There is nothing quite like settling into a book you love. But finding a real page-turner can be challenging and has only gotten more difficult as of late, as the amount of choices has grown exponentially. In 2022, roughly 542.6 million print books were sold in the U.S., according to Publisher's Weekly. Walking through a bookstore as you seek your next read can be frustrating if you don't know what you're looking for.
Book popularity year by year can offer a fascinating insight into what topics occupied the minds of Americans over the last century. Many stories that captivated the country explore such topics as race, class, and the changing cultural roles of different people. While many books reflect the biases of their time, providing a window into outdated mindsets, some narratives pushed back on the cultural limitations of the era, providing a place where the hypothetical or even futuristic can become tangible.
Running the gamut from political memoir to fantasy, Stacker used data from Publisher's Weekly to compile a list of the most popular books in America each year since 1920. From John Steinbeck classics to modern memoirs, browse the list below for a look into what was popular the year you were born—you might even find your next favorite.
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Set in the American West, Zane Grey solidified the symbols associated with the West in the minds of American readers. These images provided the imagery that inspired many plots and American folklore stories. "The Man of the Forest" is an exciting story about a protagonist who saves a rancher's niece after he overhears a plot to kidnap her.
During its publication, Grey was traveling and going on outdoor excursions frequently. He often contributed to Outdoor Life magazine, which may explain why his connection with the wild manifested itself vividly in his work.
Dorothy Canfield was one of the early bestselling novelists in American literature. "The Brimming Cup" explores one woman's identity as she adjusts to motherhood and her new marriage. As she finds herself attracted to another man, she reassesses the values on which her marriage is based.
A.S.M. Hutchinson's bestseller centers around an unhappy marriage and deals with issues of divorce and suicide. A movie based on "If Winter Comes" was released by MGM in 1947.
This book was a controversial bestseller in the 1920s that was eventually adapted into a silent film. The novel centers around a woman who becomes revitalized by using hormone treatments.
"So Big" was inspired by the life of Antje Paarlberg, a widow in a South Holland, Illinois, farming community. The book follows the life of a young woman who becomes a teacher and encourages a young man to pursue his artistic interests. Over the years, there have been multiple popular adaptations of this novel.
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A. Hamilton Gibbs was a London-born citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1920. "Soundings" follows a young girl from England as she grows and travels abroad, where she falls in love with her American roommate's brother. The novel raised new ideas about women's freedom and sexuality when it was published.
Adapted into a silent film in 1927, "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" is a story set after the events of Homer's "The Iliad," in which Helen goes back to Sparta and deals with her daughter's engagement to Orestes.
Sinclair Lewis, a staple of American literature, masters the study of hypocrisy through the protagonist's journey as an evangelist who lives a double life filled with self-indulgence. This novel was later adapted into a film featuring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons.
"The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that begins when a bridge in Peru breaks, and five travelers fall into the gulf to their deaths. The protagonist aims to determine the underlying cause of the tragedy, uncovering deep mysteries along the way.
Erich Maria Remarque is a German novelist whose works centered around war. This novel is a story of a German soldier who joins the army during World War I and describes the horrifying trenches and mental anguish of warfare that marked a generation of soldiers.
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This novel gets its name from the Cimarron Territory, an unsettled area between the Midwest and the West. It is a story about the collision of cultures on the frontier in fictional Osage, Oklahoma, a territory opened in 1889. Edna Ferber, a native of Michigan, was fascinated and inspired by stories her parents used to tell her about the West, where they had previously settled. The story has been adapted into two films.
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best novel in 1932, "The Good Earth" is a work of historical fiction that has become a renowned modern classic. It provides an image of 1920s China through the protagonist, a farmer during the rule of the last emperor.
Adapted into a film shortly after its publication, "Anthony Adverse" is a story of an orphan who goes on to experience a lifetime of adventure across the world. This novel is seen as Hervey Allen's most successful and widely known work.
"Green Light" follows a surgeon's destroyed career after he takes the blame for a lethal failed operation performed by his mentor. The theme guiding this novel is that despite the challenges life brings, the light will turn green for all one day. This novel was made into a 1937 film of the same name, directed by Frank Borzage and starring Errol Flynn and Anita Louise.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that later became an iconic film, "Gone with the Wind" is a story of a plantation owner's daughter and her struggles to secure her true love. It is set during the Civil War era and explores themes present in the South at the time.
