A selection of over 50 books that helped to influence and change the world. These books have all had an impact on human society and human culture.
Bhagavad Gita (c. 3100 B.C) – ‘The Song of God‘ – is a classic Hindu scripture which records the discourse of Sri Krishna and Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra. Sri Krishna taught a practical spirituality that could be practised in the world and did not require world-renunciation. The philosophy of the Gita includes bhakti yoga (devotion) and karma yoga (selfless action)
The Iliad (8th Century BC) – Homer. One of the earliest surviving classics of Western literature, the Iliad is an epic poem telling the story and characters of the Trojan War – such as Achilles and King Agamemnon. The Iliad also tells of ancient Greek legends.
The Histories (c. 450 – 420s BC) – Herodotus (Greek) The Histories was one of the first major works of history – documenting the peoples and times of ancient Greece, Persia and Northern Africa. It is an important source for knowledge about those times and set an important precedent for documenting history.
The Torah (c. 600 – 400 BC) Judaism believes the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai; it incorporates five main books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). It is the principal account of Jewish history, traditions and customs. It is highly influential in Judeo-Christian culture, and the five principle books were incorporated into the Bible.
The Dhammapada (c 3rd-1st Century BC) – Sayings of the Buddha. The Dhammapada is a written account of Buddha’s sayings on the spiritual life and his advice to monks. They contain the essence of Buddhism through topics, such as meditation, detachment, liberation and controlling the mind.
The Analects c. 475 BC–221 BC) – Confucius The Analects contain the sayings of the Chinese sage Confucius. The Analects encourage people to cultivate wisdom (ren) through devotion to one’s parents/family and loyalty to their ruler. It is essentially a conservative philosophy encouraging morally and ethically upstanding citizens. It is the most influential book in Chinese history and is widely read today.
The Republic (c. 4th Century BC) – Plato. The Republic is a highly influential book on political and social philosophy. It is written in the form of a Socratic dialogue where different participants discuss concepts of justice, good governance, the nature of the soul, and ideas of what constitutes happiness. Plato argues that one of the best forms of government would be to give power to philosopher-kings – independently minded arbiters of just rule.
Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC) A mathematical and geometric treatise consisting of 13 books written by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid in Alexandria. Euclid combined many different aspects of mathematics and presented them in a coherent and logical format. His clarity meant this became the standard mathematics textbook into the Nineteenth Century.
Geographia (c. 100- 170 AD) – Ptolemy Ptolemy created a book of maps, atlas which summarised the Roman knowledge of world geography. It was translated into Latin in Europe during the early part of the Renaissance and provided an influential starting point for European knowledge of world geography.
The Qu’ran (c. 609 AD – 632 AD). The Qu’ran, meaning “recitation” is considered the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe the Qu’ran contains revelations from God revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad. The Qu’ran teaches a monotheistic religion, where followers are encouraged to surrender to God.
Canon of Medicine (1025AD) – Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). The Canon of Medicine is an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge compiled by Persian philosopher Ibn Sīnā. It includes some of the most important medical knowledge of the time – including Galenic medicine, Chinese medicine and some of Aristotle’s writings. It served as a medical textbook in Europe into the Seventeenth Century.
The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390s) – Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales‘ are a collection of 20 books written in Middle English, telling accounts of English life in the Middle Ages. Chaucer was a master storyteller, also including criticism of the church and aspects of English life. The book was an influential moment in encouraging the use of English – as opposed to Latin.
Don Quixote (1605) – Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) is one of the world’s greatest novels. It is highly influential in Western literature – and Spanish literature in particular. It explores themes of chivalry, realism, justice and simplicity.
The Bible – King James Version (1611) Commissioned shortly after the first English translation of the Bible by John Wycliffe. The King James Bible was translated from Greek and Aramaic and became the defining English translation for the Western World; it became the most printed book in the world. It has been admired for its quality of English and poetic descriptions.
First Folio (1623) – William Shakespeare. The first comprehensive publication of Shakespeare’s plays. The First Folio includes 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and is the primary source material for much of Shakespeare’s work. Its publication began the gradual process of making Shakespeare the most widely read author in the English language. Shakespeare’s influence on language, literature are hard to quantify – given the global and universal appeal of his work.
An Anatomical Study of the motion of the heart and blood in Animals (1628) – William Harvey. A pioneering work on the circulation of blood. Harvey also offered a revolutionary scientific method – with hypothesis, experiments and observations. It influenced our understanding of physiology and also set a benchmark for scientific studies.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) – Galileo Galilei – In this Italian book, Galileo compared Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the world with the contemporary view of Ptolemy (earth centre of the universe) Galileo’s findings were influential in shifting opinion about the nature of the universe. His book was placed on the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books until 1835.
Principia Mathematica (1687) – Isaac Newton Full title – Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Latin for “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” This great work formed the basis of modern physics. Newton included his theory of gravity, the law of motion/mechanics and consolidated Kepler’s law of planetary motion. Newton developed new modes of mathematics and calculus to offer proof for his ideas. Widely considered to be the most influential science book of all time.
