One of the best things about books is that they can be about anything. Anything. There are post-apocalyptic stories dating all the way back to ancient times, and a lot of those wild and crazy stories about medieval kings and primordial gods are still being read today (thank you, oral tradition). As it happens, some of the best books are also some of the oldest books, and epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey never go out of style.
Unfortunately, while stories never lose the ability to draw us in, they do lose one thing: publicity. Word of mouth. There are always new books being published, and we’d all rather talk about that hot new bestseller than that old book from years ago. Out of sight, out of mind, right? If you’re like us, you’ve probably got a millions books on your shelf or your to-read list and don’t have any idea where to begin. Fear not: we’ve made a list of some of the most popular books of the last two and a half decades to help you out.
The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel (1990)
The second installment of The Earth’s Children series, The Plains of Passage takes place in what would be considered modern day Europe if modern day Europe was populated with hunters and gatherers. The story follows the journey of Ayla and Jondalar as they travel west along the “Great Mother River” in an effort to return to Jondalar’s homeland. Throughout their travels, the two encounter members of other tribes and face challenges, strife, violence, and danger, as well as some more touching moments between the two and the people met along the way.
Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (1991)
Another sequel, Scarlett follows the story of, surprise, Scarlett O’Hara, and details the events that unfold after the conclusion of Gone With the Wind. It’s difficult to give a synopsis of events of a sequel without giving away the ending of the prequel, so let’s keep this vague. In essence, Scarlett, a spoiled Southern Belle, goes on a journey to win back her (rightfully?) estranged husband, and readers are treated to delightfully old-timey chaos.
The Pelican Brief by John Grisham (1992)
Still held in high regard even today, The Pelican Brief is one of John Grisham’s most highly regarded litigation dramas. The novel begins with the assassination of two ideologically convergent Supreme Court justices; because of their inherently different stances on the most important issues, it’s borderline impossible for law enforcement to nail down a motive. That all changes when law student Darby Shaw looks into the case and discovers that perhaps the motive may not be political, as everyone assumed, but rather based on the greed of one selfish businessman.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller (1993)
Perhaps one of the most famous titles on this list, The Bridges of Madison County sold over 50 million copies worldwide and has been made into a feature film (starring none other than Meryl Streep) and, more recently, into a 2013 musical. The story follows a married but lonely Italian woman who enters into an affair with a National Geographic photographer doing a photo essay on the covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa.
The Chamber by John Grisham (1994)
Like The Pelican Brief, The Chamber begins with some unfortunate and politically controversial happenings. In this novel, set in 1967, the Jewish mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, sees his office bombed. The mayor himself survives the attack, but his two young sons aren’t so lucky. After identifying a young member of the KKK as a key suspect in the attack, the trial begins with our leading perp serving as his own lawyer. Over the course of the trial, we earn that our man isn’t the most wholesome member of the community and is certainly guilty of a number of offenses, but it remains unclear whether this particular act of antisemitism can be attributed to his resume.
The Partner by John Grisham (1995)
Okay, this Grisham guy was really just the literary bees knees of the 90’s.
Patrick Lannigan, partner at a prominent firm in Biloxi, Mississippi, gets wind of a scam orchestrated by one of the nation’s most powerful shipping magistrates. The story really gets interesting when Lannigan puts it together that his own firm stands to gain millions (stacks on stacks) from the scheme, but that no one but the firm’s founders stand to benefit. In his rage, our protagonist decides to get a little crafty. How crafty? Well, for starters, he manages to successfully fake his own death and siphon millions into a private, offshore bank account. But what does he do with the money? Does he get away with it? You’ll have to read to find out.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
The Tipping Point is the first and, arguably, the best book of Gladwell’s eclectic career. Inspired by Gladwell’s research on AIDS and the nature of epidemics in general, this book looks into what would happen if everything (from business to social interactions) unfolded in the same nature as an epidemic. That is to say, what would happen to the world as we know it if every interaction, every endeavor, unfolded first slowly, and then all at once, until we were powerless to stop it?
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001)
Fast Food Nation might not be a novel, but it’s definitely readable. Each and every one of us, particularly residents of the U.S., is familiar with the stronghold the ‘Burger Barons’ have over the meat industry. This book lifts the curtain on the cruelty of the mass market industry and how terribly it treats both its human employees and the animals it raises for slaughter. Schlosser’s work was the first monumentally influential piece that to change the way we think about our food and start the healthy eating revolution.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
Though technically a Young Adult novel, The Book Thief is so inventive and so interesting that it quickly became an international bestseller with both teens and adults raving about how good it is. This deeply emotional novel is painful and magnificent from start to finish. Narrated by the character Death, the story follows Leisel, a recently orphaned girl taken in by an Aryan family during Hitler’s reign, just before the rise of the Nazi regime. In addition to defending their newest child, Leisel’s adoptive parents take in a Jewish boy and conceal him in their basement, putting their entire family at risk.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
A favorite of scholars who appreciate its “meditations in regards to the human condition,” The Road is one of those novels that both academics and the general public can love. It’s a spare, brutal novel told in deceptively simple prose about a father and son traveling on “the road” in a barren, post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, the man and his son (who are never named) encounter occasional thieves and at one point a band of cannibals (seriously), as well as suffering from hunger, fear, and the dangers of a bitter midwestern winter.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Fountain’s first novel generated a lot of interest when it was published almost four years ago. The story follows Billy Lynn and seven of his fellow rookies from the U.S. Army’s Bravo squad. Fresh out of an Iraqi firefight, the eight young men are dubbed heroes and taken on a stateside tour of the U.S. culminating in the titular halftime appearance at a Dallas Cowboys game. This novel captures the essence of what it means to live as a United States soldier in the 21st century. Readers are given a window into how soldiers live, their emotional turmoil, the incredible stress they’re under, and what it’s like to suffer from PTSD.