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Translated into multiple languages and adapted into film, theatrical, and musical works, "The Yearling" is a story of a young boy on a farm who is refused a pet. He eventually finds an orphaned fawn that he takes in, prompting a difficult coming-of-age as he strives to maintain his new friend amid his rural surroundings.
Set during the Great Depression, this novel follows a family stuck in the Dust Bowl on a journey to California from their Oklahoma home in search of better fortune. It was adapted into a film in 1940.
This is the story of a South Wales mining family, centering on the struggles and successes of families who work in the coal mines. Published during World War II, "How Green Was My Valley" resonated with its audience as the mining industry suffered a labor shortage due to the loss of men to the war effort. The book was later adapted into a film by John Ford that earned an Oscar for Best Picture, beating out "Citizen Kane."
"The Keys of the Kingdom" is a story of a Scottish Catholic priest's struggle to build a mission in China. The novel has six parts and was adapted into a 1944 film starring Gregory Peck.
A work that spent over a year on The New York Times Best Sellers list, the novel tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes. It was adapted into a film in 1943 starring Jennifer Jones.
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"The Robe" is a historical novel about the crucifixion of Jesus based on Lloyd C. Douglas' career as a minister. He was inspired to write the story after receiving a letter from a fan asking him what he thought had happened to Jesus' clothing after he was crucified. The story was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for nearly a year and was later adapted into a film.
Banned for its lewdness and crude language, "Strange Fruit" explores the theme of interracial relationships. It takes place in Georgia in the 1920s and centers around a young white man who falls in love with a Black woman.
Set in 17th-century England, "Forever Amber" tells the story of a young woman who seeks to improve her social status by sleeping with and marrying successful and important men. Although 14 U.S. states banned it, it became a bestselling novel and sold over 3 million copies.
"The King's General" is a passionate love story that details the broken union between a young woman who falls in love with a young man who eventually becomes a soldier in the English Civil War. A well-researched novel, du Maurier strove for historical precision and accuracy in this story.
Eventually adapted into a drama film by RKO Pictures, Russell Janney's debut novel centered around a Broadway manager and a young movie star who has just passed away. The novel juxtaposes two worlds—the big city and the small American town.
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Set two decades before Jesus started prophesying, "The Big Fisherman" is centered around an arranged matrimonial alliance between a Jewish king's son and an Arab king's daughter.
This historical novel is the only Finnish novel to be adapted into a Hollywood film. The story is set in ancient Egypt, and the protagonist is a royal physician who tells the story of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
This book garnered immediate success as a bestselling novel, sold millions of copies, and was eventually published in multiple languages. Based partly on the life of Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, the novel follows the story of an American protagonist from the lower-middle class who seeks to become a cardinal of the Catholic church.
The debut novel of James Jones, "From Here to Eternity" is a story of members of a United States Army infantry company stationed in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"The Silver Chalice" is a historical novel that incorporates first-century biblical historical figures into a fictional story about how the silver chalice, holding the Holy Grail, is made. The actual archeological discovery of the silver chalice inspired it.
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First published in 1943, "The Robe" saw a resurgence in popularity in 1953 when it was adapted into a film featuring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons.
"Not As a Stranger" details the world of a young doctor who sacrifices everything for his career. The novel became a film in 1955.
"Marjorie Morningstar" is the love story of a young woman who accepts a job in New York, leaving her traditional Jewish family to become immersed in the theater world.
"Don't Go Near the Water" is a comedic war novel set in 1945 after the invasion of Iwo Jima. It details the adventures of relations officers for the United States Navy during World War II. William Brinkley was inspired by his own experiences, having served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy with public relations duties.
A novel that spans 49 hours, "By Love Possessed" is focused on the harried personal and professional life of Arthur Winner Jr., a New England lawyer. It was adapted into a film in 1961.
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First published in Italy, the book is titled after the main character, Yuri Zhivago. It is set during the Russian Revolution and Civil War and tells the story of a doctor caught between his love life and the deepening conflicts.
