For centuries, books have been written in an attempt to share knowledge, inspiration, and discoveries. Sometimes those books make such an impact that they change the way the world thinks about things. The following books have done just that by providing readers an education in politics and government, literature, society, academic subjects such as science and math, and religion.
Politics and Government
These books represent some of the most important works that examine politics, economics, and philosophy that affect government.
- The Republic by Plato. Considered to be the most influential text on philosophy and politics, this work delves into what is right and just. Many ideas such as philosopher-kings, Theory of Forms, and thoughts on immortality of the soul were borne of this work and continue to be discussed today.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. One of the most recognized and popular political texts written, this tract was commissioned by the Communist League and detailed a process for the working class to rise up and eliminate class struggles.
- The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. Paine’s book states that the government’s role is to protect the rights of its citizens, and when the government cannot do so, it should be overthrown. This book was written to defend the French Revolution and was an inspiration for democracy around the world.
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Published anonymously in 1776, this tract supported the Americans in their fight for independence form the British during the American Revolution.
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. On a visit from France, de Tocqueville described what he saw as the reason democracy was succeeding in America, despite its failure in other countries.
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.This political treatise from 1513 offers advice on how an aspiring prince can obtain the throne and how an existing prince can avoid overthrow.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Written by a middle aged, white woman in 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited for changing the views of slavery in the north and continues to serve as a reminder of the effects of slavery and other inhumane acts.
- On Liberty by John Stewart Mill. This philosophical work was considered radical when it was written in the mid-1800s, but it contains the kernel of all modern democracies with a call to moral and economic freedom from the state.
- Das Kapital by Karl Marx. This critical analysis of capitalism and its exploitation of workers attempts to explain why change is necessary in a nation ruled by capitalism.
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Smith’s book, published in 1776, advocates a free-market economy. This book is largely viewed as the beginnings of modern economics.
- Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara. A Marxist revolutionary famous for helping the plight of the oppressed, Guevara wrote this book as an instruction manual of revolt for those trapped in a totalitarian regime. It has become a guidebook for thousands around the world, not only those living in an oppressive state.
From creating characters and stories that have become ingrained in cultures around the world to upsetting censorship to inspiring the imagination of many, these works of literature have all touched the world in significant ways.
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Written in the 14th century, this collection of tales brought to life characters and stories that remain popular today. This work is one of the most read and studied in the world.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. Lawrence’s book about an aristocratic woman who commits adultery with a working-class man was banned in the UK due to the sexual details and language used. This book brought the idea of censorship to light and helped overthrow it.
- Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Considered one of the most important pieces of literature in the world, the Divine Comedy is an epic poem that details a journey through the realms of the dead.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Read all the plays and poems written by William Shakespeare to understand why he is known as one of the greatest writers in the world. The characters, stories, and language have taken hold of readers for hundreds of years and continue to play an important part of modern culture.
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The theme of preserving cultural history in the face of Western domination in this novel gave voice to the oppressed in Africa and caught the attention of the world. This novel, written in 1958, is still widely read and studied as an example of the damage of colonialism.
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This now-famous book about a man’s hunt for the great whale is considered one of the greatest novels. The book is heavy on symbolism, but is also famous for the nature writing and detailing of the whaling industry.
- 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian novel describes life in a totalitarian regime that has stripped the people of their rights. The themes in this novel have become a major part of modern culture, as have terms such as “big brother” and “doublespeak” (resulting from Orwell’s term of “doublethink”).
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Another dystopian novel, this one by Huxley is often considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. Huxley’s novel looked unfavorably on the loss of an individual’s identity through technological advancements. Some of the developments Huxley wrote about have become startlingly accurate as the future he predicted in 1931 has come closer to reality.
- Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. These two ancient Greek epic poems were a part of young Greek scholars’ education and remain so today for students around the world. The Iliad details a few weeks during the end of the Trojan War and the Odyssey describes Odysseus’ ten year journey home from the Trojan War. These two works are important for their detail of Greek history and legend.
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. This novel, originally published as two books, is one of the most influential and popular novels to emerge from Spain. The adventure, symbolism, and characterization contained in this novel has promoted this book to the popularity it still enjoys today, and it continues to inspire others to create movies, stories, and more based on the story of the man of La Mancha.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. From the time this book was first published in December of 1843, it has enjoyed enormous popularity. During the time that Dickens’ wrote the story, Christmas traditions were going out of style. He is often credited with saving the old traditions of Christmas.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert’s story of a woman who engages in adulterous affairs in an attempt to escape from a loveless marriage was subjected to censorship, and Flaubert was taken to trial over the novel. After his acquittal, Madame Bovary became renowned as a masterpiece of the Realism movement.
