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The 21 Most Important Books Ever Written

Updated on January 16, 2018
Joel Eisenberg profile image

Joel is an author, screenwriter, and producer. He has developed projects for TNT, CBS, Warner Brothers, FOX, Ovation Network, and more.

I know when I’m licked. This article is on the overly ambitious side of things, and I just may have bitten off more than I could chew. Cliches aside, there is truly no “win” in the matter. Why? Because there will be no defined methodology as to how I selected my choices, other than my own personal grasp of history. That’s my deal, and I’m sticking to it.

Literary snobbery will have no place in this dojo. You’ll see. There will be a quiz at the end.

And so, to my honest choices of the 21 Most Important Books Ever Written ...

1. “The Bible”

According to a recent World Atlas estimate, 2.22 billion people worldwide follow Christianity, far outnumbering the followers of any other faith. Judaism, per the same source, claims nearly 14 million followers by comparison. Though it is impossible to ascertain precise sales figures, common estimates place worldwide sales of The Bible at over 5 billion copies.

For the purpose of this list, I am referring to both the Old and New Testament.

2. “The Qur’an”

Islam is widely considered both the second-largest religion in the world, and the most misunderstood, with 1.605 billion followers also according to World Atlas. Post-9/11 controversy and present world politics, each of which continues to focus international attention on Islam, only serves to validate the placement of The Qur’an on this list.

3. “On the Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin

The academic foundation of evolutionary biology, Darwin’s influential masterpiece introduced the concepts of natural selection and fitness, and their relation to reproductive continuance. Along with the fiction of Frankenstein (#5 on this list), On the Origin of the Species has influenced scientific thought like no other published work.

4. “Mein Kampf” by Adolf Hitler

“My Struggle,” Hitler’s autobiographical work, was published in 1925 (Volume One) and 1926 (Volume Two), and edited by Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy. Detailing his antisemitic philosophy and plans for the future of Germany, Mein Kampf has remained in print since its initial publication, and has inspired generations of white supremicists, Hitler youth, and many of the “alt-right.”

And that deserves a comment. When I set out to compose this list, most within my circle thought the idea was laudable, but the selections would be impossible. When asked which works I was considering for inclusion, I mentioned Mein Kampf, among the others. Those two words together caused no small degree of consternation. I’m Jewish, and have had relatives, now deceased, who survived the camps. I was asked to “honor” them, and leave Mein Kampf off the list. However, I believe I am honoring my relatives, and the memories of all others who have suffered or passed during the Nazi regime, by disallowing the integrity of this effort to be compromised. “We must never forget, or ignore,” are words many of us have said over the years as it regards The Holocaust. The books on this list do not have to be well-liked, or contain optimistic messages. To my mind, each must be a proven cultural touchstone.

Mein Kampf deserves this placement for these reasons.

5. “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley conceived the tale of Frankenstein during the so-called Haunted Summer of 1816, a pivotal event in the history of letters since passed into literary lore. Along with her companions in Switzerland‘s Villa Diodati - Mary’s future husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori - the group set a challenge for each to write their own ghost story, as inspired by a book of German ghost stories they had being reading aloud, The Fantasmagoriana.

Frankenstein was the most resonant result, though Polidori had himself written a notable novel, a short work entitled The Vampyre. Some 70 years later, Bram Stoker would unleash his Dracula into the world, as inspired in part by Polidori’s effort.

But Frankenstein was a whole other creature, a literary pioneer in full. Mary Shelley’s work has inspired scientists, philosophers, and religious teachers, as well as aspiring writers. The larger questions of reanimation of the deceased continue to be asked, and still provoke stark debate.

Actor Boris Karloff and the mass merchandising of his version of the creature aside - thanks to Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup from the classic Universal series of horror films - the novel itself has proven surprisingly unwieldy to filmmakers, and has yet to be filmed as written. Its themes are heavy, its tale boldly told.