A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) – Samuel Johnson. Johnson did not write the first dictionary, but his was by far the most comprehensive dictionary and became the standard for English dictionaries until the OED in 1888. The Johnson dictionary was commissioned by printers who wanted a better quality dictionary to meet with the growing literacy and demand for books. Even the OED – 187 years later – used many of Johnson’s explanations.
The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s novel about a sensitive and passionate young man became a best seller and was translated into several European languages. The book helped Goethe become one of the first international literary celebrities. The novel and romantic ideals had a significant impact on the burgeoning Romantic Movement of the late Eighteenth Century.
The Wealth of Nations (1776) – Adam Smith. Smith’s work on economics became the founding cornerstone of classical economics – helping to define the relatively new subject, which was becoming increasingly important with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Smith’s work considered free markets, free trade, the division of labour and monopoly power.
Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine. Common Sense was a political pamphlet published at the beginning of the American Revolution. It spoke in simple and direct language about the benefits of American Independence from Great Britain. It appealed to ordinary people and helped to garner support for American Independence. It was also revolutionary for ushering in a more democratic and Republican politics.
Lyrical Ballads (1798)– William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These volumes of poetry include some of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s finest poetry – such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge) and Lines written above Tintern Abbey (Wordsworth). The poetry was influential for its simpler lyrical style. Wordsworth wrote that the book was an experiment to see if the language of poetry could be made more accessible to ordinary people – as opposed to the more rigid and highly formalised styles of 18th Century poetry. Lyrical Ballards is often considered to be the start of the English Romantic Movement, marking a defining shift in English literature.
Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice is one of the most enduringly popular novels in the English language. It deals with issues of class, marriage, manners and morality. It’s popularity and a lasting legacy on this romantic genre of novel. Jane Austen’s success also made it easier for women to be taken seriously as writers.
A Christmas Carol (1843)– Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of Dicken’s most popular short stories. It deals with the contrasting themes of the joy of Christmas and the unhappiness of being miserly and devoted to money. It helped revitalise Christmas traditions, while containing some classic Dickens satire of Victorian Capitalism.
The Communist Manifesto 1848 – Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto is a short and succinct revolutionary document which called for the overthrow of Capitalist society. Unlike Marx’ denser works, the language of the Manifesto was incendiary and inspirational for those who wanted to see the end of Capitalism. Marxism became a driving philosophy behind the Russian Revolution and influenced other Western states who became fearful of a Communist Revolution.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an anti-slavery novel, which portrayed the harsh realities of slavery. It also offered an optimistic view of how Christian charity and love could overcome a man-made evil such as slavery. It is considered to be highly influential in shaping American public opinion and turning people against slavery – which was a key issue of the civil war.
Madame Bovary (1857) – Gustave Flaubert (French). Flaubert’s novel depicts the life of a doctor’s wife who pursues affairs and excitement to escape the banality of life. It’s publication was considered shocking for its depiction of adultery – the resulting obscenity trial helped increase its profile and sales. Its gritty realism was also very significant for the development of the modern realistic genre of literature.
Gray’s Anatomy (1858) An English-language textbook of human anatomy, originally written by Henry Gray. It is was the first comprehensive analogy of human anatomy and part of the movement to formalise and clarify medical treatment. It was so useful that it became the classic textbook for physicians. It has been continually revised and republished since 1858.
On the Origin of Species (1859) – Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species was a culmination of Darwin’s life work examining the development of life and species. It is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology and critical for overturning mankind’s idea of where it came from. The theory of evolution was a direct challenge to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and its publication was met with significant controversy.
On Liberty (1859) – John Stuart Mill On Liberty is an influential justification for personal liberty and defining the limits of state intervention. – “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” – Mill. On Liberty was an attempt to defend the philosophy of utilitarianism, but also defend individual rights against the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
War and Peace (1869) – Leo Tolstoy (Russian). War and Peace is Tolstoy’s great historical epic based on the French Napoleonic invasion of Russia. It deals with all aspects of life – human emotion, politics and philosophy. In many ways, the book transcended traditional genres and brought in new literary styles, such as the ability to offer a variety of perspectives on the same scene.
The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) – Sigmund Freud – Freud was a pioneering psychologist. His work on the Interpretation of Dreams was influential for advancing Freud’s theory of the unconscious and the Oedipus Complex. Freud’s theory of psycho-analysis has proved very controversial, but his work inspired a new branch of medical science to either further or reject his initial work.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – (1905) This was published in Russia and was a fraudulent attempt to suggest there was a Jewish conspiracy to gain control over the world through manipulation of the press and subverting Christian ideals. Although shown to be a fraud, it was widely distributed around the world and was used as a textbook in Nazi Germany, fuelling anti-Semitism.
Poems (1920) – Wilfred Owen. Owen’s war poetry was highly influential in creating a negative view of the First World War. His biting, ironic poems highlighted the absurdity and horror of war. The power of his poems was influential in creating a strong peace movement in Great Britain, which opposed re-armament in the 1920s and 30s.
