For many centuries, books have been one of the central forms of entertainment for humankind. Readers around the world invest countless hours escaping into new and unique worlds, losing themselves in the words and pages of books from various genres. While all books affect readers in different ways, history has shown that some books have a way of reaching and impacting large groups of people so that they are forever changed. These books can share knowledge, inspiration, and discoveries in various fields. They teach, influence, and alter the way we think. Sometimes these books are so important and enlightening that they help the world and its people evolve. The following books have done just that. By educating and informing readers in the areas of politics and government, creating new standards in literature, challenging societal norms, and advancing academic thought in the schools of science and religion, these are top 50 books that changed the world.
Politics and Government
These titles represent some of the most influential books that examine politics, economics, and philosophy. Each of these texts had an impact on the way we understand governance.
- The Republic, Plato. Written around 380 BCE, this text is considered to be one of the most influential pieces ever written. The Republic observes justice in man and politics and discusses the role of the philosopher in society. Many of the intellectual concepts contained in The Republic are still discussed today, but the text is also an important historical document that provides historians with a snapshot of Greece at the time of its writing.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. One of the most recognized and popular political texts ever written, The Communist Manifesto details the class struggle that exists in society and traces its beginnings in history. The document highlights the problems of capitalism and capitalist production and how these structures impact the political and societal landscape.
- The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. The Rights of Man argues that political revolution is acceptable and permissible when a government fails to perform its duty of protecting the natural rights of its citizens. Written as a defense of the French Revolution, Paine’s 1791 book was widely circulated and challenged all societal institutions that don’t benefit the nation overall, including institutions such as monarchies and aristocracies.
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Published anonymously in 1776, this pamphlet supported the Americans in their fight for independence from the British during the American Revolution. The pamphlet encouraged the people in the American Colonies to resist the leaders from Great Britain and push for an egalitarian government. Still today, Common Sense is one of the all-time best-selling American titles.
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. In what was originally meant to be an observation of the American prison system, Democracy in America is a look at American society and institutions overall and the reasons why American democratic equality exists and thrived at the time of the writing. Alexis de Tocqueville traced the historical evolution of equality and suggested that specific conditions, such as widespread economic opportunity and the abolition of primogeniture, led to the American democratic revolution.
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Considered to be one of the first works of modern political philosophy, The Prince is a political treatise from 1513 that offers advice on how aspiring leaders can survive and thrive in the contentious political landscape. While the intent of the book is still debated, the result is one of the most unabashed meditations on political power and what is required in order to make it last.
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. Written by the famed orator and former slave, Frederick Douglass, this narrative is considered the most famous of pieces written by former slaves and one of the most influential texts during the abolitionist movement in the United States. In the text, Douglass recounts his life as a slave on his way to freedom.
- On Liberty by John Stewart Mill. This philosophical work is considered a foundational text for modern liberal political thought. The text applies ethical utilitarianism to society and state governance, arguing that more importance be placed on the consequences of actions as they relate to the interests of others than one’s own interests.
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, describes how and what builds a nation’s wealth. Largely viewed as the foundational text for classical economics, The Wealth of Nations explores the economic system and suggests that a free market is able to automate and regulate itself. These functions are only limited by the privileges given to certain members within the economy.
- Orientalism by Edward Said. Primarily a work of postcolonial cultural studies, Orientalism discusses how cultural representations of the Eastern world are bound to the structures and societies that create them. Since these patronizing and exaggerated depictions of difference are designed in such a way that Western superiority is highlighted in comparison, Orientalism becomes a critique of Westerns politics and power.
From creating characters and stories that have become foundational elements in cultures around the world to upsetting undesirable standards and inspiring the imagination of many, these works of literature have touched the world in significant ways. These are the most influential books in literature.
- 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. The Canterbury Tales also provides a glimpse into the customs and practices within the society at the time of its writing. This work is one of the most read books and one of the most studied in all the world. Many scholars suggest that Chaucer’s magnum opus contributed greatly to the popularization of the English vernacular in literature.
- Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Considered one of the most important pieces of world literature, the Divine Comedy is an epic poem that details a journey through the realms of the afterlife and, allegorically, the soul’s discovery of God. Long considered to be the greatest piece of Italian literature, the Divine Comedy also provides us with a closer view of medieval Christian theology and philosophy.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare is often considered the greatest writer in the English language and the greatest dramatist in all of history. The characters, stories, and language have taken hold of readers for hundreds of years and have greatly contributed to shaping modern culture. Shakespeare’s complete works have been translated into every major language and are still enjoyed around the world.
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This now-famous book about a man’s hunt for the great whale is considered one of the greatest American novels ever written. Moby Dick is heavy on symbolism, but is also famous for the detailing of the whaling industry in the 19th century and its many different narrative styles and structures.
- 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, creating terms and concepts that have been incorporated into our own society. Surveillance, truth, and censorship take center stage in this novel; no other book has contributed to our understanding of these themes like 1984.
- 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 futuristic technological advancements. Huxley’s own fears of commerciality and the emerging youth culture are fully on display in this novel.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. These two ancient Greek epic poems are not only the preeminent works in ancient Greek literature, but they are also incredibly influential texts for all forms of art, thought, and music in Western civilization. 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, the composition of story, and the development of themes.
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. This Spanish novel, originally published as two books, is one of the most influential and popular novels in the world. It’s also considered to be one of the best books ever written. The adventure, symbolism, and characterization contained in Don Quixote has promoted the book to the incredible popularity it has today. Don Quixote became one of the earliest canonical texts and has been inspiring artists of all kinds for hundreds of years.
- In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Daunting in length, the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time is one of the most prominent modern works of the early 20th century. The novel explores themes of memory, childhood, and meaning, but it avoids the plot-driven model of 19th-century novels. The supporting cast are incredibly well drawn and the events are moved forward by the differing perspectives that experience them, writing techniques that have been emulated endlessly since the novel’s publication.
- 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 heavy censorship at the time it was published, and Flaubert was taken to trial over the novel. After his acquittal, Madame Bovary became renowned as a masterpiece of the Realism movement.
- Arabian Nights translated 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.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Considered to be one of the most significant novels in the Spanish literary canon, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the Buendía family over several generations. The style and themes in the novel are seen to be representative of a unique Latin American literary movement of the 1960s: Magical Realism.
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Though Tolstoy was hesitant to call this a novel, War and Peace is often included in the discussion of the best novels of all time. Chronicling the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the book looks at the psychological effects of the war and the philosophical discussions that it created.
- The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Written in the beginning of the 11th century, The Tale of Genji is often called the first novel. While it does not have a plot by definition, the story does have many elements of a modern novel, including a main character, a supporting cast, and characterization. Translation of this novel has proved difficult over time, but most still consider it the first and greatest work in Japanese literature.
- 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.
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. While Fyodor Dostoyevsky has written several works that could be considered some of the most influential ever published, Crime and Punishment is one that stands above the rest as one of the best books ever written. This novel explores the mind of an individualistic person from within, challenging the rules of crime and punishment as they apply to the main character and the people around him.
- 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 people 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.
- Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust is a tragic play, but it has long been considered the single greatest work in German literature. The tale tells of Faust selling his soul to the devil for worldly knowledge and pleasures. The influence this story has on art, literature, music, and thought is immeasurable.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison. Written to honor the memory of African American slaves brought over during the slave trade, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of the most recognizable and influential texts in modern literature. For giving voice to the African-American experience and observing and recording the collective memory of the population, Morrison’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not only is The Lord of the Rings one of the best-selling novels in the world, it also helped form and shape the high fantasy genre. While many of the themes from the story were adapted from earlier mythologies, The Lord of the Rings itself became the foundational text for all fantasy readers and authors.
These are the most influential books in terms of impacting society, texts that helped changed people’s views on racism, feminism, consumption, and language.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. This landmark book is built from the actual diary kept by Anne Frank, the young daughter of a Jewish family hiding during the Nazi takeover in the Netherlands. The innocence of this young girl so full of hopes and dreams is held in sharp contrast to the reality of her situation at the hands of the Nazis. This book has become a strong symbol and reminder of the impact of racial persecution.
- The Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. Considered the first great treatise on feminism, Wollstonecraft’s text was written in response to those who felt that women should not be educated. She argued that women are deserving of an education that is proportionate to their position in society, that of educators and companions. Wollstonecraft demonstrated that inequality is not only morally and ethically wrong, but is also economically and socially irresponsible.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex examines why a woman’s position in society is prohibitive and how it got to this point. Establishing herself as a fundamental figure in feminist philosophy, de Beauvoir was one of the first to explore gender as a social construct, distinguishing between the terms “sex” and “gender.”
