Flappers, jazz, Prohibition, bob haircuts, the Charleston, and wonderful books.
Now that we’re solidly into the 2020s, it seems appropriate to take a voyage back 100 years to the 1920s to get a taste of the remarkable literature produced during that decade. We’ll explore 10 of the best books from the 1920s and why they still stand the test of time.
The Roaring Twenties was an exhilarating time characterized by economic prosperity and significant societal and cultural changes. Everything seemed thoroughly modern. Cars, movies, telephones, and radios became increasingly commonplace. Women bobbed their hair, hemmed their skirts, spoke their minds, and voted. The African American influence on culture blossomed through art, music, and literature during the Harlem Renaissance movement. While much of society thoroughly enjoyed this time of peace and prosperity, the Lost Generation was weighed down by the lasting effects of World War I and felt disillusioned and cynical.
The best writers from this era captured the spirit of the times in their work. Add the following 10 classic books to your reading list to experience how this fascinating era continues to have influence today:
In response to a bet from a friend that she couldn’t write a mystery novel that would keep readers in the dark until the very end, British writer Agatha Christie penned The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The result is the endearing and enduring detective, Hercule Poirot, and the birth of a whodunit mystery genre that endures today. The modern cozy mysteries you love in print and on screen started here.
To read more on the history of mystery novels, see our History of Mystery blog post here.
Although set in the 1870s, the significance of this novel to the 1920s is the author herself and the themes she explored. The Age of Innocence was Ms. Wharton’s twelfth novel and she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for this work, becoming the first woman to be given that honor. Social mores, individual fulfillment, pretension, feminism, and the meaning of freedom feature prominently in the book. While Ms. Wharton placed her story in the past, the themes and ideas she wrote about reflect the cultural shifts that were occurring during the 1920s.
The decline of the British Empire and the quest for Indian independence, two significant historical events of the 1920s, are at the heart of this classic novel. While the story, characters, and writing might be the first things that draw you into this book, it’s the complexities of attitudes about colonialism that will give you food for serious thought. It’s well worth the effort to enjoy the beauty of this book as well as consider it in the context of past and current sensibilities about racism and prejudice.
This book showcases the Jazz Age and is largely responsible for associating the 1920s with decadence, greed, and excess. If you didn’t read it back in high school—or you did but hated it—this novel is worth a second chance. The story of millionaire Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy Buchanan is American mythology at its finest. Fitzgerald disinterestedly tells the tale of what happens when pleasure is the only goal and lets the reader decide if what they’ve read is part of that same shallowness or something much deeper. Reading this compelling fable as an adult will remind you of the importance of striving to be the noblest version of yourself.
Virginia Woolf is considered by many to be one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Her finest, most popular books published during the 1920s include To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and Orlando. Reading any of these is a rewarding experience, but today we focus on Mrs. Dalloway. This book gives you a genuine sense of the time period and its stream-of-consciousness style, feminist themes, and tender look at the internal struggles faced by soldiers returning from war are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
Anita Loos, 1925
While you most certainly have met Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and her friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) on the big screen, it’s less certain that you’ve read about their adventures in the pages of a book. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, satirical look at the excesses of the Jazz Age, then this is the book for you.
Lorelei is often described as the perfect embodiment of the greed, frivolity, and indulgences of the day. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was an instant success, selling out completely upon its release and you’re sure to love it, too.
The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway’s first novel. At its core, this masterpiece is a story about the Lost Generation, an entire cohort who had been beaten and battered by the war years but were nevertheless strong and resilient. Hemingway’s brilliant writing will transport you to Paris cafes, the bucolic Spanish countryside, and the high drama of a Pamplona bullfight. While you might be inclined to think, and rightly so, that the author’s view of masculinity and his extreme portrayal of a modern woman are outdated, there’s no denying that you’ll get a clear picture of the perceptions of men and women in the 1920s. If you’re looking for a book to help you imagine a different time and place, this is it.
There’s nothing easy about this brutal account of German life in the trenches of WWI. It is widely considered to be one of the finest war novels ever written. The author’s message is clear in every heart wrenching description: war destroys. Remarque’s portrayal of the horrors of trench warfare resonated with both soldier and civilian survivors who were struggling during the 1920s to make sense of all they experienced. The stories of these young men will touch your soul today.
Another mystery genre to come out of the 1920s is classic hard-boiled noir. We owe Dashiell Hammett a great deal of credit for the genre’s popularity and pervasiveness. As you read this gripping crime novel, you’ll find that much of its content feels familiar. It features a jaded, private detective as the antihero, a city overrun by gangs, a corrupt police force, a woman whose loyalties are uncertain, and a violent, climactic ending that rivals anything you might see from Hollywood. While it might sound like it could have been set anytime, elements such as the Pinkertons, Prohibition, gangsters, and labor disputes place it solidly in the 1920s.
Why is a book published in 2001 on a must-read list of 1920 literature? Because Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement of the 1920s when African American writers pushed to have their creative voices heard.
Ms. Hurston’s novels were largely published in the 30s and 40s, but during the 1920s, she embarked on an anthropological journey through the Gulf States for the purpose of collecting and compiling African American folk tales. Her manuscript was not published at the time but was discovered and published posthumously in 2001. This anthology includes nearly 500 tales that celebrate African American life in the south and preserve the rich oral tradition of storytelling so indicative of the time.
Why Do Books From the 1920s Matter?
Why do 100-year-old books matter? They matter for the same reasons that all great literature matters: they capture the hearts and minds of readers and transport them to places and times where mesmerizing characters tell stories with big ideas. As you read these books from the 1920s, you’ll quickly recognize the lasting influence each one has had on our culture. At Discover Books, you’ll find these classics as well as many others from the same era. You can dip your toes or dive completely in to the 1920s. Discoverbooks.com carries millions of gently used books starting at $3.85 with free shipping on orders of $9 or more to lower 48 USA. Shop today and discover something new!