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November 20, 2013

Ten Books That Changed the World (No, Really)


This week, we’re going big. Really, really world-changing big, and I don’t mean world-changing as in it touched the hearts and minds of millions and inspired a little girl somewhere in rural Kansas to become an English major (no one should need inspiration for that anyway). This week I’ve picked 10 books that caused significant, widespread and lasting change to the world we live in. Ten books that cover politics, religion, philosophy, advanced physics and everything in between. Ten books worth knowing about.

THE PRINCE by Niccoló Machiavelli
Published way back in 1532, when Italy was the center of the new world and assassination was still a valid campaign strategy, this treatise introduced a completely new way of thinking about governing. To everyone clamoring, “What is the best way to rule?” Machiavelli shrugs and replies, “Whatever works.” THE PRINCE gives practical advice on the most effective ways to maintain power and control of one’s subjects. Although scholars have raised doubts about the sincerity of some of its suggestions, THE PRINCE still made people think about politics pragmatically (rather than ideologically) --- a mindset that we still see today (for better or for worse). Plus, it made “Machiavellian” into a word, and if your name still gets thrown around five hundred years after your death, you must be doing something right (or very, very wrong).

THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
You really don’t have an excuse for not reading this one. The central document of Marxist philosophy has influenced millions of people, parties and governments all around the world and it’s only 30 pages long (including the footnotes). First it analyzes the class struggle, which Marx and Engels thought was the root of all human conflict. Then it explains the problems with capitalism and how those problems will inevitably (in their minds) lead to a socialist revolution. Short on specifics but long on ideas, the MANIFESTO continues to shape both politics and academics to this day.

COMMON SENSE by Thomas Paine
If it wasn’t for Thomas Paine and COMMON SENSE, the Revolutionary War may never have happened. He first published this incendiary pamphlet anonymously in 1776, and it quickly became a massive sensation that turned public opinion overwhelmingly towards revolution (this was still in the early should-we-or-shouldn’t-we phase, when people grumbled a lot about taxes but still paid on time). Paine intentionally wrote in a clear and simple style and used simple Biblical analogies to make his writing persuasive to everyday people. Before COMMON SENSE,there were only a small handful of educated men talking about independence. Afterwards, all 13 colonies were buzzing with it.

Also published in 1776, this book helped to jump-start the first major school of economic thought (called “classical economics”) and continued to define the field for hundreds of years after. It coined the phrase “invisible hand,” which Smith argued was the natural tendency of free markets to find equilibrium without any kind of outside intervention. Although classical economics has fallen out of favor today, later schools of thought all owe a debt to Smith for getting people started thinking about wealth and its movement on a national level.

This one gets philosophical, but it was written by Plato, so what do you expect? His ideas inspired scholars not just in philosophy, but also in politics, religion, literature and almost every smart-person field you can imagine. THE REPUBLIC contains a series of conversations between philosophers (this format was pretty common in ancient Greece) who try to define what justice is and what a just man and a just society would be like. It might seem like a pointless thought experiment, but lawyers, world leaders and policymakers around the world translate Plato’s definitions into concrete results every day.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe
This sold more copies in the 19th century than any other book except the Bible. Like what happened with COMMON SENSEand the Revolutionary War, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN turned public opinion against slavery by showing the harsh realities of slave life. Even today, many of the stereotypes popularized in the book continue to be debated as race relations in the United States, and worldwide, evolve.

Darwin rocked the scientific world in 1859 by introducing the idea of evolutionary biology and provoking arguments that haven’t been solved 150 years later. ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES wasn’t the first book to argue for evolution, but it was the first to get significant public attention, and it triggered a widespread change in scientific research. Changing the consensus of the entire scientific community is not something that happens every day, but Darwin’s book did exactly that.

In English, the title means “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” but I left it in Latin for extra academic appeal. Isaac Newton (Remember him? Smart guy, apple, tree, gravity?) wrote this three-book work and it is, without exaggeration, the most important work in all of science. It contains Newton’s three laws of motion, the theory of gravity and the laws of planetary motion. Those are as basic as they come when we’re talking about the natural sciences. This work also pioneered the idea of applying mathematical concepts to the natural world (that’s how Newton figured out gravity in the first place), a model that’s so ingrained in us now that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without it. But if it wasn’t for the PRINCIPIA, that could have been the world we live in today.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf
Technically speaking, this is an essay, but I’ll let that slide in light of its overwhelming contribution to feminism in literature. Published in 1929 by Virginia Woolf, A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN takes a hard look at gender inequality in a time when that sort of thing was not exactly polite dinner table conversation. But Woolf decided to ignore that because she felt (rightly so) that the number of additional obstacles female authors faced was wrong. Arguing that a woman needs “money and a room of her own” in order to produce quality writing, Woolf took a stand on gender equality and paved the way for the J.K. Rowlings and Alice Monroes of today and tomorrow.

CONFESSIONS by St. Augustine of Hippo
A bishop’s autobiography from the 4th century might seem like a strange source for a book that changed the world, but St. Augustine’s CONFESSIONS did exactly that. Not only does the tome have huge historical value as one of the few detailed records of life in the late 4th and early 5th centuries (most people hadn’t even figured out bathing then, much less how to read or write) but it also shaped a vast amount of Christian theology and belief. Along with three other notable bishops (known as the “Doctors of the Church”), St. Augustine’s work helped to define a ton of the basic elements of Christianity. Ideas like “original sin,” the “grace of God” and a “just war” aren’t in the Bible like you might have suspected --- they come from the CONFESSIONS.