What We’re Reading: A Century In Review

Need some escapist reading? Look no further!

If, like me, you’re looking for things to read that aren’t updates about the rising COVID-19 case count, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve assembled some recommendations about books to read that were published between the years 1900-2000. I’ve held off on anything published before 1900, as only literary nerds like myself to tend to willingly choose to read those texts — or they’ve been assigned to read them in a course. And I have definitely read enough of pre-1900 novels and poems to know which ones to avoid. (For those that missed my #LoganDoesGradSchool tweets, I hold both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in English literature with a specialized focus in critical literary theory and medieval poetry. So if y’all are really that bored during self-isolation, I can put together another article talking about top pre-modern books to read.) So, without further ado, here’s a — by no means comprehensive and not in any order — list of 20th century British and American authors and novels to read while you’re doing your part by staying at home.

NB: All links to books and authors will be to their respective GoodReads pages. From there, GoodReads provides on-page links to purchase the works on multiple platforms or find it at your local library.

Author: Willa Cather
Genre: American frontier, American historical fiction
Notable Series/Works: O Pioneers!, Death Comes For The Archbishop, My Ántonia

Cather won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for her work One of Ours, though her more well-known work now is her novel about life on the American frontier, O Pioneers! I first read Cather’s writing during my university days and fell head-over-heels for her style of prose that featured vivid imagery, down-to-earth characters, and the captivating landscapes of North America. My recommendation is to start with Death Comes For The Archbishop. It’s the story of two Catholic priests in what is now the American Southwest during the 19th century. Her prose will transport you to the breathtaking mesas and sunbaked climate of the desert and the resilient and quietly brave men and women living there.

You can find more on Death Comes For The Archbishop here.

Author: Winston S. Churchill
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Notable Series/Works: The Second World War

Yes, that Churchill. After the conclusion of the Second World War, the former British Prime Minister penned a series of six works covering the history of the war. The first book, The Gathering Storm, covers the national and international events from 1919 to 1939 that contributed to the coming war. The second volume, Their Finest Hour, recounts how Britain survived the Battle of Britain after most of the major European powers fell to Germany in the first months of 1940. If you’ve ever wanted a comprehensive history of the single largest turning point in modern history, then you’ll want to read at least one (if not two — or all) of the volumes of Churchill’s work.

You can find more about the series here.

Author: Clive Cussler
Genre: Adventure, thriller, suspense
Notable Series/Works: The Dirk Pitt series, The Oregon Files, The NUMA Files, the Isaac Bell series, The Fargo Adventures

Cussler’s imaginative plots will keep you reading late into the night. Trust me, I’ve done it more than once. Most recently, I’ve stayed up until six in the morning because the plot was moving so quickly, and the action so intense, that there was no way I could fall asleep without knowing how it ended. I’d recommend starting with Cussler’s series centering on Dirk Pitt. All but the Fargo series tie into Pitt’s adventures, or are spinoffs from his books. The best way I can describe Pitt is like the underwater version of Indiana Jones meets James Bond. He works as Special Projects Director for the fictitious government agency NUMA that funds research pertaining to the oceans, shipwrecks, and marine life. The books usually feature an historical mystery connected to the sea (or a shipwreck recently discovered by Pitt and his team) and take off into a high-octane race to save the ocean — and the world — from the novel’s villain. My personal favorites featuring Pitt are Treasure, Sahara, and Atlantis Found. You can jump in just about anywhere within the series. During my self-isolation, I’ve given The NUMA Files series a go and absolutely roared through The Pharaoh’s Secret. Like the Dirk Pitt series, you can drop in anywhere. As these series are current bestsellers within the last 30 years, your local library should have a fair amount of each series available as an e-book or audiobook.

And if you’re looking for a comedic action-adventure movie that the critics absolutely panned (but is so worth the watch), settle in with popcorn for the film adaptation of Sahara, featuring Matthew McConaughey, Penélope Cruz, and Steve Zahn.

You can find more about Cussler and his various series here.

Author: Jack Higgins
Genre: Mystery, thriller
Notable Series/Works: The Eagle Has Landed, the Sean Dillon series, the Liam Devlin series

Higgins is perhaps best known for his breakthrough thriller titled The Eagle Has Landed. You might recognize the title thanks to the 1976 film of the same name featuring Michael Cane, Donald Sutherland, and Robert Duvall. Set during World War II, the plot centers around an attempted assassination of Churchill by Nazis, and the efforts of the British to thwart their plan. The novel is regarded as one of the finer works in the thriller genre, and is well worth the read. Higgins followed his bestseller success with 22 novels in his series focusing on Sean Dillion. A former IRA hitman now working for an ultra-secret arm of British intelligence, Dillon stops any variety of national and international disasters from occurring. If Cussler’s Dirk Pitt is the graceful, public-facing side of James Bond, then Higgins’ Sean Dillon is the grittier, darker, hidden-in-the-shadows part of Bond’s repertoire. Make no mistake though; while Dillon is absolutely ruthless in his work to prevent the plans of power-hungry adversaries, he is loyal to a fault, protective of the innocent and weak, and the utterly charming rogue that women fall for in the novels.

I’d recommend starting with the second book in the series, Thunder Point. The first book is set when Dillon is still a gun-for-hire and attempts to bomb No. 10 Downing Street, though it does set up his redemption arc in Thunder Point. I absolutely love the series and it’s hard to pick just a few favorites, but if pressed, I’d choose Thunder Point, On Dangerous Ground, The President’s Daughter, and Bad Company.