Relativity: The Special and General Theory (1920) – Albert Einstein. Einstein’s great work on relativity helped redefine concepts of physics and our understanding of the universe. It was the most revolutionary development in physics since Newton. Einstein’s work showed that time and space are not linear and absolute, but could vary depending on circumstances. Einstein also showed that energy and mass are actually equivalent through his famous formula – E=mc²
Ulysses (1922) James Joyce – Ulysses is a highly influential modernist work of fiction, which used experimental techniques such as a stream of consciousness writing, combined with an offbeat sense of humour – based on puns, allusions and parodies. It was unprecedented in length, scope and style, and influenced many other modernist writers.
Mein Kampf (1925) – Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf was written by Hitler when he was in prison for the failed Munich Putsch attempt. It expresses Hitler’s desire for a new world order – based on his anti-Semitism and desire for expanding Germany into Eastern territories. After his rise to power in 1933, it was widely disseminated in Nazi Germany. It was also used by many who feared Hitler’s rise to power as evidence of his intent.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) – D.H. Lawrence. The book was highly controversial for its depiction of a love affair between a working-class man and an upper-class women. It was prohibited in the UK for many decades because of its explicit sexual content. In 1960, Penguin wished to publish the book, leading to a trial about whether it contravened the obscenity act. Penguin won and it was published in 1961.
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) John Maynard Keynes – Keynes wrote his classic economic theory against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Keynes argued the persistence of mass unemployment was unnecessary and effective government action could overcome a prolonged slump. His book was the founding work of a new branch of economics – macro-economics. Keynesian economics continues to be highly influential both theoretically and practically for dealing with recessions.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) – Anne Frank (Dutch) – Originally published as a “Diary of a Young Girl”. The magnitude of the holocaust, with six million Jews killed, was hard for many to comprehend. The Diary of Anne Frank gave readers a personal link behind the numbers killed and helped put the holocaust into human terms.
If This is a Man (1947) – Primo Levi (Italian) Levi wrote this personal account of his 12-month incarceration in Auschwitz concentration camp. It is considered one of the most intimate and direct accounts of life under the degrading and dehumanising conditions of a concentration camp. It was one of the earlier personal accounts of surviving the holocaust to be published and is considered a pre-eminent first-hand account.
Animal Farm (1945) – George Orwell. Orwell was a democratic socialist who fought in the Spanish civil war. Animal Farm is a dystopian fairy-tale, which gives a biting and immediate allegory of a revolution betrayed. It was written as a satirical tale against Stalin’s Soviet Union and became part of the literary Cold War Propaganda against Communism.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) – Dr Spock. Spock was an American paediatrician who wrote a manual for child care, which emphasised the importance of parents relying on their natural instincts in pursuing a balanced and empathetic approach to discipline and bringing up children. He has been blamed for encouraging a decline in discipline and respect for authority, though this was partly due to his active opposition to the Vietnam War.
Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell – 1949. Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. 1984 is a stark warning against the dangers of totalitarianism. It forewarns against the over-reaching power of the state and the desire to control the lives of individuals. Many phrases and ideas from 1984, such as ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘thought police’ have become part of the English language.
The Second Sex (1949) – Simone De Beauvoir The Second Sex was written by De Beauvoir, a French existentialist philosopher. It is considered an important work in the second wave of feminism, which sought to address feminist issues, such as sexual violence, discrimination against women and equal opportunities. She also rejected the theories of Freud.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger – 1951. Salinger’s novel became an iconic work for teenage rebellion, dealing with issues of identity, alienation and respect for authority. It is considered influential for the ‘beat generation’ of the 1960s, which saw a widespread challenging of authority and conventional customs.
Lord of the Rings (1954) – J.R.R.Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is an epic three-part fantasy novel based in mythological Middle-earth. It became one of the best selling works of the Twentieth Century and was influential for the 1960s beat generation. It also spawned a renewed interest in the fantasy genre.
Silent Spring (1962) – Rachel Carson. Silent Spring documented the danger to the environment from chemical pesticides. It is considered a seminal work in the new environmental movement which evolved from the early 1960s and which sought to give priority to protecting the environment.
Quotations from Chairman Mao (1964) – Mao Zedong Between 1964 and Mao’s death in 1976, ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao’ or the ‘Little Red Book’ became one of the most widely published books in the world. It was distributed to nearly every Chinese person and helped cement the personality cult of Mao and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s / 70s.
Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone (1997) – J.K.Rowling. One of the greatest publishing sensations of all time. This was the first book in the seven-part Harry Potter series. It has become the best selling series of books in the world, credited with revitalising interest in reading by children. It has encouraged more books from a similar genre.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Books that changed the world”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net Last updated 04 Jan 2020, Originall published. 4 April 2015.
100 Most influential books ever written at Amazon
People who changed the world. Famous people who changed the course of history.
Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world, including Sappho, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great.
Ideas that changed the world – Scientific, political, religious and technological ideas that transformed the world. Including – democracy, feminism, human rights and relativity.
Quotes that changed the world – Inspiring Quotes that changed the world from some of the world’ leading minds, such as Einstein, Buddha, Darwin, Galileo.
Ideas that changed the world – Scientific, political, religious and technological ideas that transformed the world. Including – democracy, feminism, human rights and relativity.
Inventions that changed the world. – From aluminium and the aeroplane to pasteurisation and penicillin.