Thirty Books That Changed the World
BOOKS THAT HAVE SHAPED OUR THINKING
30 Important books
Books don't so much change the world physically as alter our perceptions of it. For the most part, great literature does this and does it for our own good. There have been and always will be exceptions. Holy books do, undeniably, touch our world view. It doesn't matter if we believe in them or not. It is enough that a lot of people we are close to do and act accordingly or, at any rate, claim to act accordingly. Books based on real science also have touched our lives. Some come with warnings yet to be heeded.
There are books that call for rational thinking and there are also books, such as Mein Kampf, that call for the complete opposite. Not all the books listed here are necessarily good for you or for anyone. This does not mean, however, that they haven't connected with humanity in profound ways and continue to do so. Only thirty mentioned here. There are more out there.
1. The Bible
I won't try to put an age on the contents. Suffice to say that the Old Testament seems to have been put together while the Hebrews were in exile and what we refer to as the New Testament was put together in Roman times.
If the Bible is not the most widely published book in existence then it must at least be up there with the top ten. Not many of its authors come to us with biographies. The gospels attributed to the disciples were actually written up to 90 years after the events and therefore cannot be first hand accounts but what has been passed down by earlier Christians. There are elements of Paganism and Judaism in the work. There are also gospels conspicuous by their absence.
Even so, the Bible has inspired millions, possibly billions of people over the centuries. Some, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Francis of Assisi, tried to use the Bible to point the way to a better, more peaceful and loving world. During the Crusades the Bible became a reason for conquest and much bloodshed. In Martin Luther's time, thanks to the printing press, the Bible came to stand for freedom of thought and a new way of viewing what was by then an old religion. Today the Bible stands as a dynamic force for good and also for the reverse.
2. The Talmud
It is difficult to put into world the importance of these writings except to say they have been the moral compass of the Judaic-Christian world with the emphasis on the Judaic. Attempts have been made to put down or to simply destroy The Talmud but without success.
3. The Koran
Much of the world is Muslim and the Muslim faith, together with the Koran, is likely to continue to spread in the 21st Century. There are connections that can be made with Judaism and Christianity. Jesus, for example, is considered an important figure in the Koran but not as important as he is in the Bible.
4. Mein Kampf (Volume 1, 1925. Volume 2, 1926) by Adolf Hitler
In this book Hitler outlines his future plans for Germany. His hatred for the Jews and other so-called inferior races is well represented here. His views on communism and communist countries is also established. If Stalin had paid closer attention to the words in Mein Kampf he might have been just a tad bit more wary of Hitler and his ambitions when it came to Russia. Though in the book Hitler does not see the Jews as a solid race but as a religious body he, in effect, turns them into a race through acts of discrimination and finally murder. How Hitler, in the end, defines a Jew really does bring up aspects of race rather than religion. If, for example, you say you are a Christian because you practice the Christian faith you can still be considered a Jew if your father or his father was of the Jewish faith.
It is difficult to say how many people have been harmed by Mein Kampf or, for that matter, how many people have actually read it. Certainly it is an extremely hard book to read as is is full of contradictions. It is, however, a book historians should have access to since it explains much about Adolf Hitler, his views and his rise to power. On the negative side it has inspired Nazis and, after World war 2, Neo-Nazis.
During the 2nd World War a London book shop owner wrote a letter of praise for his copies of Mein Kampf. They didn't sell all that well, he had to admit, but they were thick and heavy enough to line his roof and give him some protection against the Blitz.
5. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (first published 1532)
This is a non-fiction blue print for success in the courts of the 16th Century. It is also a book that has remained in print and has influenced many people over the centuries. It is a philosophical work with rather dark aspects. The term Old Nick for the devil comes from the English attitude toward The Prince and its author.
6. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
This 19th century effort rocked the scientific world of the 19th Century and sent shock waves through some Christian theologians. Charles Darwin was amazed by the diversity of life to be found and so sought the reasons for such diversity. Was it all by chance or were there common factors? Was change a factor? Naturalist to this day owe much to Darwin's work. The need to understand our planet better came out of the writings of such men as the author of Origin of the Species. Exploration of nature got a shot in the arm by Darwin and continues to be an important area of study. It is impossible to judge the importance of this book as its influence continues to play an important role in saving our blue planet. If humans continue to inhabit this planet going into the 22nd Century and beyond it will be, in part, Darwin's doing.
7. Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966)
This is not the first novel to deal with human overpopulation but, so far, it has been the most influential. It has spawned a movie, Soylent Green. As we see more and more signs of stress on the planet due to increases in world population we can be assured that we were warned en masse way back in the swinging '60s.
8. The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)
This is the study of humans from a zoologist's point of view. It was never meant to be controversial. when it first came out Morris found himself not only defending his own book but the earlier work, The origin of the species by Charles Darwin. If nothing else Morris got people to think of themselves as very intelligent animals but animals nonetheless. Humans being referred to as the sexiest of primates didn't hurt sales.
9. The Population Bomb by Paul R, Ehrlich (1968)
This book warned of mass starvation in the future due to overpopulation. The only mistake made by Ehrlich was that he underestimated the ingenuity of humans and so predicted the catastrophe would occur soon after the book was published. It is, however, likely to be a 21st Century catastrophe.
10. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (written in the 14th century, first printed in 1483)
This is the story of a group of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. To pass the time all of the characters tell a tale. Some of the tales are ribald in nature, others are of a noble slant and still others provide moral guidance. This book shows the written English language at a time when it was just beginning to flower. Within this mighty work are snap-shots of medieval life and thought. It bridges the gap between the way Western society is now and the way it once was.
11. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (completed in 1353)
This mighty work of a hundred stories illustrates the flowering of the written Italian language in the 14th Century. Like The Canterbury tales, there are stories that are rather naughty and stories that seek to be a moral guide. The naughty stories, including the ones involving nuns and monks getting up to mischief, show a somewhat lack of regard for the Church.
12. THE TAO TE CHING by Lao Tzu (Circa 6th Century BC)
This work of Chinese origin has had great influence in the Asian part of our world and some influence in the West as well. It is full of mystical ideas meant to get the reader to feel and to experience rather than to just think. Among other things, it is a looking back to a golden age that probably never existed.
13. The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Circa 6th Century BC)
This is the oldest and most successful books ever written on military strategy. It has been a great influence on Eastern society and, from the 18th Century onwards, came to influence western thinking as well. It has inspired great leaders such as Napoleon and General Douglas MacArthur.
14. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
Hitler did not care much for this novel. He viewed it as defeatist. It was burned and banned in Nazi Germany. It was written by a man who had experienced the First World War first hand and didn't like what he had experienced. It is a very good anti-war novel. if not the first to grace the 20th Century, certainly one of the best to ever be written. Told from a German soldier's perspective, it shows the hopes of the ordinary German when the war began and how those hopes came to be dashed.
15. Das Kapital by Carl Marx (1867)
This book, Das Kapital, a critical analysis of capitalism, together with his earlier work, The Communist Manifesto (1848) have made the 20th Century and, at least the beginnings of the 21st Century, a time of great social and scientific change. It should be noted that the uprising against the 'capitalist exploiters' Carl Marx thought would happen in England in the 19th Century never occurred and that Marx's ideas concerning Communism have never been put into operation as envisioned by Marx. Nevertheless, a form of communism came to be seen as a threat to the German industrialist after the First world War and so these industrialists came to support the Nazis as the alternative political movement. After the 2nd World War the rise of Russian and Chinese style communist came to threaten the West which gave rise to the Cold War. Thanks to the Cold War, the race to the moon between Russia and the USA came into effect when the Russians launched their artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 into space to circle the earth. If not for fear of communism a man might not have landed on the moon. On the other hand, if not for fear of communism, the USA and Australia might never have gotten so involved in the Vietnam War.
16. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
This may well be the first true novel to be published in English. Past writings relied on poetic devices so that lines could be more readily recalled. This book about a shipwrecked sailor shows faith in a large public able to read on their own without the need for someone to do it for them.
17. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
This meandering novel illustrates American literature coming of age. It is the tale of a young boy from a rough background and a runaway slave traveling along the Mississippi in search of freedom. Twain once denied that this work carried an anti-slavery message saying, instead, that it was merely an adventure yarn. Quite frankly I believe his tongue was firmly in his cheek at the time. Nevertheless this book was banned in the south despite the fact that the American Civil war had been over for some time.
18. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (First volume 1605, 2nd volume 1615)
This is a must read novel for anyone wishing to understand Western literature and its development. It is about a retired country gentleman who comes to believe that he is a knight on a quest. It is about madness and friendship that defies the odds. It is possibly the firs psychological novel in a European language. The first volume is the most quoted of the two volumes but the 2nd volume comes across as the more polished and thence the more readable and enjoyable. Spain the way it was in Cervantes' time and the way the knight of the sorrowful countenance would have it, are both brought to dynamic life. It should also be noted that in the 2nd book the would-be knight's companion, Sancho Panza, comes to really want the quest to be for real.
19. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
This massive novel takes the reader from a time of peace in Russia right through the war between Russia and France. It was one of the first novels to come out of Russia to capture the imagination of more Western nations. It gives a view of the richness and the folly of Russian society in the 19th century.
20. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller ( 1961)
Set in World War 2, Catch-22 has got to be the strangest and yet one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written. Who could forget characters like Major Major Major Major who is out when he is in and in when he is out? How about a chaplain in search of an angel or a pilot who continually crashes his plane into the sea because it is part of his plan to get out of the war?
21. La Planete des Singes (known to Americans as The Planet of the Apes) by Pierre Boulle (1963)
This is French science fiction at its best and is a commentary on humanity and where we are headed. It has spawned numerous novels, comic books and motion pictures.
22. Gray's Anatomy by Henry Gray (First published 1854)
This text on the human body has been re-edited and re-issued continuously with new information ever since it first saw the light of day. It is in its 40th edition (2008). It is to this day considered the most authoritative text on the human condition and has been useful to countless students in Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It has saved lives.
23. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1888 in book form)
This is the first story to feature the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Written from the point of view of Holmes' companion, Doctor Watson, it outlines in no uncertain terms the character of Holmes. It bring to light Doyle's and naturally Holme's ideas on deductive reasoning.There have been many offshoots of Sherlock Holmes including Agatha Christie's detectives who also use deductive reasoning to solve crimes.
24. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
This is a lovely send up of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. It is also full of commentary on the 20th Century and this commentary is delivered in such absurd ways one can't help but smile knowingly at certain passages and laughing outright at others. Like his other disc world novel, it has a lot to say about the times in which the author is living in and much of it is funny. The disc world series of novels has spawned numerous movies and comic books and at least one stage play.
25. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
This novel about a man going too far in creating a living creature but not taking enough responsibility for his creation has spawned many a science fiction novel, motion picture and comic books. Its influence in Western culture is immense. When scientists began experiments altering the genetics of eatable plants the detractors named the resultant plants Frankenstein food.
26. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the sea by Jules Verne (1869)
This was one of the first books to be published that could be referred to as genuine science fiction. It has spawned numerous other novels about science and the sea as well as a number of movies and television shows.
27. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1887)
This novel was popular both in the late 19th Century and throughout much of the 20th Century. Up until recent times Dracula was the quintessential male blood-sucker. There have been numerous movies in which this undead character has appeared. He once appeared in an episode of the television series, Buffy, as a celebrity vampire.
28. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
Going to trial becomes a process that can be avoided for a time by clever lawyers but only for a time. K, the main character, cannot escape his ultimate fate. This is an extremely dark book that makes one think of processes and how wrapped up we become in them. This novel has spawned at least one motion picture.
29. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
This novella is a favorite among many readers and has spawned a great many movies. It has also been a highly successful stage play. The first of Dickens' famous Christmas collection, it deals with Ebenezer Scrooge and the three Christmas spirits that visit him to save his soul. it is hard to imagine a more beautiful Christmas tale. Black Adder did a marvelous send up and the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special was a touching adaptation for a fresh, new audience.
30. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
This book is a true account of a multiple murder, what had come before, and the aftermath. The history of the killers are examined in detail and the question of just how much society is responsible for its own criminals is examined. This book has spawned at least one movie and much debate over what makes a mass murderer.
Well, those are my 30. I hope you have enjoyed the read.
More by this Author
The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge of Courage, A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, Brave New World, 1984, Story of O, Tender is the Night, Wasp, Dune, Twilight Healer, A Study in Scarlet, Dracula, Jazz.
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