Last month, Discover Books’ reading challenge focused on influential books written during the glitzy and glamorous 1920s. This month, we move forward to the 1930s, a much more challenging decade. The 30s were witness to the following:
- Widespread economic devastation and the Great Depression
- Skyrocketing US unemployment rates near 25%
- Severe drought accompanied by high winds, creating a “Dust Bowl” that drove already struggling farmers to search for new homes and livelihoods
- Declining capitalism
- Dwindling British Empire
- Rising European fascism
- Increasingly protectionist policies
- Growing isolationism
- Nazi-hosted Olympics in Berlin
- Hilter invading Poland
Authors in the 1930s took various approaches to the difficult circumstances of the time. Some created books that realistically revealed the time’s difficulties, and others wrote stories that provided an escape from reality. Our reading challenge contains some of both. You’ll find romance, self-help, and a taste of chick-lit as well as classics and some biting satire. You might be surprised; not every book is written in the 30s is about poverty, the Dust Bowl, or Nazis. Many authors covered different subjects during this decade. Here are ten books we think you’ll love that tell a great story while capturing the history of the times.
Pearl S. Buck, 1931
Although the setting for this book is 19th century China, Ms. Buck is telling the story of the early 1930s—financial hardships, the struggle of poverty, natural disasters, and love of country amidst political turmoil. Contemporary readers saw their own struggles reflected in the lives of the hardworking Chinese farmers. In this Pulitzer Prize winner, modern readers gain valuable insight into a different place and time.
1930s readers regularly reached for anything that could help them cope with the economic meltdown happening around them. Women especially read serialized stories in weekly magazines to escape the harsh realities of daily life. These stories about plucky young women striving to overcome financial challenges outside their control were later published as novels, and they are the ancestors of today’s chick-lit genre. White Collar Girl by Faith Baldwin tells the story of Linda, a young woman forced (by her father’s misfortune) to leave college and take a job as a salesperson. Linda’s story will charm you while you peek into life during the Depression.
James Hilton, 1934
This sentimental novella chronicles the significant historical events leading to Hitler’s rise. At the same time, telling the story of a beloved school teacher, Mr. Chips. He is a member of a generation shaped by conflict and major social upheaval. His love story with Katherine (a woman with strong, modern opinions), his endurance of almost unbearable loss, and his faithful service to hundreds of schoolboys will endear you to this timeless character.
Sinclair Lewis, 1935
It Can’t Happen Here is a dystopian political novel set in 1936. It’s the story of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a US senator who wins the US Presidential election. His platform was a populist platform promising to restore the country to greatness again. Originally he positions himself as a champion of American values. He quickly takes authoritarian measures such as outlawing dissent, creating concentration camps for political prisoners and training a special militia to enforce his policies. President Windrip eventually takes complete control of the US government and establishes totalitarian rule like European fascists Hitler and Mussolini. It’s a cautionary tale that has drawn comparisons to today’s political climate.
Horace McCory, 1935
This book, along with the movie starring Jane Fonda, is a significant example of American absurdist existentialism. It was published at the height of the Depression when many were struggling to make sense of the difficulties of the time. Absurdist existentialist philosophy holds that there is no real meaning in the world and that, as a result, life is essentially immoral and unfair. Reading this brutal but poetic tale gives the reader a real sense of the hopelessness and frustration characterized in this decade.
Dale Carnegie, 1936
There aren’t many self-help books that can claim the many accolades that belong to this volume: over 30 million copies sold, translations in dozens of languages, and a place on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books. In fact, the Library of Congress ranks How to Win… as the 7th most influential book ever published. Over 250,000 copies are sold every year, even today. If you’re interested in improving your relationships, saving more money, or moving your career forward, the advice in this book is tried and true and has been helping people all over the world achieve their goals for nearly 100 years.
Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
The Harlem Renaissance that began in the 1920s continued into the 30s as talented African American artists expressed themselves and their ideas in music, art, and literature. Janie Crawford’s story is as relevant today as it was at the time, which is why this book continues to be widely read 100 years after its creation. One thing that makes this novel such a hallmark of its time is that it’s not a story directed at African Americans; Ms. Hurston wrote a book about the human experience, not the African American experience, which is a decidedly 1930s, Harlem Renaissance approach to take.
Evelyn Waugh, 1938
For a smart, satirical glimpse at British sensational journalism in the 1930s, look no further than Scoop. You’ll laugh out loud as you read about the exploits of a mild-mannered nature reporter for the Daily Beast (yes, the inspiration for today’s eponymous website) who is inadvertently dispatched to cover an obscure war in East Africa. The notion that the media will create its own news to sell stories is familiar. It explains why this classic continues to be a reader favorite.
Daphne du Maurier, 1938
Rebecca won the National Book Award for favorite novel of the year in 1938 when it was published. It has since been chosen in 2017 as the UK’s favorite modern (the past 225 years) novel. This classic psychological thriller has left its mark on our culture. Its characters like Mrs. Danvers (who is regularly imitated or parodied) and several outstanding film adaptations (including a 2020 Netflix version) have stood the test of time. This novel has never been out of print since its original publication, and once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down.
John Steinbeck, 1939
“I’m trying to write history while it is happening, and I don’t want it to be wrong.” ~John Steinbeck
This was John Steinbeck’s goal while writing The Grapes of Wrath—to give an account of the times as accurately and honestly as he knew how. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is perhaps one of the most compelling stories to be told about the impact the Great Depression and effect a natural disaster had on poor tenant farmers in middle America.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
These great books from the 1930s are meant to be read and re-read, enjoyed, discussed, and carefully pondered. These are “sticky” books – stories that both capture elements of a culture and time while offering insight into our own experiences. Take the challenge; take a trip yourself to the 1930s.
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