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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic is credited with sparking the second wave feminist movement. While the first wave of feminism focused on issues like women’s suffrage and property rights, the second wave raised questions about sexuality, family, the workplace, and reproductive rights. Friedan was inspired to write the book when she was asked to do a survey of her former classmates at Smith College upon their fifteenth reunion and found that most of them were very unhappy in their roles as housewives and mothers. The research for the book involved delving into psychology and the media as well as conducting interviews with suburban housewives to try and figure out why they were unfulfilled. The New York Times said that the book “permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States” in Friedan’s obituary.
11. Hiroshima by John Hersey
John Hersey’s slim but powerful Hiroshima was first published in The New Yorker in August of 1946, run in its entirety rather than being published in serialized form as most long pieces would be. The interest in the piece was astounding, with copies of the magazine selling out everywhere. Hersey’s account took the lives of six survivors of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima and used their stories to humanize the toll the decision to drop nuclear bombs had taken on Japan. Up until Hersey’s account was published, Americans only understood the bombings through newspaper articles proclaiming that a hundred thousand people died in a split second. By looking at what happened to a priest, a pastor, two doctors, a mother, and an office clerk who miraculously survived, Hersey helped people understand the horror of the decision to drop those bombs.
12. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York by Jacob Riis
How the Other Half Lives is one of the earliest examples of photojournalism and muckraking journalism. Published in 1890, the book is a collection of photographs documenting life in the slums of New York City with the intention of exposing what conditions were like there to the upper classes, who might not have known that a large group of people were living in such squalid conditions. Riis’s decision to use photographs rather than words to raise awareness about an issue was groundbreaking, and the pictures are still heartbreaking, beautiful, and disturbing to this day. The Library of Congress included the book in its list of books that shaped America and said that after its publication and the public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side that he photographed, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.
13. I Ching: The Book of Change
The I Ching, known as The Book of Change or Book of Changes in English, is thought of as one of the first attempts to place the human mind within the context of the universe. It has been an influence on Chinese thought for 3,000 years, particularly in the realms of Confucianism and Taoism, and has been gaining influence in the West over the last century. The book has given inspiration to the worlds of business, art, religion, and psychology through its teachings.
14. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs
This book is often considered a sort of companion to Frederick Douglass’s narrative, which we’ll get to later. Written by Harriet Jacobs through the fictional narrator Linda Brent, Jacobs tells of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her slave owner, which culminated in her hiding in her grandmother’s attic for seven years to escape the repeated rapes of her master. This is considered the first and most comprehensive first-hand account of the experience of the life of an enslaved woman. Jacobs’s use of similar language to Victorian romance novels can be off-putting considering the subject matter, but her story was a crucial one and the courage it must have taken for her to write it down is astounding.
15. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair was one of the great American muckraking journalists who sought to expose corruption in government and business. The Jungle is one of the most famous books to do just that, narrating how rich, corrupt businessmen take advantage of and rob poor laborers, particularly immigrants, in urban areas. The book shows how members of that working class lack the social support they need to get even their basic human rights fulfilled and suffer from hopelessness caused by a lack of social mobility as well as depression from their harsh working and living conditions. The book is also very famous for exposing disgusting aspects of the meatpacking industry from companies not following basic health guidelines and sanitizing as they were supposed to. According to an article from Slate, Sinclair was disappointed that the public at the time became more fixated on the book’s descriptions of what was going on with their dinner meats than with the worker’s plight. He famously complained that, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Still, the book is considered one of the most influential works of literary social criticism.
16. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass is probably the most famous abolitionist of all time. The former slave is a truly extraordinary figure in American history. He educated himself, escaped slavery, and spoke with Abraham Lincoln on the sensitive and confusing topic of slavery. Douglass became known far and wide for his ability as a powerful orator. When some people began to doubt that he had ever been a slave because of his well-spoken and educated manner, he decided to write his story. It became one of the best-selling slave narratives of the period and continues to be probably the most widely read first hand account of slavery from a figure that played a big hand in helping to end it. Douglass would go on to publish two later autobiographies continuing the story of his life.
17. On Liberty: Bold-faced Thoughts on Free Will, Free Speech, and the Importance of Individuality by John Stuart Mill
In this work, nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill is credited with giving one of the first and most passionate defenses of free speech, a value that much of modern Western society now holds as one of its principle bedrocks. Mill makes the powerful argument that any doctrine should be allowed to be published and talked about no matter how immoral or awful it may seem to the majority. This is necessary, he argues, for the good of society in terms of its overall rhetoric and dignity. Obviously the founding fathers agreed with him.
