Maybe the best way to sum up the 70s is this question: “Now what?”
If you’ve been joining us on our ride through a century of great books, you’ll know that we’re halfway through. The first 50 years showcased 50 extraordinary books. We hope you rediscovered some old favorites and found some new treasures as well. What will the next 50 years of great books bring? Let’s get started with the best books from the 1970s.
Our perspective of the 1960s was focused largely on the idea of counterculture and the protest against mainstream values and ideas. By the end of the 60s, this protest had become a fight that was in full swing, and the consequences were beginning to show. Violent riots were taking the place of peaceful sit-ins, many counterculture leaders were in prison or in exile, and the world was shocked by the stabbings at the Altamont concert and the Charles Manson murders.
In the 1970s, while the overall ethos of counterculture remained in the background, the new decade also marked a time when many people began to push back against the perceived amoral, mind-rotting, hedonic excesses of the 60s. Maybe the “go-with-the-flow,” “anything goes” moral drift had its limitations. It’s a hazy decade when the ideas of the 60s receded, but nothing new came on the scene to take their place. It’s a decade of fears; fears about terrorism, the environment, economic uncertainty, overt political cynicism, endless international conflict, and an out-of-control popular culture were ever-present.
Feel familiar? Put on your bell bottoms, play some Bee Gees, and crack open one of these classic books from the 1970s.
Hunter S. Thompson, 1971
This 1971 novel is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction based on the author’s actual journey to Las Vegas to report on a motorcycle race called the Mint 400. He quickly spends his fee on “extremely dangerous drugs,” at which point things become decidedly unclear as hallucinations take center stage. This book is a fun, but challenging read. It’s ambiguous, confusing, and energetic. Perhaps the most surprising element of this book is that lurking beyond all the mind-numbing narcotics, it’s ultimately about complicated relationships and the psychedelic era that lingered but also dissipated in the early 70s.
Stephen King, 1974
Horror as a genre really took off in the 1970s, and the works of Stephen King played a significant role. Carrie is King’s first published novel. It tells the story of Carrie White, an awkward, bullied teenage girl who uses her newfound telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her schoolmates, her town, and her mother. Written amidst the bitter fight of the women’s liberation movement, Carrie is one woman who finds the power to fight back against everything and everyone that tries to repress her. It’s controversial, it’s totally reflective of the 1970s, and it’s terrifying. You’ll love it.
Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, 1974
The Watergate scandal is one story that defined the 70s, and reporters Woodward and Bernstein literally wrote the book on it. This book reveals the full scope of the scandal from beginning to end. It’s a page-turning account of the investigations that toppled a sitting president, won a Pulitzer Prize, and changed history forever. If there was one event that brought the question of “moral drift” to the front of everyone’s mind, it would certainly be Watergate.
Piers Paul Read, 1974
Truth is often more compelling than fiction, and that’s certainly the case of this true account of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes. The plane was carrying a team of Uruguayan rugby players who struggled for 10 weeks against the harsh and unforgiving elements of the snow-bound mountains. This is their story, told masterfully by Piers Paul Read, and it might be the best survival story you ever read.
Paul Theroux, 1975
This thoroughly enjoyable travelogue sold over a million and a half copies in 1975 and remains a favorite of armchair travelers everywhere. The great trains of Europe and Asia carried Mr. Theroux to exotic locales between London and Japan and then back again. If you’re yearning to get out there and see the world again, this book will whet your appetite. This is an insider’s look into travel and the world the way things were in the early 1970s.
Marge Piercy, 1976
Consuelo Ramos, a Chicana from New York City, is a woman on the edge of time. Through her eyes, you’ll see the Spanish Harlem of the 70s, the powerlessness experienced by individuals being treated in state-run mental institutions, and a vision of the future where the entire social agenda of activists in the 70s has become a reality. Connie “sees” a world without homelessness, sexism, racism, or totalitarianism. Is it a vision or time travel? You’ll need to read this to decide for yourself.
Judith Guest, 1976
Is mental illness catching? This might be the question at the heart of this novel that tells the story of the Jarrett family in Illinois in 1975. Their ordinary life is disrupted when their 17-year-old son Conrad experiences a significant struggle with mental illness. Conrad and his family work hard to act normal even though everything has changed. If you’ve spent 2020 trying to act normal despite things being anything but, then you’ll find much to relate to in this remarkable book.
Katherine Paterson, 1977
Are Leslie, Jesse, and Terabithia old friends? If not, they will be after you read this Newberry Award-winning novel. It’s the story of a magical friendship, growing courage, loss, and the value of faith. This is a delightful read that will take you back to what it was like to be in 5th grade when anything was possible. It’s rich in detail and genuine emotion, which is why it continues to enjoy a place in many lists of the top children’s books ever written.
Octavia E. Butler, 1979
Ms. Butler received a MacArthur Grant and a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award for her exceptional work that includes Kindred, the story of a young black girl named Dana who travels from her 1970s California home back in time to the pre-Civil War South. Dana must protect a slaveholder to preserve her own destiny. This is a timely tale that explores the complicated issue of African American family history. This book is a little bit science fiction, a little bit romance, a little bit historical fiction, and a lot of fun to read.
Norman Mailer, 1979
Fans of true crime love this classic about Gary Gilmore, a thief and cold-blooded murderer who was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1976. Gilmore fought for his right to die, a fight that made him famous. Mailer tells Gilmore’s story as well as the story of all the people who got caught up in his drama. This book is impossible to put down.
Take the 1970s Reading Challenge
Discover Books is all about discovering books that take us to a different time and place to understand our time and place more deeply. We think reading makes everyone smarter, happier, and better. The 1970s were a challenging time; reading about it from authors who lived and wrote contemporaneously helps develop an appreciation for the complexities of the decade. These are stories from a generation that took the system apart and now had to figure out how to put it back together again in a new and better way. We might still be trying to figure that out today.
At Discover Books, you’ll find all these books as well as others from the 1970s. Discoverbooks.com carries millions of gently used books starting at $3.85 with free shipping on orders of $12 or more to the lower 48 USA. Shop now and discover something new!