"Exodus" is a historical novel that retells the founding of the state of Israel through the voyages of the Exodus, a 1947 immigration ship.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that spent over 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, "Advise and Consent" centers around politics, exploring the nominee for a secretary of state who was formerly involved with the Communist Party.
"The Agony and the Ecstasy" is one of Irving Stone's most well-known biographical novels, detailing the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. It is inspired by his time in Italy as an apprentice to a marble sculptor. Stone had 495 letters from Michelangelo's correspondence translated into English, which he used as primary source material for the novel.
Eventually adapted into a film, this novel details a voyage of a group of characters on a German passenger ship sailing from Mexico to Europe.
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"The Shoes of the Fisherman" is a story that deals with breaking traditions and centers around the election of a Russian pope who was formerly a prisoner. He leads the Catholic Church in dealing with contemporary issues.
This was the first novel to earn John Le Carre critical acclaim. "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is a Cold War spy novel that details the story of a British agent sent to East Germany. It was adapted into a film and appeared on Time magazine's All-Time 100 Novels list.
"The Source" is a novel that takes readers through the history of the Jewish faith and the land of Israel. It strays from the format of other James A. Michener novels by not following a chronological order and is set in the 1960s.
"Valley of the Dolls" tells the story of three girls in show business in New York City. As they strive to make it to the top, the novel explores themes of sex and drugs. It was inspired by Jacqueline Susann's personal journey on Broadway.
A story of a clash between two groups of teenage gangs—the "greasers" and the "socs"—this story explores the murder of a soc by a greaser. The novel was later adapted for the screen and stage.
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An airport manager, pilot, stewardess, and maintenance man pull together in the face of disaster in this novel centered around a blizzard near Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago. The film adaptation was released in 1970 with a star-studded cast featuring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin.
An immediate bestselling novel after its publication, "Portnoy's Complaint" sparked controversy due to its portrayal of sexuality. The novel is structured as a single, continuous monologue by its protagonist to his therapist.
A story of two opposites that attract, "Love Story" was released on Valentine's Day and became one of the top-selling works of fiction. Erich Segal based the book partly on Al Gore's life, whom he met at Harvard University.
A novel that was adapted into a television series, "Wheels" details the automobile industry and its operations. Based on Ford Motor Company, the storylooksk at the corporate world and all of the people within it.
A personified story about a seagull trying to learn to fly, it topped The New York Times Best Sellers list for 38 weeks and was reissued in 2014.
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Based in the Weld County city of Greeley, Colorado, this novel is about the legacy of life on the frontier. It was eventually adapted into a television miniseries.
"Ragtime" details one family's interesting life in New York. The novel is set in the early 1920s and is recognized for incorporating historical figures and important ideas in American history.
A story centered around Ireland during a time of division, "Trinity" focuses on two protagonists from opposing religious backgrounds—one Catholic and one Protestant—who ultimately come together.
"The Silmarillion," developed as a sequel following the success of "The Hobbit," is a vast five-part novel that outlines the sphere in which Middle-earth and other related worlds exist. The epic novel, published posthumously by J.R.R. Tolkien's son, is renowned by hardcore Tolkien fans for its narrative history and detail that some compare to the Bible.
Centered around the forming of the Chesapeake nation that covers 400 years of regional history, "Chesapeake" takes readers through the settling of the Native Americans to Capt. John Smith's landing, the Revolutionary War, and modern Chesapeake.
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Based on the Trilateral Commission, this story is about a U.S. intelligence agent and a Soviet KGB agent investigating a group known as the Matarese.
Set in South Africa, this novel explores the mixture between five different populations and their interactions and conflicts.
Over 1,000 pages long and later adapted for a television miniseries, "Noble House" is filled with action, crime, and natural disaster. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the story explores themes of money and power with plenty of plot twists along the way.
A novelization of the famous film directed by Steven Spielberg, this science fiction story of a boy who befriends a creature from another world became a national favorite.
The bestselling novel of 1983, this science-fiction novel is based on the movie's script of the same name. It was published less than two weeks ahead of the film's release.
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"The Talisman" is a fantasy novel centered around Jack Sawyer, a young boy chosen to make a journey into another realm. This story is still considered one of the most influential fantasy works of all time.
