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Top 10 Best Selling Books of the 1980s

Updated on May 2, 2016
Book cover for The Covenant
Book cover for The Covenant | Source

1. The Covenant - James A. Michener

James A Michener published The Covenant in the year the story in the book ends, 1980.

To say it is an epic does not really do it justice, since it begins in about 1700 BC and moves forward through the centuries to the common era, telling the story of the formation of South Africa as it progresses.

Michener, ever the great researcher does not tell the story from a single viewpoint though and we are told the story of the South African nation from the point of view of members of tribes, Afrikaans, English and actual historical figures too.

He writes at length about the Afrikaans system of Apartheid and offers two possible outcomes to the issue of apartheid in his book - he actually guessed correctly that apartheid would be resolved without bloodshed.

Warning -Violent Clip

2. The Bourne Identity - Robert Ludlum

It is difficult to believe that Robert Ludlum wrote The Bourne Identity as early as the 1980s given its more recent success on the big screen.

Jason Bourne is a retrograde amnesiac who is rediscovering himself after being found floating in the Mediterranean Sea by fisherman.

What becomes clear to the reader is that Bourne is no ordinary Joe.

Robert Ludlum's book takes the reader on a true spy adventure through the cities of Europe as he takes along an unwitting bystander who happens to get caught up in the action, but with whom Bourne falls in love.

The book investigates the roles of agents and double agents in the American secret service and the book is a page turner because the more you find out about Jason Bourne, the more committed you become to him.

It is a novel with a great storyline - espionage, counter-espionage, good cops and most certainly a few bad ones - high energy from start to finish with amazing twists and turns. A real page tuner!

Sidney Sheldon
Sidney Sheldon | Source

3. Rage of Angels - Sidney Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon almost deserves an article of his own to describe and celebrate his life as one of the most prolific writers in the United States.

As well as being an extremely successful fiction writer (the seventh most best-selling in history), he was also a writer of stage musicals, TV series and shows, plays and movie scripts.

He did not write his first novel until he was over fifty but once he started writing novels, there really was no stopping him.

Rage of Angels is one of his best loved books, melding the mafia, American politics, the law, love and romance almost seemlessly.

Jennifer Parker, an inexperienced lawyer at the District Attourney's office sets up the court case for Mafia boss, Michael Morretti only to have the case thrown out when a bribe is discovered in the case. Her career seems ruined until fellow lawyer Adam decided to support Jennifer's carrer, convinced she is innocent of any wrongdoing in the Morretti case.

In a clever parallel, Sheldon aslo has Michael Morretti fall in love with Jennifer and the two men fight for her affections as she rebuilds her stalling career in the law.

Sheldon excelled in his ability to weave several story lines together in the same novel. This gave all of his novels a rather epic feel; Rage of Angels is no exception.

Judith Krantz
Judith Krantz | Source

4. Princess Daisy - Judith Krantz

Like Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz came to fiction writing later in life and did not publish her first novel, Scruples until she was fifty years old.

Princess Daisy broke records when it was released when Krantz was paid an amazing five million dollars advance.

Judith Krantz had been a successful journalist for women's magazines before choosing to stay at home and raise her sons. She did freelance work from home and seemed satisfied with this until her husband suggested she try to write fiction because of her natural storytelling skills.

In spite of believing that she would fail, she turned out to be one of America's most popular romantic fiction authors, enjoying success with Scruples, Princess Daisy, Mistral's Daughter and I'll Take Manhattan.

Judith Krantz continues to write very good romance novels and is a born storyteller; many of her books have been adapted for television including Scruples, Princess Daisy and Mistral's Daughter.

Stephen King Interview- he's never dull!

5. Firestarter - Stephen King

Firestarter is a book which opens with a bang as the reader finds themselves literally in the midst of a crisis as a man, Andy McGee attempts to run away with his young daughter, Charlie, from the government.

Andy McGee and his wife were once part of a government drug research programme which left them both with special powers. The government are tracking down those who participated on the research project known as 'the shop'.

Government agents know that Charlie has been born with a rather startling power, pyrokenesis, the ability to start fires just with the power of her mind.

The book is set in the present moment and is very high energy, a real page turner as the reader is desperate to find out if Andy and Charlie are going to escape the clutches of The Shop's government agents.

Stephen King cleverly switches from the present to scary flashbacks where we see the development of Charlie's amazing superpower against a backdrop of personal loss and the government's obsession with capturing the child firestarter.

Stephen King always sets his stories at the perfect pace and once you pick up this book, you won't want to put it back down.

6. The Key to Rebecca - Ken Follett

Ken Follett is an author, more lately of historical epics like Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, both of which was recently adapted with great success for television.

However, his earlier novels are a hotch potch of entertaining storytelling, largely written from the viewpoint of the central protagonist. Follett is the king of pacing a novel and does so with some success on all of his early novels.