18. On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin
Evolution is still one of the most controversial topics in American society. It was just last year that scientist Bill Nye argued in a widely watched debate with creationist Ken Hamm on the topic. Whether or not people choose to believe the science, it all started with the groundbreaking discovery of inherited traits and natural selection that Charles Darwin documented in his book On Origin of Species. Through observing generations of various plants and animals, Darwin figured out how creatures evolve and adapt to the natural environment in a process that results in the “survival of the fittest” but is also beautifully poetic. Published in 1859, this is the book that the life sciences are based on.
19. The Qur’an
The Qur’an is the founding text of Islam, which Muslims believe was revealed by God to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Similarly to the Christian Bible, this ancient text is revered for its poetic beauty, storytelling, and moral lessons that are pervasive in the Muslim world. Since Islam currently has 1.2 billion followers, or a quarter of the world’s population, it’s easy to see why this book is still so important. While there’s a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice about Islam in the West, which the Pew Research Center says is so pervasive it may affect the patterns of Muslim migration, Islam is an Abrahamic faith that has a great amount in common with Christianity.
20. Republic by Plato
This is the most famous of ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogues, centering on the regular figure of his works, Socrates. In this work, Socrates considers the question of justice and whether the just person is happier than the unjust person. To support his very long argument that a just person is happier, Socrates imagines a pretend city called Kallipolis where he and the other philosophers he argues with set the stage with imaginary citizens and situations for their philosophical debate. Over the course of the conversation, Socrates addresses nearly every imaginable aspect of society and the nature of being.
21. The Rights of Man: For the Benefit of All Mankind by Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine, one of America’s founding fathers, argues in this slim political manifesto that citizens have the right to rebel against the government when the government isn’t serving the natural rights of its people. That seems like a no-brainer, but in 1791 when it was published the book caused a fervor, illustrated in the pamphlet from the time shown above. The book was written in defense of the French Revolution, as Paine had been in the country at that time and observed the upheaval. The Rights of Man spurred the American Revolution and is considered one of the founding texts of democracy.
22. The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir
This staggering feminist volume from French philosopher De Beauvoir is considered the starting point of second wave feminism and attempts to document the systematic oppression of women throughout history. It’s a hefty task that the philosopher undertook at the age of 38 and when she was finished presented a viewpoint that gave words to the frustrations many women had been feeling but hadn’t articulated. The book explains with a huge array of examples how women have been treated as second class citizens. “The Second Sex was an act of Promethean audacity — a theft of Olympian fire — from which there was no turning back,” wrote The New York Times.
23. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Silent Spring is the book credited with beginning the American environmentalist movement, a cause that is still deeply felt today in issues from the use of GMOs in food to whether or not to lay a pipeline. You can’t go to the grocery store without witnessing the effects of Carson’s book on the harmful chemicals used in agriculture in the 1950’s and ‘60s. Those chemicals had horribly detrimental effects on the environment, particularly on bird populations, hence the title of the book. Carson accuses the pesticide industry of spreading misinformation and blatantly lying to its customers and the public, and also accuses the government of accepting that misinformation without question despite the obvious damage being caused to the environment. The book was so influential that it’s credited with spurring a ban on the use of DDT for agricultural purposes and causing the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
24. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
This ancient Chinese text is the founding text of Taoism and estimated to be around 2,500 years old. Its influence, however, extends far past Taoism to Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as heavily influencing Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry, gardening, and other art forms. The work is believed to have been written around 400 BCE by someone identified as Lao Tzu. Tzu’s identity is contested, as his name may translate simply to “old master,” indicating that the name of the philosopher who wrote these teachings was lost. Tao translates roughly to “the way” and the work outlines what’s considered the best way for one to live a simple and pleasant life full of wisdom and integrity. Many still look to this book today for advice on how to slow down, enjoy the simple things, and accept what they cannot control.
25. The Torah: The Five Books of Moses
The Torah is the most important text of Judaism, consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The books in the Torah are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, beginning with the creation of the world by God and ending with the death of Moses. The books themselves are believed to have been written by Moses after a revelation from God at Mount Sinai. Many very familiar stories are found in these texts, including the story of Moses’s life. While they don’t have a similar significance in other religions, these texts are also a part of the Christian Bible and the Qu’ran as well.
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