WSIRN Ep 168: A century of good books (in a single year)

Today’s guest Tara Nichols is giving herself an eagle-eye view of the last century’s literary landscape. Her mission — which she’s been planning for QUITE a while — is to read one book published each year between 1920 and 2019. The challenge brings with it a lot of important questions… what is worth her time? Is it better to read the big important book from a given year, or the title she thinks she’ll enjoy most? And the  question she’s hoping to answer after the year is over… has literature changed in all this time?We’re discussing all those things and MORE, before getting to my challenge. I’m pitching 3 books worthy of adding to her lineup, including a book that is considered by some to be “the best mystery story ever written.”


Are you ready? Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #168: A century of good books (in a single year) with Tara Nichols

You can follow Tara Nichols’s reading challenge this year on Instagram and Goodreads.


Books mentioned in this episode:
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If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

• Author Judy Blume (try Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret)
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morten
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament, by Aubrey Sampson
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie
O Pioneers, by Willa Cather
My Antonia, by Willa Cather
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, by Winifred Watson
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
Native Son, by Richard Wright
How to Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer J. Adler
The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey


What books do YOU think Tara should include in her year of reading historically? Tell us in the comments!


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  1. Laura says:

    Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers was written in 1930 if you want another option! She wrote a mystery series through the 1920s-30s starring Lord Peter Wimsey.

    • Laura says:

      Also, I’m totally with you on Dickens! He’s always a favorite for sure, because of the way he incorporates humor into heavy situations. David Copperfield (especially the audio version narrated by Richard Armitage) is probably at the top for me, but I haven’t read them all.

    • Tara Nichols says:

      I’ve never read Sayers, but I’ve got Gaudy Night on my list for 1935 and I’m looking forward to finally reading her.

        • Keren says:

          First of all, this is such a cool idea -I am super inspired to try it myself. Though maybe next year so I can do my own lists and research (lists are THE BEST).
          I am also seconding Dorothy Sayers/Gaudy Night! One of my favorite mysteries, and I love her writing so much. Lord Peter Wimsey is one of my favorite detectives and I can’t say enough good things about Harriet Vane.
          And agreed re: Dickens. I can’t believe no one else has mentioned him as a favorite!

  2. Jessica says:

    I was wondering if you can link a website where I can find the lists that you mention in the podcast. I think Tara said she used a goodreads list?

  3. Donna H. says:

    What a fun episode! I love book projects (I’m currently reading books set in each state) and I agree that the planning and picking of books is half the fun. You mentioned not having a great pick for 1986-I’d suggest looking at Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson.

  4. Christine says:

    I’m so excited to listen to this episode today as I’m doing the same challenge! I actually saw the idea for this first on Litsy (a Litsy member named @Marchpane was the person I saw who originated the idea but there are others there who are doing this challenge now too). She started in 2017; I saw her posts about it and started my challenge in October of 2017. I intend to finish the challenge by the end of 2019, so that’s a bit different from how Tara is doing hers. I liked the idea of spreading it out over a couple of years. Like Tara, I research titles to fit each year, keeping an ongoing list of options. I also read out of order as the mood strikes, and I look at every book I read just in case it fits a year that I haven’t read yet! I’ve read so many different books/authors during this challenge that I might not have otherwise read. I’m trying to not read too many books by the same author (although I’m reading a bunch of L.M. Montgomery books this year and might just have to include several of those), and I allow myself to include books for the challenge that are re-reads for me as long as I first read them many years ago (usually ones I read in school or as a very young adult and don’t remember much at all). I have posted pics in my Instagram story highlights of my book journal pages where I’m keeping track of this challenge (@christineandbooks) in case anyone is interested in seeing it. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve recommended to Tara and what other suggestions she gets from listeners. Thanks for sharing this, Anne and Tara! Oh, and Anne, my 1922 book (read last year) was our March MMD book club pick, The Enchanted April. 🙂

  5. Diana says:

    I did enjoy the Miss Pettigrew book BUT I would argue that it’s one of those rare times the movie is better. But I had also seen the movie many times before reading the book so there is that.

  6. Kris VanEarwage says:

    Loved this episode and this unique reading challenge!! I may have to be a copycat for next year’s reading challenge.?

  7. Clare says:

    I loved this episode! What a fun reading challenge, and great recommendations for the early decades. I received a Nancy Drew book as a gift when I was about 10 (20 years ago) and I LOVED it. I found it interesting that there were many mysteries recommended. Like the interviewee, I do not like really scary things, and I therefor lived Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve also owned Willa Cather’s My Antonia for ~ 20 years and finally read it in 2018- Oh, Pioneers is up on by TBR! I will follow along with Tara as she completes this challenge!

