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The Best-Selling Books From the Year You Were Born

Ellen Gutoskey
There's a lot of John Grisham in here.
There's a lot of John Grisham in here. / filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
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In 2018, Literary Hub managing editor Emily Temple analyzed nearly a century’s worth of Publisher’s Weekly best-seller lists to determine which books sold best each year. In addition to splitting nonfiction and fiction into separate lists, she omitted young adult fiction altogether—so don’t expect to see any Harry Potter

It’s a fascinating cultural portrait of the country during a given decade. The nonfiction best-seller lists in the ’70s were a tug-of-war between sex and religion, where guides like The Sensuous Man and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask competed with Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible and Billy Graham’s Angels

The ’80s were all about sci-fi movies and Stephen King. Novelizations of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Return of the Jedi ruled the fiction best-seller list in 1982 and 1983, respectively. King took the top spot in 1984 (The Talisman, co-written with Peter Straub), 1986 (It), and 1987 (The Tommyknockers). On the nonfiction side, people focused on health fads and business in equal measure, from Judy Mazel’s The Beverly Hills Diet to automobile titan Lee Iacocca’s autobiography. 

No one author dominated the 1990s more than John Grisham, who had a different best-seller every year straight from 1994 to 2000 (and more sprinkled throughout the following decade). Self-help especially resonated with nonfiction readers of the 2000s, led by Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.

Trends aside, best-seller lists often aren’t definitive or even totally objective. For example, as Temple pointed out, some of Publisher’s Weekly’s so-called “nonfiction” offerings really stretch the boundaries of that term—like the Bible.

“These lists are subject to all of the flaws, faults, and inaccuracies of any best-seller lists, but they’re what we’ve got,” Temple wrote.

For a more complete picture of what was captivating U.S. readers each year, Temple padded her breakdown with other best-sellers, along with famous books published that year that didn’t top sales charts. You can see the top seller in fiction and nonfiction for your birth year (assuming it falls between 1930 and 2017) below, and explore Temple’s more comprehensive lists for nonfiction here and fiction here.

The 1930s

  • 1930
    Cimarron by Edna Ferber
    The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe
  • 1931
    The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
    Education of a Princess by Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia
  • 1932
    The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
    The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams
  • 1933
    Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
    Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin
  • 1934
    Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
    While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott
  • 1935
    Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas
    North to the Orient by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • 1936
    Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    Man the Unknown by Alexis Carrel
  • 1937
    Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • 1938
    The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
    The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
  • 1939
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    Days of Our Years by Pierre Van Paassen

The 1940s

  • 1940
    How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
    I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson
  • 1941
    The Keys of the Kingdom by A.J. Cronin
    Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer
  • 1942
    The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel
    See Here, Private Hargrove by Marion Hargrove
  • 1943
    The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
    Under Cover by John Roy Carlson
  • 1944
    Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
    I Never Left Home by Bob Hope
  • 1945
    Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
    Brave Men by Ernie Pyle
  • 1946
    The King's General by Daphne du Maurier
    The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
  • 1947
    The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney
    Peace of Mind by Joshua L. Liebman
  • 1948
    The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas
    Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • 1949
    The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
    White Collar Zoo by Clare Barnes Jr.

The 1950s

  • 1950
    The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
    Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book
  • 1951
    From Here to Eternity by James Jones
    Look Younger, Live Longer by Gayelord Hauser
  • 1952
    The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain
    The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Edition
  • 1953
    The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
    The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Edition
  • 1954
    Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson
    The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Edition
  • 1955
    Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
    Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • 1956
    Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley
    Arthritis and Common Sense by Dan Dale Alexander
  • 1957
    By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens
    Kids Say the Darndest Things! by Art Linkletter
  • 1958
    Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
    Kids Say the Darndest Things! by Art Linkletter
  • 1959
    Exodus by Leon Uris
    Twixt Twelve and Twenty by Pat Boone