Mary Shelley was but 19 years old when her inspiration hit. The novel was first published in 1818 without her name, which first appeared in an 1823 second edition. In 1831, a revised version was released to popular acclaim. Some historians credit Percy as the writer of at least some of the material within the various volumes. Regardless, Mary Shelley conceived a work for the ages, one that shows no sign of losing its importance any time soon.

6. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s Invisible Man is not named “Jack Griffin.” He does not possess science-based powers of invisibility. He was not inspired by H.G. Wells, and The does not exist in its title.

Ellison’s Invisible Man has no name (nor, incidentally, did Wells’ character have a first name in the literary work; “Jack” was the moniker utilized in the titular Universal adaptation). He is no scientist.

And few in his accounting give a damn. Why?

He is a black man, invisible. He has no identity.

Invisible Man remains not only perhaps the most relevant work yet published by an African American, it is arguably the most relevant and powerful novel written by a male author. Its influence cannot be understated.

7. “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger

“To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Canfield, This is my statement.”

As a reminder, this was the inscription found within Mark David Chapman’s paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye following his arrest for the murder of John Lennon.

In certain circles, the strengths of J.D. Salinger‘s novel as a well-written literary masterpiece have been unalterably blurred. The book continues to be banned in schools. Parents disallow their children to read it. The Catcher in the Rye has been unfairly tainted as a “dangerously influential” tome following incidents such as the above.

There have been other such incidents. The book has been associated with Robert John Bardo‘s killing of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and John Hinckley’s attempted murder of then-President Ronald Reagan. Conversely, numerous classic literary works have been credited to Salinger’s as a likely inspiration: Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and even Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Artists remain inspired by its boldness, and its vision.

As Salinger’s adolescent Holden Canfield recalls his previous winter, a transforming period of alienation and anger, teenage readers worldwide continue to recognize his plight within themselves. The Catcher in the Rye appeals particularly to teens, unlike any other novel, being an honest accounting of what it means to be young, and conflicted.

Though the novel’s substantial older fanbase considers The Catcher in the Rye a literary flashpoint, it has never lost its power with readers young or old. Its resonance is arguably unmatched in the pantheon of written fiction.

8. “Ulysses,” by James Joyce

“It’s certainly long.“

You may want to read it before commenting, but guess what. It is long. It is also difficult. But Joyce’s work is also perhaps our keenest exploration of what it means to be human.

Inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, another work that deserves inclusion in this list (but did not make the final cut), Dublin’s Leopold Bloom explores life and mindfulness on June 16, 1904. Mindfulness, in the sense of the book’s modernist sensibilites - a stream of consciousness structure not unlike random thought - that serves to enlighten us as to pertinent themes and events of the period.

The complete James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922, having been serialized beginning in 1918 by The Little Review, an American literary journal. Upon its release as a collected work, the book was banned from circulation under The Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to send works deemed “obscene” through the U.S. mail. What set off the action was an initially serialized passage regarding masturbation.

There is no room here to detail the legalities that followed; a cursory google search will provide those specifics along with a history of the tome’s various international obstacles. But, in short, in what had been called an “epoch-making decision“ (Stuart Gilbert), U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic, and therefore could not be considered ”obscene.”

As tough as this one may be, it is a must-read.

9. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”

The easiest explanation here would be something along these lines: He’s the Bard. What more do you need?

I’d be sarcastic if I opted for that simple response; after all, anyone who knows me knows full well that I have an issue with the concept of universally accepted genius.

To wit: I believe The Doors was a better and more artistic musical group than The Beatles, though clearly the latter group was the more influential. I believe Elvis is overrated, as is the film version of Gone with the Wind (though the novel makes this list).

I can go on, but the point being made that I am not selecting Shakespeare based on name value alone. I am not selecting Shakespeare because I am “supposed to.”

Hell, even if the rumors are truthful and he did not pen all of the work of which he is attributed, the brand, and enough of the oeuvre, is surely sufficient for this inclusion.

