Books That Shaped an Era

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Soseki Natsume
Japan has produced many literary "schools" this century, but Natsume was a school unto himself. His early works were humorous, his late ones heavy with life's pain. In between were two trilogies, concluding with Kokoro (The Heart, 1914), his best-known novel. Contemporary Ogai Mori is considered his artistic equal, but Natsume's popularity got him on the country's 10,000 yen bill, where he remains today.

Nhat Linh
This 1935 novel created a modern prose style for Vietnam--it is still widely read today--while also powerfully challenging the country's Confucian social traditions. Nhat Linh abandoned writing for politics with tragic results. Arrested for involvement in an alleged coup in 1963, he drank down a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch laced with poison.

Mao Zedong
No other book has had such a profound impact on so many people at the same time. Quotations was compiled at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Not only did it purport to explain Mao's doctrines: if you read it enough, it was supposed to change your brain. Hundreds of millions tried, and the crimes justified by its verses ended only after the Chairman died and his Cultural Revolution collapsed.

Salman Rushdie
This 1981 allegory, a jazzy blend of English and Indian vernaculars, gave a voice to an entire generation of novelists. Many were just mimics, and Rushdie is still under a death threat from radical Muslims for a later book. But writers in South Asia are enjoying another Rushdie legacy: huge advances from publishers looking for the next big India novel.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
A saga of the first stirrings of Indonesian nationalism, this four-volume work of fiction was created in a penal colony on Buru island. But Pramoedya, a political prisoner denied paper and pen, couldn't write it down until his 1979 release from more than a decade in jail. President Suharto then imposed a ban--still in effect today--on Pramoedya's entire oeuvre.