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. In A Room of One’s Own, an extended essay that Woolf delivered to two women’s colleges, the differences between male and female writers and how those differences are the result of the limitations and restrictions imposed on females, is discussed. Without the freedom, the education, or the financial rewards of male authors, females are barred from creating a literary tradition of their own.
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Walden is the textual reflection of Thoreau’s social experiment of living isolated in a cabin next to Walden Pond in order to better understand society. Thoreau wrote the results of his experience with self-sufficiency and simplicity in Walden, which has subsequently become a source of inspiration for those seeking a life removed from the business of society.
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson. Considered the most influential dictionary of the English language, Johnson compiled this book over seven years all by himself. Credited as the foundational text for the study of the English language and lexicography, Johnson’s dictionary was not the first of its kind, but it was the most comprehensive and well-researched.
- Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is largely considered to be one of the most influential philosophical texts of all time. Exploring human knowledge and reason, their extents and limitations, and the perception of space and time, Kant’s text is one of the most important books to read for all who are interested in philosophy.
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Even though Upton Sinclair set out to write a novel about the lives of immigrants in America in the early 20th century, The Jungle ended up gaining popularity because it highlighted the unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry. By depicting countless health violations and stories of the unfair treatment and pay of migrant workers, Sinclair was a major contributor to the reformation of the meat inspection laws in America. Over time, he gained more recognition for influencing standardized wages as well.
- Native Son by Richard Wright. Often regarded as the father of Black American Literature, Richard Wright wrote Native Son as an attempt to demonstrate the harsh realities of being a black person in white America. It was one of the earliest and most successful books to observe the racial divide in the country from the perspective of the minority, and it highlighted black culture in a way that had not been done before.
Science, Math, and Geography
These works are some of the most influential books because they began or at least represent the beginning of entire movements and schools of thought in the fields of science, math, and geography.
- Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton. Written while Cambridge was closed because of the plague, Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica details the principles of gravity, mechanics, calculus, and light and color. This book set the stage for modern studies of both math and physics.
- The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein. The Meaning of Relativity is a collection of the Stafford Little Lectures made by Albert Einstein in 1921 at Princeton University. Delivered five years after Einstein’s groundbreaking paper on general relativity was published, these lectures sum up the man’s work. While many of the ideas were presented in different forms prior to the publication of this book, The Meaning of Relativity remains one of the most important collections of ideas ever put together.
- On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This work by Darwin laid out the foundation for the theory of evolution. Since its publication, the book’s theories and observations have helped make life sciences what they are today. Darwin’s adaptation and evolutionary model still aid modern scientists as they build a better understanding of all Earth’s species, including our own.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Carson wrote on the topic of environmental justice in this book that inspired readers to think more seriously about their relationship to the Earth. Silent Spring helped the modern environmental movement get off the ground and led to the nationwide ban on DDT.
- Geographia by Ptolemy. Ptolemy wrote and mapped the world according to the knowledge he had available to him in the 2nd century. His maps and methodologies were used for hundreds of years afterward. Today’s cartography is directly descended from Ptolemy’s work.
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Freud included the basics of his theories on psychoanalysis in this landmark work that is still read and studied worldwide. In this work, Freud introduced the concept of the unconscious and demonstrated how his theories are used to interpret dreams. Freud’s work popularized the science of psychology and helped build the foundation on which modern psychological discourse now stands.
These religious texts are some of the most influential books ever written, serving as spiritual and lifestyle guides for countless people around the world. Some of these texts are thousands of years old.
- 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 told to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years. This book is the cornerstone of the Islamic religion.
- The Torah. The written laws and teachings that are contained in the Tanakh have offered a way of life for those of the Jewish faith. The text provides teaching and methods of practice for daily living and has influenced art and literature in countless ways.
- 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, the time between death and rebirth, and rebirth.
- The Analects by Confucius. The Analects is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius, a Chinese philosopher. The text has been read and studied in China for the last 2,000 years and has had a monumental impact on Chinese culture, values, art, and thought.