  8. Emily says:

    Wow! Fantastic podcast! Loved this idea and may try it next year. I will love to follow your guest to see which books she ultimately reads in 19.

  9. Alyse says:

    If you like Willa Cather her book The Professor’s House is spectacular and was originally published in 1925. I read it over 5 years ago and I still think about ho beautifully she described the New Mexico landscape.

    • Tara Nichols says:

      I’m a little nervous about my 1925 pick (An American Tragedy), so if it doesn’t work out for me, I’ll definitely check out that one. I’ve only read two Willa Cather books, but I loved both of them.

      • Michelle says:

        Dreiser is so good – I hope you love An American Tragedy. Although he loves tragedies, his set up and delivery is perfection.

  10. Margie says:

    For your difficult years, have you considered looking at the Newbery Award winners and dipping a toe into books for younger readers? I agree that I might not want to add the Babysitter’s Club, but Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery in 1986 and is a great book. They started handing out the award in 1922 so it covers almost every year. 1975 was M.C. Higgins the Great which is another fantastic book.

    • Tara Nichols says:

      This is a great idea. I do have a few middle grade novels on my list, but I hadn’t thought to use the Newbery list for the years I’m struggling with. Thank you!

  11. Margie says:

    Anne, the fact that you have a spreadsheet of everything you recommended was so intriguing. I love infographics and excel spreadsheets. If you ever want help digging some statistics out of your spreadsheet for an anniversary show, let me know! I’d love to help.

  12. Felicity says:

    I love this idea. I think I will try this with a modification. I turn 60 this year so I think I’ll read 60 books, one for each year since I was born. I tend to read a lot of new books so this will have me expanding my horizons and catching up books that I have been meaning to read.

    • AnnikaHelena says:

      Thank you Felicity for a great idea for a modification! I will turn 50 this year, so I will try my own version of your list. I live in northern Europe, but tend to mostly read literature from other parts of the world (except for some nordic crime fiction – of which there is a LOT), so I´m thinking of finding some none-crimerelated nordic fiction for my booklist.
      I also would like to agree with Tara on ´The Heart´s Invisible Furies´; I wasn´t sure I would like the book when I picked it up from the library on the librarian´s suggestion, but I enjoyed every page of it, mostly because of the language and style of writing. English is not my first language, so I am naturally not the best judge, but this seemed to me as exceptionally well written.
      Thank you Anne and Tara for a great episode!

  13. Mariandrea says:

    I loved the idea of this challenge…I will look into putting together a reading list to try this challenge, but over the span of two years. The timing of this episode coincided with the arrival of an update to my ancestry report, so I am going to look for stories and settings inspired by my ancestry report. Thank you for the inspiration!

  14. Loved this episode! What a fun challenge! If you are interested in more Christie, read And Then There Were None…it’s my favorite of hers, and she’s one of my very faves!! I can’t wait to follow your progress, good luck!

    • Christine says:

      Thanks so much for this link! Not sure if you saw my above comment, but I’m also working on a challenge like this and still have a couple of years that I’m not sure about. This might help!

  15. Valerie says:

    I’m so glad to hear someone else loves Dickens! A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books of all time. I read Oliver Twist as a preteen and even then really enjoyed it. He’s been on the hated list on this show a few times (I believe) so good to hear the opposite! The only thing of his I’ve read that didn’t wow me was The Cricket on the Hearth.

    Good luck with your reading challenge – I love the idea!

  16. Stacey says:

    I also love Dickens (or, at least, the two I’ve read – David Copperfield, and especially, Bleak House). I LOVED Atonement (I definitely fall on the positive side of the polarized opinions on the ending) when I read it in 2001 and for many years cited it as my favorite book – hope you enjoy it too! Looking forward to following your project on IG this year.

    • Rebekah in SoCal says:

      I just finished David Copperfield and thought it was very impressive. I didn’t like Dickens as a teen but my reading tastes have changed so much over the years that I decided to give him another chance in 2019. Next up is Bleak House.

  17. Elise says:

    This episode was lots of fun! I also love A Tale of Two Cities – it’s one of my favorites as well. I’ve read it twice, and I’ve read A Christmas Carol about a dozen times. I keep wanting to read more Dickens. Any recommendations as to where to go next?

    • Jessica Lange says:

      I haven’t yet read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, but I read A Christmas Carol this past Christmas. The book I bought also included some other Dickens stories related to Christmas/New Year. I thought ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ was really good. Pretty short too. I also really enjoyed ‘Great Expectations’.