He turned to writing about espionage in 1978 with his first truly bestselling novel, Eye of The Needle and followed this with his novel, Triple in 1979 which was also a best seller.

The Key To Rebecca is the third and arguably, best of his spy novels.

It is based on the true story of German spy, Johannes Eppler who was born in Egypt, lived a rather exuberant and sensual life but was fiercely nationalistic and served Hitler as an agent during World War Two.

Follett based his lead character in The Keys To Rebecca, Alex Wolff on Eppler but with more dramatic license. The story of Eppler has also been fictionalised to a lesser or greater degree by Michael Ondaatje and Len Deighton because he did lead an extraordinary life and his biography is truly a story begging to be told.

Follett's writing is not to everybody's tastes because he can fall into rather formula driven plotting but there is no denying his skills as a story teller and even using a real life story here, he imbues Eppler's story with really exciting plotlines and builds tensions throughout the book; also making full use of the Egyptian landscapes, both urban and desert.

Belva Plain - one of the 1980s popular authors of books for women, sweeping drama made a comeback,
Belva Plain - one of the 1980s popular authors of books for women, sweeping drama made a comeback,

7. Random Winds - Belva Plain

Belva Plain writes what we might call historical novels or sagas. Usually, her novels involve immigrants finding their feet for the first time in their new home, the United States of America.

Her better known, and maybe, better loved novel, Evergreen was a best selling novel in the 1970s and it could be argued that many of its readers thereafter followed Belva Plain's writing.

Random Winds is similar to Evergreen in that it is a tale of three generations of the Farrell family, all of them, doctors.

Martin Farrell does not want to tread in his father Enoch's footsteps as a country doctor driven to his grave early by overwork but he cannot afford to work as a brain surgeon without some financial support.

He married the woman who might enable his ambition when actually, he is in love with her sister and from this action is his life decided.

Belva Plain writes on an epic scale and Random Winds is another of her 'big' books. She expertly weaves poverty and wealth, ambition and apathy, love, marriage, infidelity and death with an ease other authors must envy.

8. The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth

Frederick Forsyth's The Devil's Alternative started life a screenplay, The Alternative, which never made it to the screen. Frederick Forsyth knew he had a good story and rewrote it as a novel.

It melds espionage with cold war sensibilities and includes the dissident Ukranians, Americans, Russians and Europeans all trying to muscle in on a Russian shortage of wheat.

It is incredible to think that something as dull as a failed harvest could cause such tumult but Forsyth is the king of pace and also a master of building national tensions against a backdrop of political intrigue as the Americans and Europeans appear to be being outflanked by a Russian government prepared to invade European countries and take the wheat for free.

The novel features fictional representations of Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance.

Larry Collins
Larry Collins | Source

9. The Fifth Horseman - Larry Collins/Dominique Lapierre

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote novels together, most of which were political thrillers.

The plot of The Fifth Horseman is probably more accepted now, post 9/11 than it was at the time it was written.

It is the story of a Libyan brothers, Kamal and Whalid who are determined to avenge their father losing his home on the west bank.

Kamal travels to New York on a freighter with a nuclear weapon and threatens to destroy the city in a nuclear explosion.

Immediately, the U.S. government becomes involved in this potential strike on their most important city.

Forsyth merges the middle east crisis with western sensibilities of the real picture in Libya, Israel and elsewhere and balances this with what is essentially a family story.

Soon, America's president is called in and takes advice from his defence chiefs about what action is required.

The book caused such a stir in France that their sale of nuclear reactors (for peaceful purposes) to Libya was cancelled and the French edition of the novel is also edited to not cause any political damage - France clearly felt that Libya was a threat at the time, though this was only a work of fiction.

The novelists when pressed about the story line said that it was their imaginative take on the threat of international terrorists to cause harm in the west - they believes it could happen!

10. The Spike - de Borchgrave/Moss

The Spike is another of the 1980s novels centred on the unstable political background of the Cold War.

It is the story of journalist, Bob Hockney whose investigations uncover a plot by the wily Russians for world domination within the 1980s decade.

Underpinning Hockney's discovery and further investigation is the Russians manipulation of the western press, more interested in uncovering traitors and spies in its own country than any direct confrontation with the Russians.

'The Spike' refers to the suppressing of the press and the implications of what might happen if the real stories, like Hockney's chance discovery were never brought to light and shared in the national press.

Shelley Winters
Shelley Winters | Source

Non Fiction

Shelley Winter's autobiography, Shelley, provided one of the most amusing and entertaining non-fiction books of the 1980s as she charted her climb from Hollywood blonde bombshell to well-respected and award-winning actress.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos enjoyed success which was also transferred to a hugely successful and still impressive TV show.

Gay Talese's book, Thy Neighbor's Wife was a look at 1950s sexual behaviour and the generation of free love which followed. Talese, more famous as a sports journalist, thereafter took on trickier assignments; this one is one of his most well known.