To be, or not to be ... there is no question.

10. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien strived to create a working mythology for England. What transpired from that ambitious effort forever altered the course of epic literature.

The author prepared us early. If The Hobbit was written for younger readers, his The Lord of The Rings trilogy set the rest of us on our course - a course of exploration, to undertake quests of which we would have previously considered impossible.

Much ink has been spilled analyzing the breadth, success, and influence of these works. Numerous books crediting J.R.R. Tolkien as author continued well past the year of his death (1973). The writer left behind notes and other ephemera, which had been gathered and amended by his estate, and ultimately released.

The films have been wildly successful (though extending The Hobbit as a trilogy was roundly criticized), a new series based on the LOTR source material is in development for Amazon, at least two biographies of Tolkien are presently shooting, and talk of the posthumously-published The Silmarillion as a feature film adaptation continue unabated.

Comparing The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, which many consider grossly unfair in any capacity, is in my opinion more than fair in terms of influence. Another, perhaps more controversial thought is that Tolkien was overly-inspired by Beowulf. Regardless, his work redefined the power of archetypes, and The Lord of the Rings is one of the few works on this list that crosses popular influence with literary achievement.

11. “1984,” by George Orwell

Big Brother is Watching You.

This choice represents the first of three on this list (Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 being the other two) that tempt me towards a political diatribe. Truthfully, any meaningful conversation today, in 2018, of these three science fiction classics should include a context of today’s politics and President.

However, as I promised myself I would keep my political leanings out of this conversation, I’ll just say this pending a future article: 1984 will dog us, and inform us always. That is the best possible testament I can give to its power, and prescience.

Meantime, check out the underrated 1984 film version, written and directed by Michael Redford, for a darker, more visual representation of the novel’s themes.

12. The “Harry Potter” series, by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the first novel’s original title, revised to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for its U.S. release) was, simply, revolutionary. Released by England’s Bloomsbury in 1997, and in the U.S. the following year by Scholastic, the first volume of what would become a seven-book saga detailed the title character‘s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Pursued by the dark Lord Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents when the boy was but 15 months old, the ongoing tale never lost sight of its story.

And that’s why the series has remained so successful. Within its representation of the stages of young lives fraught with challenge, the Harry Potter books spoke to its audience like no other before or since.

Much has been made of the author’s circumstance as a single mother on welfare to the world’s wealthiest author of popular fiction. Her personal story continues to inspire; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by a dozen publishers prior to its sale. The series has been translated into over 70 languages and is said to have sold over half a billion copies worldwide.

Most of all, the saga has influenced young people everywhere to read, and to create their own works of art. The books have won numerous awards - each was extraordinarily well-written - and few other pop-culture flashpoints have so consistently drawn blocks-long bookstore lines upon their releases (the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey series are others, though the mania was not to Potter’s extent).

The Harry Potter series is, I believe, an inarguable selection on this list of the most important novels yet written.

13. “Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell.

Speaking of “exceptionally well-written popular fiction” ...

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind sold 176,000 copies in its initial 1936 release. The following year, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Once the film was released in ‘39, sales quickly rose to over 2 million copies. It’s been in print ever since.

I made a comment earlier. I am in the minority as it regards the Oscar-winning film which, adjusted for inflation, is still the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. I liked it, didn’t love it, but my opinion there means ... what, exactly? Not much. I do find the history of the film adaptation to be far more interesting, especially the national stir caused during the producers’ search for the film’s Scarlett O’Hara. The role went to Vivian Leigh, of course, alongside Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler.

I‘ve always been more of a ”Casablanca” fan, for old Hollywood romances, but alas ...

Mitchell’s novel is one of the all-time bestselling novels, and one of the most successful films ever. Such success cannot be cavalierly dismissed.

14. “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley

Do you recall what I said earlier about politics, as it regards this novel, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451?

