46 Books that Changed the World

These books altered history in ways big and small.
These books altered history in ways big and small. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Tanya Syrytsyna/Shutterstock (book and cloud), Oxygen64/Shutterstock (hammer sickle), Istry Istry/Shutterstock (bird), Isaxar/Shutterstock (quixote) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Anyone who’s ever turned a page understands the potential for books to change the world in ways both large and small. Here, in no particular order, are just a few of history’s most influential tomes—and how they made humanity look at things in a new light.

1. Diamond Sutra

If we’re going to name influential books, we might as well begin with the oldest dated printed tome. On May 11, 868 CE—nearly 600 years before Gutenberg ever considered printing a Bible—a man named Wang Jie commissioned the printing of The Diamond Sutra, a Mahāyāna Buddhist “wisdom” text presented as a conversation between Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti, in Chinese. According to Susan Whitfield, then-director of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, “Printing was developed in China by the 8th century, and certainly by the 9th century, when this sutra was made, it was a refined art.” The 6000-word, nearly 16.5-foot-long scroll was found in 1900 in a secret library along the Silk Road in China; it was later taken to England by archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein. It now resides at the British Library, which calls it “one of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures in East Asia.”

Wang Jie commissioned the book, according to Whitfield, because of one of Buddhism’s most important tenets: To do good deeds. “One of the ways of doing a good deed and gaining merit, and also sending out merit into the world for others, is by either copying an image of the Buddha, or by copying his words and transmitting them,” she explained in a 2007 talk. By unrolling the Sutra to read it, Wang Jie (or whoever possessed the Sutra) would further spread Buddha’s teachings. “The Buddhists were one of the major groups that propagated and refined and developed printing,” Whitfield says, “because of the reason that they could realize multiple copies of prayers and other texts and that would be good for their religion.” —Erin McCarthy

2. Shakespeare’s First Folio

An open book that says "First Folio by William Shakespeare" next to a hand holding a skull
Without the First Folio, many of Shakespeare's plays may have been lost. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Oksana_Ashurova/Shutterstock (skull) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

From shaping our ideas about what it means to be a teenager to inventing the modern name Jessica, William Shakespeare has shaped modern life in ways both subtle and dramatic. But without the First Folio, many of his most historically and culturally important works—including Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest—probably would not have survived.

First published in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio collected 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, half of which had never appeared in print. (During Shakespeare’s life, actors who performed his plays didn’t work from scripts; they were given lengthy parchments containing only the lines they needed to learn.) Of the plays that had been previously published, most existed only as fragile “quartos.” The First Folio was compiled and published by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues and is almost universally considered the most accurate historical source for his work—and often hailed as the single most important book of literature ever produced. In October 2020, a copy sold to a private collector for nearly $10 million—the highest recorded price ever paid at auction for a literary work.

But the First Folio didn’t just preserve the Bard’s plays; Shakespeare scholars maintain that it was critical in securing his reputation as an important playwright in the years following the English Civil War. Thanks in part to the First Folio, Shakespeare’s plays were widely available when English theaters were desperate for material. As a result, his work popularized dramatic conventions, plots, and linguistic devices that would profoundly influence everything from Western literature to Bollywood cinema. —April Snellings

3. Aesop’s Fables

The universal themes at the heart of Aesop's Fables have resonated with readers for millennia. The simple stories use anthropomorphized animals to convey moral messages—like “slow and steady wins the race” (“The Tortoise and the Hare”) and “revenge is a double-edged sword” (“The Farmer and the Fox”). Even if you didn’t read the story collection growing up, you’ve likely heard some of the many expressions it popularized. Supposedly written in the 6th century BCE by an enslaved man who may or may not have existed, Aesop’s Fables is one of the older works on this list, but its lasting influence on our stories, language, and morality is unmatched. —Michele Debczak

4. Republic

“If any books change the world, Republic has a good claim to first place,” wrote Simon Blackburn in his 2006 book Plato’s Republic: A Biography. Republic introduces many of Plato’s most iconic ideas, including his thoughts on a perfect society, his ruminations on the definition and importance of justice, and the Allegory of the Cave; Blackburn points out that there are studies analyzing the influence of Plato on, well, almost every other book on this list. In 2001, it was voted the single greatest work of philosophy ever composed. That’s not to say everyone agrees with Plato’s conclusions; Philosophers’ Magazine editor Julian Baggini called Republic “wrong on almost every point” but still allowed that “without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.”

