Reagan, Thatcher, the Cold War, leg warmers, shoulder pads, Madonna, Walkmans, and Richard Simmons; honestly, what’s not to love about the ‘80s? These 10 books from the 1980s will whisk you back in time.
Are you enjoying Discover Books’ reading through the decades reading challenge? So far, we’ve shared 60 books covering 60 years of history. Each book suggestion conveys a taste of the authentic flavor of each decade using a voice directly from the decade.
If you’ve been reading along, you’ve felt the joy of the roaring twenties, the despair of the thirties, the rising tensions of the forties, and the giant, almost universal sigh of relief of the fifties. You’ve also experienced the confusion, uncertainty, and moral drift of the sixties and seventies.
Books open our eyes and minds to different ideas, different times, and different perspectives. Writers in every decade have yearned to make sense of their times, and authors in the 1980s are no exception.
The ’80s saw the birth of 24-hour news, a princess that captured the world’s attention, unforgettable pop stars, the AIDS epidemic, foreign wars, and famine. The 1980s were full and eventful. The political, social, and cultural changes that began during this remarkable decade are still reverberating through life today.
It’s time to grab your boombox and one of these great books so you can experience life in the 1980s.
by Lisa Birnbach, 1980
It seems fitting that our journey back to the 1980s begins with The Official Preppy Handbook, a book that spent 38 weeks in the number one spot on the NYT bestseller list. Is this book a satirical look at the WASP lifestyle, or is it your personal style guide?
If you’ve ever worn pink and green together, multiple Lacoste polo shirts at the same time with collars popped up, or literally anything from J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, or LL Bean, the answer to that question might be a bit murky. Ms. Birnbach was a technical consultant for the ’80s film Dead Poets Society, which should firmly cement her preppy bona fides. If any book is going to put you in the 80s mindset, this will be the one.
Bonus Book: True Prep is Ms. Birnbach’s 2011 effort to face head-on how ’80s devotees of all things preppy have handled such things as cell phones, the internet, political correctness, and the ubiquitous polar fleece. This is a must-read for anyone from Gen X.
Tom Clancy, 1984
If we had to choose an author representing all things 1980s, Tom Clancy would undoubtedly be a candidate. As a conservative, Reagan-loving baby boomer, Mr. Clancy himself personified much of what dominated this decade. The Hunt for Red October is his first book. It tells the riveting tale of a Russian submariner, a CIA analyst, and possibly the most incredible submarine chase ever.
This book is considered to be one of the finest examples of military fiction. Not to mention, it launched a writing career that has sold over 100 million books.
Don DeLillo, 1985
This National Book Award winner will make you feel like you can hear the soundtrack of the ‘80s; Coke commercials, freeway traffic, and endless television in the background. This book is full of totally American, totally ‘80s concerns. It’s absurd and real at the same time, which might just be the perfect description of this decade.
Tom Wolfe, 1987
Mr. Wolfe’s purpose in writing this book was to capture the essence of 1980s New York and Wall Street, where racism, ambition, greed, and wealth ran rampant. Some say this book captures those themes better than any other.
Bonfire is a perfect mix of grubby and glitzy, capturing a wide swath of life in New York. It was initially written in 27 installments published in Rolling Stone Magazine, similar to how classic authors like Thackery and Dickens published their great epics about society’s ills.
While it’s meant to be satire, it nevertheless hits pretty close to the mark. Read it and see for yourself.
Fannie Flagg, 1987
This beloved novel moves seamlessly between 1986 when Evelyn Couch and her husband go weekly to visit his mother in her nursing home, and stories of the past as told by Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is another resident of the nursing home.
Evelyn finds herself in the slump of middle age, and the stories of Ninny, Idgie, and Ruth help her come to herself again. As you go flashback in time, you’ll come to love these characters and their stories. Ms. Flagg adroitly weaves themes of aging, lesbianism, friendship, and racism through this charming, unforgettable book.
Randy Shilts, 1987
Learning about the AIDs epidemic must be part of any effort to understand the 1980s. This notable book chronicles the discovery, spread, and initial response to AIDS. Mr. Shilts uses investigative journalism to build a timeline of the many events that shaped the early days of this epidemic.
This retrospective will seem especially relevant today as we grapple with understanding the response to the COVID pandemic.
Mr. Shilts himself was gay and succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1994. This book was deeply personal for him and continues to help readers understand a truly terrifying time for the gay community.
Thomas Harris, 1988
Even those who haven’t read this book or seen the eponymous movie have probably heard of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most notorious villains in modern fiction. This bestseller has been terrifying readers since its publication in 1988. Immerse yourself in this story about an evil genius and a young FBI trainee. Just don’t do it at night or by yourself.
Salman Rushdie, 1988
This is the book that ignited the most significant literary controversy of the 80s, and of all time. It is with caution that we include this book. We only do so with respect to covering important books telling the story of the decade. Since this one received so much coverage when it was published, we will briefly tell its story and allow the reader to decide.
The novel’s story revolves around two Indian ex-pats living in England trapped in a hijacked plane. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two main characters miraculously survive. From here, the book veers off into magical realism. It explores how two men wrestle with their Muslim faith and the world’s temptations in very different ways.
Many sections of the book were considered blasphemous to Muslims, especially one dream sequence that involved a retelling of the life of the prophet Muhammad.
Muslims were so enraged that in 1989, following a riot in Pakistan, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an official fatwa calling for the assassinations of Rushdie, his publishers, and anyone else associated with the book.
What followed was months of bookstore bombings, attacks on foreign language translators, and violent protests. Rushdie spent the next nine years in hiding.
by Stephen Hawking, 1988
While this book is not, strictly speaking, about the 1980s, it is a landmark in science writing. At the time, it represented everything known about the universe.
It’s worth reading not only because Hawking was such an astounding intellect, but because we’ve learned so much more in the intervening years. What seemed like the culmination of learning in 1988 can be seen today as just the beginning of something much larger than even Hawking imagined.
John Grisham, 1989
John Grisham got his start writing thrillers with this page-turning courtroom drama in 1989. If you’re a Grisham fan, it’s well worth your time to go back to the beginning for this look at racism and justice in Mississippi in the 80s.
Take the 1980s Reading Challenge
This list from the 1980s has something for everyone. It’s all here—satire, humor, controversy, murder, drama, relationships, science, and history. Some of your favorite authors began their storytelling in this decade, and you might find a new favorite as well.
Choosing ten books from the thousands that were produced during this prolific decade is an impossible task; nevertheless, we’re confident that reading through this list will expand your understanding of a fascinating time and provide a foothold for further discovery.
At Discover Books, you’ll find these books from the 1980s as well as many others. Discoverbooks.com carries millions of gently used books starting at $3.85 with free shipping on orders of $12 or more to lower 48 USA. Shop now and discover something new!