  18. Tara, Finally someone from Arizona on the podcast! I loved A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school. It ignited my love of classic British literature. I’m not big on graphic violence either, but if you’re willing to branch out into British mysteries, the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters is fantastic and not graphic at all. Plus, you get a history lesson of the Civil War that took place between the Empress Maud and her cousin King Steven during the 1140s, along with the crime solving. Brother Cadfael is a world wise Benedictine monk, who fought in the first Crusade, is the herbalist of his monastery the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England not far from the Welsh border. Cadfael is Welsh, very intelligent, but compassionate with most of the people who commit the crimes. I love this character! There are 21 books in the series, but the first one, A Morbid Taste for Bones, was published in 1977. You might want to try this series next year. I just finished it and am ready to go back and read each book all over again.

    I hope we get to hear how your project progresses. It sounds fun. I love reading classic books.

    • Karen in AZ says:

      My husband and I love this series, too. We watched the BBC series on PBS back when it came out, but are loving the books. They’ve been put on sale over the last couple of years, one book at a time…

  19. Kari Sweeney says:

    Tara- I found my daughter’s name in an Apple paperback that I read in 5th or 6th grade. The book was called ‘Just a Little Bit Lost’ by Laurel Trivelpiece. She had a female character named Bennet after Elizabeth Bennet. This led me to P&P. My oldest daughter is named Bennet in part due to that Apple paperback.

    • Laura says:

      I used to read apple paperbacks in elementary too! Not always memorable, but they kept me reading anyway. (The War with Grandpa is one I recall)

      • Karen says:

        I remember the Apple paperbacks, too! I collected them for a while. I specifically remember one called “Leader” or “Leader of the Pack” or something. It was about a blind boy. And then there were the Golden Apple paperbacks that were clasics. “Five Ppers and How They Grew” was one I had. Great memories!

  20. Kate says:

    Yay, Dickens! I was also not in love with The Pillars of the Earth–I was sick in bed when I read it so it was adequate entertainment. A series with a very similar theme that I enjoyed much more is The Heaven Tree trilogy by Edith Pargeter.

  21. Christie Kline says:

    Anne, I really liked the Warmth of Other Suns on audio-book! I know you’ve just gotten it from the library, but if you’re having a hard time picking up this doorstop, try the audio-book! I loved it.

    Tara, I hope you’re considering True Grit (1968). I recommend it as a little light. Weirdly, it is dark, but Mattie is such a fabulous narrator and she is quirky and (I wish there were a better word) spunky. You don’t like violence, but this is old school violence. It’s not so technicolor as writers manage these days.

  22. Michelle says:

    Such a fun project. I’ve looked through your list, and many of my favorites are there.
    Since it sounds like the list might be flexible, I have two additional suggestions 1949 – I Capture athe Castle and 2000 – The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. I loved the latter, although Esperanza Rising is a more global choice. I didn’t see many coming of age novels, this I Capture the Castle. It’s such a charming book. It would be a great palate cleanser after something serious or dreary.

  23. Shane says:

    At Dickens and the love of lists, I thought oh this may be a kindred spirit but then the verdict on Pillars of the Earth which is one of my absolute favorites. I am quite inspired to do something similar but I would definitely want to go in order. I’m also tempted to try and do it with only women or minority authors. Wonderful episode!

    • Margie says:

      Tara said that she wanted to see what she learned about the changes in literature over the 100 years. I think this would be even more fascinating if you did this with minority/female authors. If you do tackle the project (or even start the list) let me know where I can follow along!

      • Shane Nordyke says:

        Margie, It looks like it will take some time to build the list. I have started though and so far finished 1919 to 1936 and have found lots of books that I’m really interested in reading. I hadn’t thought of publicly sharing, I’m not a blogger or anything, but it would be great to have others to talk to about it as I go along. Do you think a Facebook group would work well for this?

  24. Bill says:

    What a great episode! I love it when the books mentioned are exactly what I’ve been reading lately. “A Tale of Two Cities” was my final read of 2018 and I also read “Great Expectations” in ’18. “As I lay Dying” was my final read of 2017 AND my first read of 2018! I thought it was so amazing that I just started it from the beginning again and read it a second time through to try and get everything I could out of it while it was all fresh in my mind. My daughter and I read it at the same time which is something we occasionally do, but she’s a high school English teacher and has a 6-year-old, so doesn’t have as much free time as I do. I chose “As I Lay Dying” because it was relatively short and she’d have time to finish it. I had never read Faulkner before and had no idea what it would be like, and it just blew me away. Haven’t read another Faulkner yet but I have “Light in August” and “The Sound and the Fury” on my TBR shelf. I also have “Atonement” on my TBR shelf. If only I didn’t already have 6 or 7 books stacked on my reading table. Guess I better get reading. Thanks for the wonderful episode. Lots of interesting suggestions to investigate.