Plato - illustrated portrait. Greek philosopher, 428 - 347 AD.
Plato, author of 'The Republic.' / Culture Club/GettyImages

Written sometime around 375 BCE, Republic is structured as a lengthy dialogue between Socrates and several other Athenian men (including Plato’s brothers). The conversation covers a lot of ground, ranging from the role of women in society (they’re just as qualified as men to be rulers and soldiers) to what kind of music upper-class children should listen to (definitely not the aulos). But it’s primarily concerned with defining justice in both societal and personal terms, and proving that a just life is better and more satisfying than an unjust one. To make his point, Plato imagines an ideal state populated by three social classes: one that rules the state, one that guards it, and one that produces all the things the state needs.

Besides being the first major work of Western political philosophy and a foundational text of Western thought, Republic has been embraced by a wide range of influential figures throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr. named it as the one book (excluding the Bible, which the interviewer ruled out in the question) he’d want with him if he were stranded on a desert island [PDF]. “There is not a creative idea extant that is not discussed, in some way, in this work,” King said of Republic in a 1965 interview. On the other end of the spectrum, Mussolini was said to have always had a copy nearby, and The New York Times speculated that Republic might have influenced the Ayatollah Khomeini’s consequential reshaping of Iran. —AS

5. All Quiet on the Western Front

There had never been a war like World War I, and there had never been a novel like All Quiet on the Western Front.

The widespread use of trench warfare combined with devastating new weapons produced the bloodiest and deadliest fighting Europe had ever seen. The war claimed the lives of at least 9 million soldiers as well as millions of civilians; millions more were maimed by tanks, chemical weapons, and other new military technologies.

Erich Remarque
Erich Remarque, author of 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

A decade after the war ended, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front became an instant sensation, racking up 1 million sales within a year in his native Germany and 800,000 more in Britain, France, and America combined. It wasn’t the first anti-war novel published, but it was the first to become an international bestseller, giving millions of readers a bleak and vivid account of modern warfare devoid of patriotic or jingoistic veneers.  

But Remarque’s novel—about a group of idealistic teenage boys who volunteer to fight for Germany toward the end of World War I, only to run headlong into the horrors and deprivations of war—would soon attract a very different sort of attention. All Quiet on the Western Front was published as the Nazis were coming to power, and they quickly set their sights on it, deeming it “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War.” When Universal’s film adaptation opened in Germany in December 1930, a group of Nazis led by none other than Joseph Goebbels—Hitler’s future Minister of Propaganda—shut down a Berlin screening, setting off stink bombs, releasing mice, and viciously attacking audience members they thought were Jewish. In Vienna, thousands of Nazis attempted to storm a theater where the film was being shown. Hitler would later make it a crime to own the book, demanding that all copies be turned over for destruction.

Remarque himself managed to escape Germany with his life, but his younger sister wasn’t so fortunate: Elfriede Scholz was arrested and tried before ultimately being beheaded in December 1943. The judge presiding over her trial supposedly insisted she must “suffer for [her] brother.” —AS

6. Species Plantarum

Before Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his then-definitive plant guide Species Plantarum in 1753, there was no formal system in place for naming plants and animals—which was a problem, considering how many species had been introduced to Western science in the preceding few centuries. Most researchers used a polynomial system in which each organism was given a sometimes-lengthy descriptive name. Besides being unwieldy, polynomial names had no standardized format and were often highly subjective, so one species might have been known by several different names. People went around giving organisms names like Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises (“solanum with the smooth stem which is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves,” if your Latin is rusty) and hoping someone would know they were talking about a tomato.

