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Top 10 20th Century Novels

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Sean Harris. There were wars, there was technological advancement, there was social upheaval... And there were some seriously good reads! Join as we count down our picks for the top 10 20th century novels! For this list, we’ve looked at all novels published between the years 1900 and 1999 and have ranked them according to their artistic merit, importance, popularity and ability to reflect the century in which they were written! Special thanks to our users Hobbster-567, Christopher Santa Cruz, WordToTheWes and Baconfroyo for submitting the idea on our Suggestion Tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Sean Harris.

Top 10 20th Century Novels

There were wars, there was technological advancement, there was social upheaval... And there were some seriously good reads! Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top10 20th century novels!

For this list, we’ve looked at all novels published between the years 1900 and 1999 and have ranked them according to their artistic merit, importance, popularity and ability to reflect the century in which they were written!

#10: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967)
Gabriel García Márquez

Especially in the last half of the 20th century, writers, theorists and critics became consumed with the idea that the novel as an art form was in decline, or even dying. But in 1967, future Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez published this masterpiece, and put a stop to a lot of that pessimism in the process. Telling the tale of seven generations of the Buendía Family in Colombia, the novel is a story of inevitability. Arguably the greatest Latin American novel ever written, the magic realist style, subplot upon subplot build-up, and brilliantly authentic environments make it a perfect starting point for today’s reading list.

#9: “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-55)
J. R. R. Tolkien

The forerunner of the contemporary fantasy genre, J. R. R. Tolkien’s juggernaut of a novel is without a doubt a standout work within the era! What impresses readers most is the astonishing attention to detail that the author employs in order to make the realm of Middle Earth seem as real as possible. In “The Lord of the Rings,” a band of colorful characters travels through a glorious and dangerous fantasy world in order to rid the land of a deadly evil. It’s “one ring to rule them all” - and one story to wow them!

#8: “Lolita” (1955)
Vladimir Nabokov

A massively controversial book, “Lolita” faced huge opposition when it first hit the bookstore shelves. A story detailing the life of one Humbert Humbert and his dangerous infatuation with the underage title character, its graphic presentation (and arguable glorification) of pedophilia had plenty of people up in arms! While critics often debate the predatory instincts of the characters, “Lolita” opened up international dialogue on sexual abuse, literary morals and the comedic wordplay of Nabokov. The Russian author’s novel survived its negative publicity however, and Humbert found himself a seat at 20th century literature’s top table - whether you like it or not!

#7: “A Farewell to Arms” (1929)
Ernest Hemingway

He’s regarded as one of the finest American authors, and “A Farewell to Arms” is considered the novel with which Ernest Hemingway came into his own. Split into five books, “A Farewell to Arms” is the first of his works to become a true bestseller, as it follows the story of Frederic Henry, an American serving as a lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army during World War I. Based largely on Hemingway’s own experiences; it is considered one of the finest accounts of one of the bloodiest points in human history.

#6: “Ulysses” (1922)
James Joyce

For many, James Joyce is the father of Modernism, and this is his masterpiece. “Ulysses” reinvents Homer’s “Odyssey” and moves the action to Dublin. An account of an ordinary day in the city for one Leopold Bloom, the novel is controversially clever, cleverly controversial, a difficult text - and a joy to read! Loaded with word play, puns, graphic scenes and stylistic strangeness, it’s an incredible, defining literary achievement. “Ulysses” is famous for its epic stream of consciousness, and readers can’t help but keep wading into it.

#5: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939)
John Steinbeck

The American Dream played out from within America itself; this story of the Joad family’s migration to California in search of a better life and prospects has enthralled readers for generations. On the one hand, it’s a rich, reliable historical source. On the other, it’s the most provocative of page turners. No one got the Great Depression like John Steinbeck did, and that knowledge helped him nab 1962’s Nobel Prize in Literature. We might have included Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” on this list, but Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath” wins out... just!

#4: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949)
George Orwell

Released in 1949, the aim of this Orwell story was to second-guess the future - and the English author wasn’t too far off! Winston lives in a society under constant surveillance, in which it is almost impossible to act independently, or even to think creatively. While this dystopian sci-fi novel and its idea of Big Brother were undoubtedly frightening upon release, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” might make even more uncomfortable reading for modern audiences. After all, we spend more and more time in front of computer screens consuming technological culture. We have our almost every move recorded by CCTV. Sometimes life really does imitate art – for better or worse.

#3: “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951)
J. D. Salinger

Another controversial creation, “The Catcher in the Rye” was originally penned for an adult audience, but it has since become an iconic tale for teenagers. Detailing the daily “toing and froing” of Holden Caulfield, it’s all about adolescent angst, rebellion and disaffection. Though controversial thanks to themes of teen sexuality and its use of slang and cursing, it’s also one of the most relatable works ever written. Everybody grows up, nobody’s perfect, few people are especially similar to this protagonist... But we appreciate the variety of life by the time this novel’s last page has been turned.

#2: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
Harper Lee

The fight against racial discrimination was a prominent social issue throughout the 20th century, and in no novel was it more perfectly captured than in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A coming-of-age tale that everyone should read, it lays our ideas of racial equality on the table, challenges us to address them, and urges us to reach the right conclusions. Told by Scout as a remembrance of her youth, the story follows her father – morally upright lawyer Atticus Finch – as he defends an innocent black man against a rape charge. An exceptionally important book that won its author a Pulitzer Prize, it’s present on most high school reading lists, and long may that be!

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

- “Lord of the Flies” (1954)
William Golding

- “Catch-22” (1961)
Joseph Heller

- “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (1997)
J. K. Rowling

- “The Call of the Wild” (1903)
Jack London

- “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut

- “The Sound and the Fury” (1929)
William Faulkner

#1: “The Great Gatsby” (1925)
F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are few periods more iconic than 1920s America, and no writer captured their exact essence in quite the same way as Fitzgerald. And “The Great Gatsby” is easily the Princetonian’s defining achievement: the green light, the yellow car, the glittering highs and gut-wrenching lows - this is a novel that takes the most complex components of human life, love and psychology, and sensationally simplifies them. “Gatsby” is a story about the fleeting nature of the American Dream, with the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and his fixation with Daisy Buchanan at its center. Though it only sold 20,000 copies in its first year, the jury is now in: Gatsby’s great, and his story is the greatest of its time.

Do you agree with our list? Which novel did we forget? For more page-turning top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to

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