow (0/5)

1965 – The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley (2/5)

1966 – Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag (2/5)

1967 — The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (0/4)

1968 — Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion (1/2)

1969 — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (2/5)

1970 – Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume (0/4)

1971 – The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor (1/3)

1972 – Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (0/1)

1973 – Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (0/2)

1974 – The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (0/1)

1975 – The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux (0/5)

1976 – Speedboat, Renata Adler (0/2)

1977 – The Shining, Stephen King (1/4)

1978 – The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1/3)

1979 – The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter (2/7)

1980 – Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1/3)

1981 – Outside Over There, Maurice Sendak (0/4)

1982 – The Color Purple, Alice Walker (0/3)

1983 – Cathedral, Raymond Carver (0/2)

1984 – Money, Martin Amis (2/4)

1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (2/5)

1986 – Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman (0 recommended)

1987 – Beloved, Toni Morrison (0/4)

1988 – Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill (0/4)

1989 – Geek Love, Katherine Dunn (0/2)

1990 – The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (0/3)

1991 – Possession, A.S. Byatt (1/4)

1992 – The Secret History, Donna Tartt (0/4)

1993 – The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx (0/3)

1994 – The Ice Storm, Rick Moody (0/2)

1995 – Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth (1/3)

1996 – Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (0/2)

1997 – Underworld, Don DeLillo (2/6)

1998 – Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (0/2)

1999 – Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee (0/3)

2000 – Pastoralia, George Saunders (2/6)

2001 – Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald (1/2)

2002 – Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (0/3)

2003 – The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2/4)

2004 – The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen (3/5)

2005 – Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link (2/3)

2006 – The Road, Cormac McCarthy (0/6)

2007 – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2/2)

2008 – Dangerous Laughter, Steven Millhauser (1/2)

2009 – Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr (0/2)

2010 – A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (4/7)

2011 – Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan (2/6)

2012 – Building Stories, Chris Ware (2/3)

2013 – The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (0/1)


… the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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