Before the first books were created, a person’s general worldview was shaped entirely by the human beings who lived within earshot. Long after books were invented, there were still very few literate people in the world to be able to read them. And for those who were literate, books were often too expensive to make it feasible to have many of them, if any at all.
Luckily, however, books, literacy, and inexpensive access to literature all became widespread, after which point it became possible for any literate person to have a private conversation with the greatest minds in history, even if those authors had been dead for hundreds of years. Of the millions of books that have been written and circulated through the centuries, some stand above the others for the impact they’ve had on the mental atmosphere of human civilization.
10. The Bible (and Related Works)
It’s impossible to discuss influential books without first covering the Bible, Quran and related holy scriptures. From the first canonical synthesis in the fourth century to the King James edition, which represents a pinnacle of English letters, the Bible has all but governed the intellectual development of billions of people. As late as the 20th century, it wasn’t at all unusual to meet people who had never read anything but the Bible, and the ideas and imagery contained within it are foundational even to the way modern people organize their thoughts. A history in which the Bible had never been written would be unrecognizable to historians.
9. Common Sense
“Common Sense,” together with “The Rights of Man,” was Thomas Paine’s feral yawp against virtually every institution of his age. The world Paine was born into was one of aristocracy, hereditary government office, race-based chattel slavery and public executions for pickpockets. Paine was arguably the first man in history to bind up all these ills and curse them with fire and brimstone. His words are electric. Every chapter is a declaration of war against the old medieval order around him, and he may have been the first writer to use the word “democrat” approvingly, rather than as a term of abuse. His words helped start the American Revolution, and then he was off to France to do it again.
8. The Communist Manifesto
What “Common Sense” was to the agrarian monarchies of the Enlightenment, Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” was to the industrial capitalist societies of his own time. Marx reached into every city and village in Europe with his call for workers’ justice, and millions leaped to the barricades to sacrifice their bodies in vicious street battles. Eventually, the movement Marx helped to start would become the only legal political orthodoxy across half the globe, and the author’s face would be printed on banners and carried in parades in countries that, between them, contained nearly half of the world’s population.
7. The Origin of Species
You can’t argue with success, and by that measure, Charles Darwin’s treatise brooks no dissent. Written from the author’s keen observations, with help from other naturalists, “The Origin of Species,” and the successor “The Descent of Man,” explained in plain language the mechanism by which living things diversified and adapted to the world around them. The theory the book sets forth became the foundation of modern biology, and it informs every branch of the study of life.
6. The Principia
Isaac Newton’s masterpiece lays out more than a system for performing calculations. This book, written in the 17th century, introduced the Western world to the idea of mathematical verification of ideas. It is as much a part of the philosophy of science as the empirical method, and it’s part of the reason people were eventually able to visit the moon.
5. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the most popular book of the 19th century as a protest against slavery. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which reads as overwritten and saccharine to modern readers, lit a fire under the growing abolition movement in the United States, forged a group political identity that would eventually vault Abraham Lincoln to the White House, and set the stage for the cataclysm that followed.
4. The Canterbury Tales
If you enjoy reading in English, thank Geoffrey Chaucer. Before “Canterbury Tales,” which is structured as a hilarious litany of personal anecdotes, told by a delightful cast of eccentrics who enjoy making fart jokes, English was the degraded language of peasants. It was an article of faith that true gentlemen always spoke French. Chaucer turned convention on its ear, crafted a great work of comic verse, and founded the great tradition of English literature.
3. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
Thoreau used “Civil Disobedience” to record his thoughts on how to change the world around him. His works were explicitly cited as the inspiration for the civil rights movement that sprang up a century after the book was written, and Martin Luther King Jr. consciously emulated Thoreau as much as possible, right down to fasting when he was arrested.
2. The City of God
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote “The City of God” in the fifth century to answer the accusation that Christianity had been to blame for the fall of Rome. This book does that in the first few sections, then it goes on to practically invent Western thought. This book is the first known work to divide the world between the sacred and the profane. It also systematizes the concepts of original sin, the fall from grace, redemption, the just war, conscientious objection and the idea of moral perfection.
1. The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau changed the way people thought about society with “The Social Contract.” Nothing in this book is really new, as the ideas in it were floating around among European intellectuals of the time, but Rousseau brought them together and explicitly proposed that governments are instituted among men to accomplish limited aims, chiefly to protect the liberty of citizens. This is also the book that argued that free men have a duty to overthrow wicked governments and replace them with more representative institutions. If the notion of government being nothing more than a utility, one that is subordinate to the liberty of the citizen, sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because Rousseau was practically quoted line and verse by the American and French revolutionaries, and his ideas are the formal theory of the modern state.
Lists of influential books are bound to differ from one person to another. These 10 have shifted the way people think, act and organize societies.