This historical fiction novel is centered on a female protagonist who goes to the land of Mamutoi (the Mammoth Hunters). She must learn their way of life while faced with life-changing decisions of her own.
"It" is Stephen King's epic story about a murderous shape-shifting clown who terrorizes the citizens of Derry, Maine, from the depths of its sewers. The book has received several adaptations, including a '90s TV miniseries starring Tim Curry and the 2017 film interpretation "It" and its 2019 sequel, "It Chapter 2."
A science fiction novel set in Haven, Maine, "The Tommyknockers" is about residents who come under the influence of an object buried in the woods. Stephen King, a native of Maine, sets many of his stories in his home state.
Tom Clancy, known for his military-science storylines, wrote this novel as a sequel to "The Hunt for Red October" about the Strategic Defense Initiative development. Like many Clancy books, the systems in the book are based on real life.
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Protagonist Jack Ryan, featured in many of Tom Clancy's novels, is given the position of acting deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he discovers his colleagues are conducting a major discreet operation.
"The Plains of Passage" is another novel that features the character Ayla, who appears in several of Jean M. Auel's books, as she journeys west. This novel is the sequel to "The Mammoth Hunters" and follows Ayla on a long journey.
A sequel to Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," this work made The New York Times Best Seller list and was adapted into a television miniseries. It begins where "Gone with the Wind" leaves off, with Scarlett at the funeral for her former sister-in-law Melanie Wilkes.
Stephen King strays from his usual writing style with this novel with this first-person narrative. The book reads like a spoken monologue, with no breaks or double spacing. Dedicated to King's mother, the novel centers around a 65-year-old woman suspected of murdering her wealthy employer.
"The Bridges of Madison County" is a bestselling novel centered on an Italian American married woman's life. Set in the 1960s, the protagonist lives in Madison County, Iowa, where she engages in an affair with a photographer who has traveled there to photograph the city's bridges. With more than 60 million copies sold, it is widely read and was even adapted into a feature film and musical.
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"The Chamber" is a legal thriller about a young lawyer who takes on a case for a tough client facing the death penalty. Grisham was one of the decade's most popular authors, and "The Chamber" certainly helped set the tone for his next several novels.
"The Rainmaker" is another legal novel about an inexperienced lawyer facing one of the largest cases of his career. The novel was later adapted into a film, with Matt Damon playing the lead as attorney Rudy Baylor.
John Grisham's seventh novel is about a jury for a tobacco trial suspected of being controlled by someone with ulterior motives. Set in rural Mississippi, this mystery dives into a small town where corporate interests compete with a fair-and-balanced trial.
"The Partner" is a story about a law partner who fakes his own death and steals millions from his firm, only to be found years later by his disgruntled former associates.
John Grisham's ninth novel, "The Street Lawyer," is about a lawyer whose career is on the rise until his life changes after a violent encounter with a homeless person.
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This novel centers around an eccentric billionaire who—just hours before dying by suicide—rewrites his will to almost completely cut out his family. Mystery ensues as his family fights for what they feel is theirs, leading them down a path of stories unknown to them regarding their former husband and father.
"The Brethren" is a novel about a white-collar prison home to three former judges who call themselves the Brethren. The three manage an ingenious mail scam from prison until they hook an unlikely victim, leading to chaos and mystery.
The ninth book in a series, "Desecration" was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for 19 weeks and centers around the end of the world and the fate of humankind.
"The Summons" features a newly divorced law professor whose life takes a turn after he is summoned to his hometown by his dying father, who leaves a mysterious secret before passing away.
The fifth in the bestselling series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" follows Harry and his friends as they face the looming threat of Voldemort paired with the creeping influence of the Ministry of Magic at Hogwarts.
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"The Da Vinci Code" is a thriller about a Harvard professor's business trip to Paris, where he discovers hidden messages in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Later adapted into a feature film with Tom Hanks as the lead, this was the edition to become one of the bestselling series in history.
"The Broker" is a suspense novel about Joel Backman, a disgraced Washington D.C. power broker forced to hide in Bologna, Italy, after a presidential pardon places him out of jail and into the crosshairs of enemies who want his secrets. An international espionage thriller, "The Broker" takes the reader through a world of CIA agents, deception, and conspiracy.