So, there’s that ...

Published in 1932 by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World was a prescient work that detailed the combined roles of reproductive advances, manipulation and conditioning techniques, and other existing technologies and systems to define its dystopia.

My second question is, “Do you know the novel’s title was derived from Shakespeare?

Take another read of The Tempest for that ironic context.

15. “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” by Edward Gibbon

Though some of Gibbons’ conclusions as detailed in his 18th century magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, have since been reconsidered, the work has retained its reputation as - if no longer the definitive accounting of the subject - the most comprehensively-researched to that time.

Which is more than enough to merit its inclusion here.

The exhaustive, six-volume work was composed despite a lack of substantive available sources. Gibbons’ was the work of not only a historian, but a literary archaeologist, filling in blanks from the Roman empire’s greatest heights, to its abject ruin as a world political power.

Non-fiction authors work with what they have at their disposal. Such an immense undertaking as this represents scholarship at its highest level.

16. “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons, Illustrator)

Watchmen was initially released the same year as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in 1986. Prior to its vaunted collection as a graphic novel, the work was originally published by DC as a 12-issue limited series. Along with its aforementioned cohort, Watchmen revolutionized (there goes that word again) the comics medium. A rare “hard-R-rated” storyline from a mainstream comics publisher featured retired costumed superheroes as part of everyday life, who were responsible for the outcomes of some of our key historical events: the Vietnam War and the Nixon Presidency among them. Ultimately, the controversial Keene Act outlawed costumed heroes due to conflicts with the authorities and the general public.

The story follows as the murder of one of their own leads to the unveiling of a vast conspiracy with worldwide implications. Neither the formerly staid comic book industry, nor the motion picture business - which has subsequently made billions of dollars from dark adaptations of such bleak source material - would ever be the same. Along with The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and many others, comics came of age with this one.

17. “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is comprised of 587,287 words, and runs well over 1000 pages in any released edition. One of the most acclaimed works in all of literature, author Tolstoy defined his work as neither a “novel” nor a piece of non-fiction. Some of the work is philosophical as opposed to narrative; some seems to apply a similar stream-of-consciousness structure as Joyce’s Ulysses.

In any event, War and Peace is never less than enthralling. An epic of nearly unimaginable scope, the book details the history and aftermath of Napolean’s French invasion of Russia through the experiences of five aristocratic families.

Though my choice for greatest Russian novel ever written is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (for mostly personal reasons), in terms of cultural influence War and Peace is, admittedly, more of a gut pick than any on this list.

18. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” as told to Alex Haley

My immediate choice for this slot was Roots, Alex Haley’s other tour de force. Though he did not write The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the black leader’s story was told to him, and thereby informed by him, in its construction as a book.

I consider The Autobiography of Malcolm X, regardless of these particulars, to be the most powerful biography I’ve ever read. Stark and utterly uncompromsing, Haley was granted complete access to one of the 20th century’s most controversial and challenging personalities.

Nothing was soft-pedaled here, and such an approach set the standard of literary biographies from then forward. The book was published in 1965, shortly following Malcolm’s death, who expressed to Haley that he would be killed prior to its release.

19. “Fahrenheit 451,” by Ray Bradbury

To the final entry of my politically-relevant science fiction trio (I am excluding my next selection on this list, Frank Herbert’s Dune, as that piece of brilliance can be explored beyond pointed resonance to the modern political scene) ...

Consider Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece as you review the following unaltered quotes from President Donald J.Trump:

”With all of the fake news (italicized, as the term serves its own purpose) coming out of NBC and the networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their license?”

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

”We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.‘ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.“ The context here is the curbing of terrorism as triggered by online sources, though the quote is valid in the context of this list entry.

Fahrenheit 451 is about more than the burning of books. It is about suppressing knowledge, about the withholding of expression other than that which those in authority want you to share.

It is about control and being controlled.

