For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman. I’d never heard of him but the book’s cover caught my attention. Couple that with my son’s musical tastes currently residing in the 1990s and I thought why not take a chance with the new book.
Klosterman focuses on pop culture, politics, TV, music, movies as a means to explain that last decade of the century. It was only by the end that I realized something: I don’t think he mentioned any books. Which got me to thinking about an obvious question:
What are the famous books of the 1990s?
Okay, do something with me. Think about that decade and see if you can recall any titles or authors but do not use the internet. Heck, don’t even look at your bookshelves. Just see if you can come up with any famous books strictly from your memory. I’ll wait.
Okay, so how many did you remember? Truth be told, as I’m writing this, I have not yet turned to Google. I’ve not even turned my eyes to my various bookshelves. In real time, I’ve been thinking about this question, off and on, for about a day, and only in the last few minutes did I remember an author and book that emerged in the 1990s: John Grisham’s The Firm.
I struggled to even remember many books. I went through my mental Stephen King list but could only remember Bag of Bones from 1998. Grisham’s status as the premier writer of the legal thriller instantly brought his other books to my mind. And I think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a 1990s book. But those were all I can remember.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Google now. I suspect I’ll have more than a few “Oh, right! That book!” forehead slaps but such is my memory.
And I’m back, and I’ve slapped my forehead more than once in the category of “How could I have forgotten that book.” Among the titles that slipped my mind are Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990), The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum (1990), Truman by David McCullough (1992; my historian cred just went down the tubes), The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller (1993), Men Are from Mars, Women are From Venus by John Gray (1993), Primary Colors by Anonymous [AKA Joe Klein] (1996), and many books by Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark. I used this site to get the Top 10 books per year and not what someone thinks are the important books.
How many did you remember? More than me? That’s good. Heck, I couldn’t even remember all the Stephen King books of that decade. And how many mystery/thrillers did you recall? The presence of Clark and Ludlum tells me that our genres was at least at the table—as was Tom Clancy (more than once) and James Patterson.
Update: reader Jeremy sent me an email to remind me that Harry Potter was released in 1997 (UK) and 1999 (US) and publishers spent the next 15 years trying to chase the next big young adult craze. He also mentioned that the first Game of Thrones book was published in 1996. That brought Snow Crash (1992) to my memory although I didn't read it until the early 2000s. Ditto for the Potter books (I read them all in 2007).
Here’s a larger question: how many of those books were influential? How many changed things? I’ll come back to the Truman biography. I was in grad school and in 1992, many of my professors grumbled at McCullough’s book because it was too popular. Like the study of history had to be impenetrable to be good. I, for one, appreciate it when a historian writes a popular enough book that it becomes a bestseller (or a Broadway musical). I saw more history books written in McCullough’s style after 1992 than before.
What is the Nevermind of Books?
What about fiction? Is there a Nirvana moment (there was a Before Nevermind and then there was an After Nevermind) or a Matrix moment (same concept) for books? Historically, I’m guessing something like Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) or Raymond Chandler’s work (The Big Sleep?) or Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer’s first book) or Ian Fleming (was he the first huge spy writer?) or Tom Clancy (techno-thriller) or Grisham (legal thriller). I guess Grisham in the 1990s can count as the guy who put legal thrillers back on the map (Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason was king but I can’t think of any other ones other that Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent in the interim).
Now, I also admit that I also did a more specific search for mysteries and thrillers in the 1990s. Here is that link. This is likely not an end-all, be-all list, but something is obviously apparent if you scan the list: the large majority of top mystery books in the 1990s involve series characters. I counted twelve out of 100 that were not series related. My guess is that a respective list for the 2000s, the 2010s, the 1980s, will reveal the same thing. Series sell. It’s a testament to a certain type of writer who can publish different stories within a genre and not do a series.
This essay is a thought exercise but also a real question. Were there any truly game-changing books published in the 1990s? Did they influence pop culture? If not, when was the last time a book sat in the middle of pop culture and dominated the national conversation or, at least added to the greater conversation? (I’m mainly talking about fiction because there are certainly non-fiction books that have made their mark on society.)