1. Crisis Investing..., - D.R. Casey
2. Cosmos - Carl Sagan
3. Free to Choose - Milton & Rose Friedman
4. Anatomy of an Illness - Norman Cousins
5. Thy Neighbor's Wife - Gay Talese
6. The Sky's the Limit - Dr. Wayne Dyer
7. The Third Wave - Alvin Toffler
8. Craig Claiborne's Gourmet Diet
9. Nothing Down - Robert Allen
10. Shelley - Shelley Winters


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    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Dianna, many thanks for reading - nothing like a good thriller!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I love the Bourne Identity movie series, I just may have to read the book. Thanks for the list of memoral literature of this era.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Mary, once again, many thanks for your continuing support :o) I love Stephen King, such an interesting and amusing bloke and he's a Red Sox fan so also an eternal optimist!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Great, great list and hub. I can't believe I missed this! Michener, Sheldon, King...what more could one ask for. I have to say the video you picked is hilarious and I loved watching it.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Pamela, many thanks for your comment - glad you enjoyed it. The list certainly jogged my memory.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Maria, the 80s was a favourite decade of mine, I loved the books, the clothes, the hairstyles (some of the time) and the partying - I was in my twenties for most of it so it was fun! Loved Scruples and Princess Daisy but Sidney Sheldon was my favourite.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I read several of these books also. I've always loved to read. This brought back memeories. Thanks.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 

      6 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Dear Jools,

      Wow, this list is quite unfamiliar to me...I was in my thirties and totally over involved in work.

      I need to include this comprehensive, well-researched list on my reading that I am not so over involved in that work thing...

      Excellent and thanks! Voted UP and UABI. Hugs, Maria

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Ha Ha, me too Deb - we are the same age (ish) - I read those two and raved about both to my workmates. I wonder what I would make of Rage of Angels now; I worshipped Sidney Sheldon back then. You've piqued my interest in re-reading it now. And yes, let us both write our novels in our 50s (I only have another 6 weeks to wait) :o(

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      6 years ago from Iowa

      As a teen in the 80s, I read many of these books. My two favorites then, which are still on my bookshelf today, are Rage of Angels and Princess Daisy. I reread Rage of Angels not too long ago and it wasn't quite as good as I remembered. Perhaps my tastes have become more literary. But seeing that Sheldon and Krantz did not publish their first novels until in their 50s gives me hope for my own novel!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Bill, shame you missed some of the 80s - I was only 17 at the start of the decade but did some of my partying then too - I know you were not partying though - I read quite a few of these; loved Sidney Sheldon and read all of his books. Reading is still such a buzz for me; nothing like getting into a great book and I just love to talk about books I'm reading - this has been a real treat!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      6 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Ahhhhhh..... Thanks for clearing that up. I thought "wow! this guy is one multi-talented individual! Still a great book choice.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      How very interesting. I was looking at this list and realizing that I only read two books on it, and then it came to me that this was my "drinking decade".....then it made sense. I didn't have time to read; much too busy blotting out my life. :) I have some catching up to do.

      Great series. Your focus is clear and your voice loud...I love this series.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      shiningirisheyes, firstly apologies for my gaff - I had the wrong Graham Greene photo on my 1970s hub - hence your comment about Dances With Wolves which then made me realise that I had chosen the wrong Graham Greene (that's what I get for not using the Wikipedia photo). I have not read many Stephen King novels I'm ashamed to say (my hubby has read them all, some of them 2 or 3 times) but I am reading his book 'On Writing' at the moment, deluding myself that I might be able to write an e-book....or any book really! I loved Rage of Angels and have read a few Sid Sheldon novels, he's an amazing storyteller.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      6 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Another fine pick list! I am a devoted and avid reader. I just can not get enough of the activity. Everything fromt he inner excitement when beginning a new read to the smell of the pages. Love, love, love it. Saying this, my taste ranges from history, bio, thriller, name it, I enjoy it.

      From the looks of variety in this list, you enjoy many genres as well. Some outstanding picks here: Rage of Angels - GREAT READ, The Bourne Identity - book is always better than the movie, but this is an exception. I was pleasantly surprised as I also enjoyed the movie (just not as much as reading the book). And my all-time favorite author - Stephen King, Firestarter.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Carol, many thanks for resading. I think the 80s was the first decade that I really started to get more interested in books - I remember seeing Scruples on TV and also reading Princess Daisy, I loved all that fluff back then :o)

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      HendrikDB, I recently watched World Without End which I really enjoyed and before that I read Pillars of The Earth which I could not put down, though I do find some of his writing rather formulaic; no denying his talents a storyteller though. He's also a really nice bloke. I have seen him interviewed loads of time and he is very entertaining and really interesting. Many thanks for your comment.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      I read many of these and when a book is great it is always great. Enjoyed reading this a lot.

    • HendrikDB profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks! My favorite under your list is Ken Follet.


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