- The Arabian Nights Entertainment by Andrew Lang. This English language version of One Thousand and One Nights retells the ancient stories that have now become popularized around the world, including the plight of Scheherazade, the adventures of Aladdin, and the voyages of Sinbad.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. This first book of the wildly popular Harry Potter series has sparked the imagination of an entire generation of young readers and inspired those with a few more years under their belts too. The cultural impact the Harry Potter series has had on the world is unmistakable.
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The realistic details of this novel and the depth of psychological exploration have contributed to this book’s frequently being included as one of the best novels of all time.
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One of the best-selling books around the world, this story (which is often debated about whether or not it is a children’s book) invites the reader to think about the meaning of life, love, and separation. There have been many adaptations of this book, reflecting the depth of the impact it has made.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This book has the distinction of being the most translated book by a living author. The reason for its popularity resides not only in the inspirational tale that Coelho has told, but also in the fact that Coelho has embraced technology and sharing of this novel at no cost. He credits this action with promoting book sales.
These books have made an impact on society with views on racism, feminism, individualism, and scholarship.
- Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. This landmark book details the days of a Jewish family in hiding during the Nazi takeover in the Netherlands. The innocence of this young girl so full of hopes and dreams is in sharp contrast to the reality of her ending at the hands of the Nazis. This book has become a symbol and reminder against racial persecution.
- Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Written in Italian, then translated into English and German, this story is a personal narrative of Levi, who spent one year in Auschwitz. The story Levi tells does not go for the shock value of the Nazi atrocities, but instead examines how easily humanity can become degraded.
- The Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. Considered the first great treatise on feminism, Wollstonecraft wrote in response to those who felt that women should not be educated. She argued that women are human and deserving of the same respect men enjoy.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. In an attempt to understand herself, de Beauvoir undertook the writing of this book, which details the inequality women have faced throughout the years. The book still stands as an important examination of what it means to be a woman in this world.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Woolf discusses the differences between men and women writers and how these differences come down to the availability of freedom and money that men have, in comparison to women. Despite often being overlooked as a proponent of feminism, this work by Woolf displays the depth of her feelings on the topic.
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau underwent an experiment of living isolated on Walden Pond in order to better understand society. He wrote the results of this experience in Walden, which has subsequently become a source of inspiration for those seeking a simpler, more self-sufficient life.
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson. Considered the most influential dictionary of the English language, Johnson compiled this book over nine years. It is thought to be the book that began the scholarship of literary study.
Science, Math, and Geography
These works served as the start of entire movements and schools of thought.
- Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton. Written while Cambridge was closed because of the plague, Newton wrote his thoughts on gravity, mechanics, calculus, and light and color. This book set the stage for modern thinking on math and physics.
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Freud included the basics of his theories on psychoanalysis in this landmark work that is still read worldwide. While many current scholars disagree with many of Freud’s theories, the fact that he brought the science of psychology to the public marks this book as one that changed the world.
- On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This work by Darwin laid the foundation for the theory of evolution. Recently, the idea of evolution has come under fire by religious organizations, but the thoughts and observations Darwin made in this book were revolutionary in his time and still continue to be studied and debated today.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Carson wrote on the topic of environmental justice in a book that inspired readers to think seriously about their relationship to the Earth. This book helped the modern environmental movement get off the ground.
- Geographia by Ptolemy. Ptolemy wrote and mapped the world according to the knowledge he had in the 2nd century. These works were used for hundreds of years afterward. Today’s cartography is directly descended from Ptolemy’s work.
- The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein. Published as one book, this is actually four lectures Einstein gave a Princeton in 1921. This work demonstrates the genius behind the thinking that made Einstein famous.
These religious texts have served as a guide to many around the world, some for thousands of years.
- The Bible. This sacred text brought Christianity to the world and has continued to serve as a source of inspiration for millions of people. It is the most translated and the most frequently purchased book in the world.
- The Qur’an. The sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an is believed to be the last word of God after the Christian Bible. This book is the cornerstone of the Islamic religion.
- The Torah. The written laws and teachings that are contained in the Tanakh (also known as the Old Testament of the Bible by non-Jews) are known as the Torah. This sacred text guides Jews through their daily living.
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Perhaps the most well-known Tibetan text, this book was written by a Tibetan monk and discusses what happens during death, during the time between death and rebirth, and during rebirth.
- The Analects.
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. Written in the 13th century, this book is considered to be a leading authority on what it means to follow the Christian religion.
- The Bhagavad Gita. This sacred Hindu scripture is considered one of the most important philosophical texts. Krishna acts as the teacher in this text, and the words here are thought to be a guide to Hinduism as well as to how one should live life.
- I Ching. Also known as the Book of Changes, this is the most widely read of the five sacred Chinese texts. The I Ching became popular around the world as a sort of sacred fortune-telling device. The text is more likely intended as a source of guidance to express the themes of balance, evolution of events, and change.
- Tao Te Ching. Also known as the Tao, this text was written by Lao Tzu, the keeper of the Imperial Library, who was asked to share his wisdom for coming generations. The result is this text, known as a source for many famous Chinese sayings.