The 1960s

  • 1960
    Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
    Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis
  • 1961
    The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
    The New English Bible: The New Testament
  • 1962
    Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
    Calories Don't Count by Dr. Herman Taller
  • 1963
    The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West
    Happiness Is a Warm Puppy by Charles M. Schulz
  • 1964
    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré
    Four Days: The Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy by American Heritage and United Press International
  • 1965
    The Source by James A. Michener
    How to Be a Jewish Mother by Dan Greenburg
  • 1966
    Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
    How to Avoid Probate! by Norman F. Dacey
  • 1967
    The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
    The Death of a President by William Manchester
  • 1968
    Airport by Arthur Hailey
    Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book
  • 1969
    Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
    American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language edited by William Morris

The 1970s

  • 1970
    Love Story by Erich Segal
    Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask by David Reuben
  • 1971
    Wheels by Arthur Hailey
    The Sensuous Man by "M" (Joan Garrity, John Garrity, and Len Forman)
  • 1972
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
    The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor
  • 1973
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
    The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor
  • 1974
    Centennial by James A. Michener
    The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan
  • 1975
    Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
    Angels: God's Secret Agents by Billy Graham
  • 1976
    Trinity by Leon Uris
    The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
  • 1977
    The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
    Roots by Alex Haley
  • 1978
    Chesapeake by James A. Michener
    If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? by Erma Bombeck
  • 1979
    The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
    Aunt Erma's Cope Book by Erma Bombeck

The 1980s

  • 1980
    The Covenant by James A. Michener
    Crisis Investing: Opportunities and Profits in the Coming Great Depression by Douglas R. Casey
  • 1981
    Noble House by James Clavell
    The Beverly Hills Diet by Judy Mazel
  • 1982
    E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook by William Kotzwinkle
    Jane Fonda's Workout Book by Jane Fonda
  • 1983
    Return of the Jedi by James Kahn
    In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America's Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr.
  • 1984
    The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
    Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca with William Novak
  • 1985
    The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
    Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca with William Novak
  • 1986
    It by Stephen King
    Fatherhood by Bill Cosby
  • 1987
    The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
    Time Flies by Bill Cosby
  • 1988
    The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
    The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure by Robert E. Kowalski
  • 1989
    Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
    All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things by Robert Fulghum

The 1990s

  • 1990
    The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
    A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt
  • 1991
    Scarlett: The Sequel by Alexandra Ripley
    Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn
  • 1992
    Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
    The Way Things Ought to Be by Rush Limbaugh
  • 1993
    The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
    See, I Told You So by Rush Limbaugh
  • 1994
    The Chamber by John Grisham
    In the Kitchen With Rosie by Rosie Daley
  • 1995
    The Rainmaker by John Grisham
    Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray
  • 1996
    The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
    Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body—And a Better Life by Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey
  • 1997
    The Partner by John Grisham
    Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
  • 1998
    The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
    The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman
  • 1999
    The Testament by John Grisham
    Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

The 2000s

  • 2000
    The Brethren by John Grisham
    Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
  • 2001
    Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
    The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson
  • 2002
    The Summons by John Grisham
    Self Matters by Dr. Phil McGraw
  • 2003
    The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
    The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren
  • 2004
    The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
    The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren
  • 2005
    The Broker by John Grisham
    Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About by Kevin Trudeau
  • 2006
    For One More Day by Mitch Albom
    The Innocent Man by John Grisham
  • 2007
    A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
  • 2008
    Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
    The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
  • 2009
    The Appeal by John Grisham
    The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

The 2010s

  • 2010
    The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
    Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • 2011
    The Help by Kathryn Stockett
    Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • 2012
    Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
    No Easy Day by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer
  • 2013
    Inferno by Dan Brown
    Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  • 2014
    Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  • 2015
    Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
    The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
  • 2016
    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
    Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  • 2017
    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
    The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

[h/t Literary Hub]

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