I’ve always been a voracious reader and I’ve read many books that changed the way I felt about the world—books that tugged at my emotions, provoked outrage, and challenged my beliefs. Every once in a while, a book comes along that doesn’t only affect one person, but spreads a message so powerful that it transforms the culture. Some even have the power to topple governments, stir outcry, and change the course of history as we know it.
1. The Feminine Mystique is hailed as a watershed moment in second-wave feminism. Written by Betty Friedan in 1963, the book brought to light the lack of fulfillment experienced by women who had been led to believe that wifehood and motherhood would make them content. It gave a voice to a generation of women who had been quietly despairing that they were trapped in a life of domesticity. The book ignited the women’s movement and remains one of the greatest books of contemporary feminism.
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Mark Twain’s best-known work, published in 1885. The novel follows Huck in his adventures traveling up the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim. It was controversial as soon as it was published, with critics calling it crude, coarse, and rough, mostly because of its treatment of race, its repeated use of the n-word, and because it was written in Southern vernacular. Although it is still regularly taught in schools, it remains the 5th most-banned book in America, despite Ernest Hemingway’s proclamation that “all American literature comes from Huck Finn.”
3. Silent Spring was written by Rachel Carson at a time when the environment was not a priority for many. The book, published in 1962, imagined a future when chemicals and pesticides had wreaked havoc on our ecosystem and poisoned our wildlife. Carson was hailed for awakening the environmental movement and her book’s popularity resulted in the banning of the pesticide DDT.
4. On the Origin of Species was published by Charles Darwin in 1859, at a time when science was still influenced by religion. It created a scandal, since many people had difficulty believing that humans descended from animals. The book was a landmark event in evolutionary biology and put forth Darwin’s theories on evolution, natural selection, and sexual selection.
5. Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, was a runaway bestseller in the American colonies when it was published in January 1776. At the time, many colonists were undecided on the issue of independence and Paine argued persuasively for a republican government, while accusing the British of governing for their own benefit, rather than the colonists’. Paine offered “nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” and in doing so, convinced the hesitant colonists to fight for their independence, igniting the American Revolution.
6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852 and became the bestselling novel of the 19th century. Stowe’s book about runaway slaves was blatantly anti-slavery and she herself was an abolitionist preacher, but despite its bias, the book helped to turn the tide of political opinion against slavery and bolstered support for the Civil War. Upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”
7. Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, was the handbook for inquisitors during Europe’s medieval witch hunts in their quest for finding and punishing witches. Published in 1484, it suggested that women were more susceptible to the devil because of their weak constitution and it encouraged the torture of any woman who was independent, willful, or refused to display “proper” female behavior. More importantly, the book marked a turning point for the Catholic Church, which officially began to recognize the existence of witchcraft. Some experts estimate that up to 100,000 women were executed for witchcraft in Europe between 1400 and 1700.
8. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith, was published during the Enlightenment, in 1776. It was an extremely influential work of economic theory and is the first treatise on capitalism. Smith theorized free-market economy, where people offered goods and services to each other, thereby enriching themselves. Smith also propagated the idea of an “invisible hand” that would correct the markets and that society should be a meritocracy, rewarding hard work and enterprise rather than social standing.
9. Unsafe at Any Speed, written by Ralph Nader in 1965, was published at a time when consumer advocacy was in its infancy. Nader exposed how the auto industry resisted installing safety features in order to keep profits high and showed how shoddily-manufactured cars were putting lives at risk. It was met with extreme criticism from car companies, who intimidated Nader before finally instituting improved safety standards.
10. The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, was the definitive repudiation of the capitalist system. Published in 1848 by a commission from the Communist League, the book laid out Marx’s complaints about capitalism and the “class struggle,” as he saw it. Marx advocated taking steps like abolishing inheritances, nationalizing banks and communication, and instituting a progressive income tax, in order to achieve a classless society. The book was primarily a work of philosophy, but world leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-tung were influenced by the Manifesto and his principles were incorporated into the creation of Communist China and the USSR.
Throughout history, books have sparked revolutions, started wars, and changed the world forever, and great books never stop inspiring. As author William Styron said, “Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death has no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.”