For the record, I acknowledge that my political leanings are leaking ... but I will not offer a direct comment on the matter. Regardless of which side of the fence you rest - if you rest on a side at all - our President’s words must be considered in any valid discussion as to the relevance of this selection.

20. “Dune,” by Frank Herbert

I bookend Herbert’s original Dune series with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy as sprawling, epic storytelling of unmatched resonance. The difference for me is Frank Herbert’s six-book Dune saga saw subsequent small but notable dips in quality from its Hugo-winning first volume (the award was shared with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal in 1966), while LOTR, if anything, improved book-to-book.

Opinions only.

Dune introduced to its readers new worlds of environmentalism, religion, gender dynamics and political empires, all within the well-worn subgenre of messiah fiction. Herbert’s hero, Paul Atreides, relocates with his noble family to the desert planet Arrakis, who have accepted the coveted stewardship of the planet to mine the only source in the universe of its most valuable substance, the spice melange. The spice, though, is well-protected, and their operation ever-dangerous. The outside world requires the spice to function, and wars begin and end based on its attainment.

Dune was followed by Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. Two decades following his father’s death in 1986, Brian Herbert, with co-writer Kevin J. Anderson, continued the series, which goes on to this day.

The original, though, is the classic. Not only an influential, important work, Dune remains the bestselling science fiction title of all-time.

21. “Interview with the Vampire,” by Anne Rice

Expecting a switch-over from “hair-pulling” to outright rebellion over my Blackjack card, if this is indeed the case ask yourself ... “Why?”

I’m hearing the questions. “Joel, do you really believe Interview is more important than the works of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Hunter S. Thompson?”

I do. And I’ll stand by it.

Interview with the Vampire redefined the horror genre upon its 1976 release. Truthfully, the novel is not horror at all. Having as much in common with classic vampire mythology as did Bram Stoker’s Dracula with something akin to Star Wars, Interview was something new.

Author Rice wrote the original short story upon which the novel was based back in 1968. Having lost her young daughter, Michelle, in 1972 to leukemia, she channeled her grief into a larger literary creation. The novel’s character of Claudia, bitten by the author’s mercurial hero, Lestat de Lioncourt, was based on Michelle, who was subsequently granted the gift - or curse - of immortality.

Interview with the Vampire was heartfelt, historic, and obsessive. The novel spoke to the outsider in us all. If you were not around in the early months of the novel’s release, think Harry Potter but to an R-rated extent. Sure, in terms of sales the latter’s mania may have eclipsed Interview’s as a popular franchise, but Anne’s novel and subsequent cottage industry of sequels, films, and the upcoming Bryan Fuller-headed television series - over 40 years later! - continues to prove the longevity, and relevance, of this supernatural brand.

Meantime, the sequels continue - each and every one placing high on the New York Times Bestseller list - and her fans remain as ravenous as ever. The novel spawned much popular fiction on its own, including the sexy vampires of Twilight (of whose fan fiction spawned the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, for better or worse), any number of programs on the CW or otherwise, and other cultural touchstones.

Interview with the Vampire emphatically belongs on this list. Argue away.

Honorary Mention: “The Complete Maus,” by Art Spiegelman

Others were considered for this spot. Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War. William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The works of Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe. Certainly anything John Steinbeck, with whom I have a bit of a history (though that will be a story for another day).

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or The Fountainhead.

I chose the collected graphic novel, “The Complete Maus,” for its bravery. Therein, Spiegelman interviews his dad - a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor - about his wartime experiences. The Jews were featured (drawn) as mice, other Poles and Germans as pigs or cats. These metaphors only added to its power.

Do you agree?

And Now I Have Some Questions for You ...

I did say there was a quiz at the end of this article. Have you paid attention? The answers are all within the book descriptions above.

Do not cheat! Big Brother ... You know the rest. If not, see your reminder, below.

Good luck ...

Quiz: 21 Books. 21 Questions.

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