"For One More Day" is a touching novel about protagonist Charley, who deals with losing his parents. On a night he plans to take his life, he ends up back in the house he grew up in only to find his mother (who has been dead for many years) waiting for him. Spending one last day with his deceased mother helps put a new spin on life for Charley.
The finale to the bestselling children series of all time, "Deathly Hallows" follows Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger as they prepare for a final showdown with Voldemort's army.
The novel follows two lawyers who succeed in a multi-million dollar case against a chemical company. However, the company's lawyers appeal the case, and despite the deaths caused by the company's pollution, the case's outcome is unclear.
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A follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code," "The Lost Symbol" is set in Washington D.C. among hidden chambers, tunnels, and temples as the protagonist strives to unlock the secrets of a mysterious object.
The finale of the Millennium trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" follows protagonist Lisbeth Salander as she fights for her life while potentially facing trial for three murders.
"The Litigators" is a novel about two partners who operate a small firm and take on an unexpectedly successful lawyer facing rock bottom as they all team up to tackle a large case.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" took the nation by storm, bringing erotic fiction to the mainstream. The story follows a literature student who becomes attracted to a mysterious millionaire with whom she interviews and quickly becomes entwined, introducing deep fantasies that soon become her own. The Fifty Shades franchise was adapted into three films starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in the leading roles, culminating with 2018's "Fifty Shades Freed."
Part of a series of bestselling books with over 80 million copies sold, "Hard Luck" details the protagonist's experiences in middle school after he must find new friends.
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Adapted for the screen shortly after its release, "The Fault in Our Stars" is a love story of a young girl going through chemotherapy who falls in love with a boy. Throughout the story, both learn about life and happiness while enjoying their fleeting time together.
"Go Set a Watchman" is the much-anticipated follow-up to Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," focusing on a grown-up Scout as she returns home to visit her father. Set in the civil rights era, the protagonist returns to find uncomfortable truths about her family.
"The Girl on the Train" caught the world's attention in 2016 with its first-person narrative and mysterious plot. Following the disappearance of a young woman, this emotional novel deals with relationships, trust, and the mysterious ways our lives are connected.
In the 12th book of the "Wimpy Kid" series, instead of Christmas at home this year, the protagonist's family decides to spend the holiday at a resort out of town. However, the holiday isn't as relaxing as the Heffleys expected.
"Becoming" is former first lady of the United States Michelle Obama's memoir, in which she discusses her early life and the experiences that led her to be the woman she is today. From growing up on the South Side of Chicago to arriving at the White House, Obama's memoir is described as deeply personal.
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"Where the Crawdads Sing," a novel that is at once a coming-of-age tale and murder mystery, nudged out former first lady Michelle Obama's "Becoming" for the distinction of the bestselling book of 2019. Author Delia Owens is also the co-author of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books that detail her experiences living in Africa while working as a wildlife scientist.
In 2022, upon the release of the film adaptation of "Crawdads," an explosive article in The Atlantic exposed Owens and her husband as potentially involved in their own real-life murder mystery decades earlier.
Former president Barack Obama's memoir "A Promised Land" details his life from college through the beginnings of his political career and his first four years as president of the United States. The book also gives an account of the raid of Osama bin Laden's hideout and his assassination in 2011. Intended to take a year to write, Obama's book ended up being a three-year, almost 800-page undertaking, written entirely by himself rather than a ghostwriter.
Written and illustrated by the creator of the "Captain Underpants" series, "Dog Man" is set in the same universe and features a half-dog, half-man cop. This installment of the series finds Dog Man protecting his neighborhood against forces of darkness and explores themes like acceptance and love. The book's success came amid backlash from racial justice advocates and police brutality protestors against media glorifying police.
Blending memoir-style personal anecdotes with advice for getting through difficult times, "The Light We Carry" is Michelle Obama's follow-up to her highly successful memoir "Becoming." The book details Obama's tendency toward worrying and her experiences of feeling like an outsider, both in her young adulthood and during her husband's presidency. Published during the COVID-19 pandemic, she offers tools for navigating fraught spaces and times by drawing on her own history.