Higgins also penned several works set during World War II (I recommend Sheba), and several stand-alone works that, though sometimes hard to find, are worth the read. My personal favorite is Exocet, set during the Faulkland War in 1982. Exocet is all about the personal relationships strengthened, tested, and broken before and during the 10-week invasion. It’s a fast read and Higgins’ writing takes you back in time to when intelligence work wasn’t wholly digitized. And who can forget the opening chapter, featuring the main character breaking into Buckingham Palace in the middle of the night and finding the Queen? (Don’t worry, she asked him to test her security. It’s about as perfect as first chapters go.)

You can find more about Higgins and his novels here.

Author: Langston Hughes
Genre: Poetry, fiction
Notable Series/Works: I, Too, Am America, Montage of a Dream Deferred, The Weary Blues

You can find most of Hughes’ work on PoetryFoundation.org, but if you prefer a printed collection, I recommend The Collected Poems (including several essays) and The Selected Poems if you want just his most famous poems. Hughes was the first African-American poet and author to solely make his living from his writing. Known for his poetry, Hughes also penned a variety of plays, scores of essays and newspaper columns, and contributed to a bevy of periodicals on everything from poetry to race to jazz and in between. Hughes wrote heavily on the influence on one another between poetry and jazz, and he witnessed this firsthand during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, which saw an outpouring of both artistic styles from the community.

One of Hughes’ seminal essays still rings true in the 21st century, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, which discusses societal pressure to be less “other” and become more “American” — in other words, white, educated, and middle-class. The essay is short but poignant, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Hughes’ poetry practically vibrates with early 20th century jazz beats, and indeed many of the poems reference jazz composition and terminology. Here is a brief list of some of his more famous poems, along with several of my favorites: I, Too, Am America, Harlem and Dream Boogie, The Weary Blues, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Hope, Freedom, Let America Be America Again.

You can find more about Hughes and his writing on GoodReads and on PoetryFoundation.org.

Author: Adrienne Rich
Genre: Poetry, essays, non-fiction
Notable Series/Works: Diving Into The Wreck, The Fact of a Doorframe, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

Recipient of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a MacArthur “Genius” Award, Rich is most remembered for her groundbreaking poetry. Throughout her career, she experimented with free-form organization, varying cadence and stanza lengths, and a variety of other facets that led to her work standing apart as a herald of post-war verse. Her seminal work Diving into the Wreck was a breathtaking collection of verse dedicated to a multitude of subjects, including social justice, feminism, politics, and life as a woman breaking societal and gender norms in the second half of the 20th century. (You can find the titular poem here.) You can find a handful of her poems on PoetryFoundation.org and Poets.org. Some of my personal favorites are Planetarium, Gabriel, and What Kind of Times Are These. If you are looking for a comprehensive collection of her poetry, start with The Fact of a Doorframe. Her essay titled Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence is necessary for understanding the complex way society views and intersects gender, sexuality and nonconformity. (Also recommended as companion reading is Judith Butler’s essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.)

You can find more about Rich and her writing here.

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy, fiction, poetry
Notable Series/Works: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The History of Middle Earth

Anyone who has met me knows that no book recommendation list is complete unless it includes the creator of The Lord of the Rings. It was Tolkien’s work in Old and Middle English language and literature that led to my love of medieval poetry and my choosing it as the focus for my academic career. One of my favorite anecdotes I’ve ever come across about Tolkien goes like this: On the first day of his course on Old English, he would wait until all the students had assembled in the lecture hall. He would then fling the double doors open and march down the center aisle while reciting the first 50 lines of Beowulf in Old English. Indeed, his scholarly works are still widely used today. His translations (and commentary) of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Old Norse mythical verse are still often-cited texts in their respective fields.

Want to dive into the world of dwarves, men, elves, hobbits, and wizards? I’d recommend starting with The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Written a children’s story, the novel centers around the bookish hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his subsequent adventure with Thorin and his company to reclaim their mountain from Smaug the Magnificent. After that, start with The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in The Lord of the Ring series. The unabridged audiobooks of the series are also worth the investment if you don’t have the time to sit down to read the books.

You can find more about Tolkien and his work here.

Author: P.G. Wodehouse
Genre: Fiction, comedy
Notable Series/Works: Blandings Castle, the Jeeves & Wooster series, the Psmith series, The Drones Club series

And last, but certainly not least, if you need lighthearted, comedic plots set in the early 20th century, look no further than Wodehouse’s novels. You might recognize his characters Jeeves and Wooster from a television series produced in England during the early 1990s and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. (Highly recommended for television perfection and seeing a very young Laurie before he portrayed the lovable curmudgeon Dr. House.)

Wodehouse wrote what he knew best — prewar English upper class society — and loved to spoof it to hilarious ends. His most famous works feature Bertie Wooster, a well-meaning, but less than brilliant wealthy aristocrat, and Jeeves, his unflappable, snarky, and very brilliant valet who deserves a knighthood for his extraordinary calm when rescuing Wooster from one of his many grand ideas gone awry. If you’re looking to dip your toes into their comedic hijinks, start with the collection of short stories titled Carry On, Jeeves.

You find more about Wodehouse and his writing here.

Have other authors or novels you’d recommend to your fellow hockey fans? Drop them in the comments below. Read any of the books above and loved or hated them? Let me know!