The Top 25 Books That Changed the World
Which books have had the biggest effect on human history will always be a hotly contested question. The New York Public Library compiled a list of the 25 books that its librarians claim have had the biggest effect on the course of history. From fiction and history, to science and religion, the following works have left their mark on the world and stood the test of time. These books continue to be checked out frequently by patrons of the New York Public Library, the second largest library system in the U.S. behind the Library of Congress, showing that they still resonate with readers despite being published decades or centuries ago. The books on this list are widely accepted by historians as works that helped to shape society, alter social practices, and capture or explain pivotal moments in human history.
- 1984 by George Orwell
George Orwell’s classic work of dystopia launched the dystopia subgenre, in which authors imagine the not-so-distant future as a nightmarish place controlled by the government, typically with rampant censorship and no freedom. Books like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World wouldn’t exist without Orwell having written 1984 first, and 1984 really still blows all those books out of the water. We’re lucky the real world in the year 1984 didn’t turn out how Orwell predicted it would when he wrote the book, which was published in 1949, but the book’s influence has lasted and will continue to last far beyond the year it was speculating about. The plot follows a man living in a society controlled by a sort-of divine leader called Big Brother who rules using surveillance, fear, force, and a pervasive cult of personality even though it’s uncertain whether he actually exists. Terms from the book like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” and “2 + 2 = 5″ are still commonly used today. The book will always be an important reminder that freedom of expression and thought is worth any cost in society.
- Aesop’s Fables by Aesop
Aesop’s Fables are a collection of fables and tales credited to Aesop, a slave in ancient Greece who is purported to have either written them or collected them sometime during his life between between 620 and 560 BCE. The fact that these tales written in ancient Greece by a slave are still well known to this day is astounding. Fables like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Ant and the Grasshopper are still taught to young children around the world and reinterpreted in various forms. The stories use animal characters in funny and often fantastic situations to illustrate simple life lessons such as “slow and steady wins the race” and “to work today is to eat tomorrow.” The fables will probably continue to be used to teach simple moral lessons for a long time to come.
- The Analects of Confucius by Confucius
The Analects is a collection of sayings and ideas from the Chinese philosopher believed to have been written down by his followers and is considered to be the most important book in Confucianism. Confucius might be portrayed in pop culture as being an obscure and impenetrable Eastern philosopher, but really many of his teachings involved similar moral lessons we learn as children, including an early version of the Golden Rule. He also believed strongly in ancestor worship, family loyalty, and respect of one’s elders. The Analects is one of the most widely read and studied books in China and has been for the past 2,000 years. It’s also considered to be one of the most influential works on Chinese and general East Asian philosophy, values, and thinking in all history with its influence remaining in effect today.
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu
This Chinese military treatise has been adopted by businessmen as a book of advice on how to negotiate the cutthroat world of capitalism. Each of the book’s 13 chapters address a different aspect of warfare. Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general and highly respected strategist who believed that warfare must be avoided as much as possible, and completed quickly and efficiently when necessary. His teachings in the book have been embraced by the worlds of business and law to learn how to gain the upper hand in arguments and negotiations. He stressed the importance of preparation and flexibility in the face of the unexpected.
- King James Bible
While this wasn’t the first English translation of the Christian Bible, it is the most well-known version, the most widely read, and the most printed book in history. The work is considered a stunning achievement in literature in terms of its beauty and the scholarly effort that was put into creating it, as the translation was compiled from different books in various languages to create the best English Bible possible under the order of King James I. The translation was done by 47 different scholars, all of them members of the Church of England. The project was started in 1604 and the King James Bible was first published in 1611. The Bible is the founding text of the Christian faith and much of the morals and thought of Western society is based on the book.
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Alexander Brown
This history about the Old West and Native Americans was published in 1970 as America was waging an unpopular war in Vietnam that was also resulting in massive casualties of non-white civilians. The parallel was not lost on readers when the book came out and it has contributed to its longevity as a pivotal work in American history, illustrating the concept that history tends to repeat itself. Historian Dee Brown looks at the various horrible injustices faced by the Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government during the late nineteenth century, including forced relocations, mass murders, and attempts to destroy Native American culture. The book was written during a time of the growing American Indian Movement seeking civil rights and equality for Native Americans and was an important document illustrating the atrocities they had suffered in American history and colonization. The book is credited with ending the colonial mythology surrounding the settling of the American west.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Before you let your feelings about communism or knowledge about how the political structure has played out in history through various communist dictatorships make you think Marx was a bad guy, it’s worth giving The Communist Manifesto a chance. The short political manifesto was published in 1848 and sparked many a revolution before being misinterpreted by the very people seeking to create its ideals in the real world. The book is one of the most influential works in political theory ever written and also a lesson in how some good or at least well-intentioned ideas can get really twisted by bad people. Many would argue that this book is the epitome of “good in theory but not in practice,” while some still think it’s possible for people to make a society like the one Marx describes work for the benefit of humankind.
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
This book is probably the most widely read and important work to come out of the Holocaust. Anne Frank kept a detailed diary while she was in hiding with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She was a young teenager during this time, having received the diary for her thirteenth birthday. She died in a concentration camp in 1944 at age 15. Her father, the only surviving member of the family, was given the diary and published it. It earned international critical and popular acclaim when it was translated into English in 1947. The work is a look into how a young girl tries to retain some normalcy while the world around her has descended into one of the darkest periods in modern history. The teenage perspective means that the book can be understood by readers of any age, and its common use in teaching middle school and high school age children about the Holocaust has contributed to how ubiquitous the book is. It can certainly still be appreciated by adults, as the young voice describing one of the worst atrocities in history can become more heart-wrenching with age.
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson’s dictionary published in 1755 is considered the most influential dictionary of the English language ever published and was the most important English dictionary up until the Oxford English Dictionary was published 173 years later. While this is disputed by some, it is commonly believed that Johnson completed the huge volume alone over the span of nine years, making the achievement that much more impressive. Johnson’s dictionary is filled with witty definitions and he’s cited as being the guy that made dictionaries matter. His dictionary wasn’t something to just look up words in, it was something to read in and of itself.