  25. Aileen Pelkey says:

    I don’t know if you can count this as your 1949 (it was first published in 1948, but the first British edition was 1949), but I ADORE the book I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (author of The Hundred and One Dalmations, 1956).
    Good luck with your project! It sounds wonderful 🙂

  26. Jeanine says:

    Tara–I absolutely LOVE this idea for your 2019 reading challenge! I enjoyed your episode so much and related to a lot of your picks. I was listening to it at work (I work at our public library in the ordering department) and had JUST told my coworker to read The Heart’s Invisible Furies and then you named it as one of your favorites! I turned around and told her that it was confirmation she needed to read it. Haha. Such an amazing book–everything about it. I actually have Cyril has a boy’s name picked for if I have a son because I loved that character so much. Thanks so much for sharing your reading life with us!

  27. Abigail M. says:

    Very enjoyable episode! I have to start listening closer to real time, so my comments are more relevant, but I love saving them to listen to on a long run. Sometimes that’s the only thing getting me out the door.

    Anne’s comments on Nancy Drew were interesting. I will have to check out the edgier Nancy Drew. I assume she still had titian-colored hair. I really hadn’t realized they were written starting in 1930. I read them as a child in the late seventies, and they didn’t seem particularly dated. Another example of what I think about all the time; the world changed slowly for most of my life and now it changes at warp speed.

    I will recommend Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries if you need to fill in for a year. They were written from 1934 to 1975, are quick and readable, and don’t have graphic violence or language. I particularly like them because I like New York in the past stories, and I am also I enjoy seeing how women and their roles in the world were portrayed in books that are not about that. Nero Wolfe famously does not enjoy interacting with women, but he also does not enjoy much of anything outside of his house. (It works, you’d have to read the books.)

  28. Sue says:

    Tara, congratulations on your wonderful personal challenge! 1986 brought my favorite novel, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. YES It is dark and disturbing, but also darn funny and sooo romantic! If you are still not convinced, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a great adventure/survival tale by a good author. Good luck!

  29. Sue says:

    Also…forgive me…rather than reading 2 books by Maya Angelo please consider Centennial by Michener.(1974) So wonderful!!!!!

  30. Cheryl Leary says:

    Tara said that had trouble with 1986. I highly recommend “Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold” by Terry Brooks from that year. It is excellent. Light and fun and moves along quickly. A modern day attorney finds himself stuck owning an actual magic kingdom.

  31. Suzanne Plambeck says:

    I love this idea, so I decided to combine the concept from episode 158 (reading the books you already own) with this one. I have compiled my list of 100 books first by going through my bookshelves and fitting them into the corresponding years. Any gaps required a search for best books from that particular year, and I have selected all 100 books! I will have to find about 35 titles to fill in for the years I did not already own a book, and I did duplicate authors as I had many books on my shelves by the same author (e.g. M.F.K. Fisher). I now have a plan for all those classics I’ve never read but have been sitting on my shelf (Lolita, The Good Earth, Old Yeller, and The Gangs of New York) as well as titles by authors I had never heard of (The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, Hiroshima by John Hersey, and The Fox by D.H. Lawerence). Thank you for the inspiration!

  32. Karen in AZ says:

    For Age of Innocence – Heather Ordover has/had a podcast that has older books. There are sections, but each has a timestamp so you can fast forward through what you don’t want to listen to: Craft Talk/Family; Book Talk (explaining any terms, words, political background needed to get the story); 1-3 chapter series of the book (in audio); and The Flip Side (“Well, that was interesting!” Or discussion of the chapters).
    Age of Innocence is read by Brenda Dayne (who is well known in the knitterly world and had one of the very first knitting podcasts), but I will say the recording is not the same quality as her beautiful voice on the podcasts!
    Since it’s a podcast, you can go back and download the whole book and listen to it.

    • Karen in AZ says:

      I’ve listened to Gulliver’s Travels (amazing!), Jane Eyre, Age of Innocence, North & South, Sense & Sensibilty, Herland, & Anne of Green Gables.
      The Count of Monte Cristo was the one I just couldn’t get interested in.

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