Carl Linnaeus
Carl Linnaeus, author of 'Species Plantarum.' / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

With Species Plantarum, Linnaeus showed the world an alternative: binomial nomenclature, which assigned each of the 6000 plants listed in the book a two-word name identifying it by genus and species (the tomato, for example, was dubbed Solanum lycopersicum). Binomial nomenclature was quickly adopted throughout the scientific community; more than 250 years later, we’re still using it. Along with Linnaeus’s other pivotal work, Systema Naturae, Species Plantarum provided the foundation for scientific classification, forever establishing Linnaeus as the “the Father of Taxonomy.” —AS

7. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is generally recognized as the first widely distributed feminist text. The ideas posited by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792—that women possessed the same mental capacities and rational abilities as men, and therefore deserved the same rights—were downright revolutionary in late 18th-century England, where a married woman was often considered merely an extension of her husband. In her visionary (and often withering) polemic, Wollstonecraft argued that girls should be educated along with boys in a national, co-ed school system; that women should be paid the same as men; and that voting rights should be extended to women.

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft, author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.' / Culture Club/GettyImages

Vindication didn’t make many waves when it was first published. Most contemporary critics were either amenable to or casually dismissive of Wollstonecraft’s ideas. When it came to creating change, her explosive treatise had a long fuse. Across the Atlantic, Vindication helped inspire Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to organize the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, often viewed as the starting point of first wave feminism in the United States. Susan B. Anthony, who kept a portrait of Wollstonecraft hanging on her wall, identified herself as “a great admirer of this earliest work for woman’s right to Equality of rights” and serialized Vindication in her weekly feminist newspaper, The Revolution. —AS

8. The Origin of Continents and Oceans 

In 1910, German polymath Alfred Wegener’s friend got an atlas for a Christmas present. While looking through it, Wegener—like many before and since—was struck by the match between the coasts of South America and Africa, especially when comparing the continental shelves. He put the thought to the side—until the next year, when he came across a paper detailing a paleontological connection between the two. At the time, other scientists explained this away by theorizing that the continents were once connected by land bridges that had since sunk to the ocean floor. Wegener wasn’t satisfied with this theory, and in his 1915 book The Origins of Continents and Oceans, he posited a bold new idea: The continents as we know them today had once been part of a supercontinent he later dubbed “Pangaea.”

Alfred Wegener
Alfred Wegener, author of 'The Origins of Continents and Oceans.' / Keystone/GettyImages

Over millennia, Wegener speculated, this ur-continent had broken up into successively smaller chunks until we were left with the seven continents we recognize today. Wegener’s ideas about why and how this happened, though, were less than convincing: He suggested they were either flung apart (albeit slowly) by the Earth’s rotation or scooted around by tidal forces. Either way, he was pretty sure they just plowed through the planet’s crust until they got to wherever they were going. The scientific community was not convinced, and Wegener was widely ridiculed.

Over time, things changed. By the 1960s, Wegener’s controversial theory of continental drift had evolved into plate tectonics, which the University of California Museum of Paleontology describes as “one of the most important and far-ranging geological theories of all time.” The scientific revolution set in motion by Wegener’s controversial book has dramatically changed our understanding of the planet, with far-reaching implications for geology, climate science, evolution, and other fields. —AS

9. Don Quixote

An open book that reads "Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes" with a Quixote figure on a horse next to it
'Don Quixote' was the first modern novel. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Isaxar/Shutterstock (quixote), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Miguel de Cervantes’s 1605 tale of a misguided idealist who fashions himself as a knight-errant satirized one kind of literature (chivalric romances) as successfully as it birthed a new one: the modern novel. Many of its story mechanics—the concept of the unreliable narrator chief among them—are still standard in today’s fiction, and 20th-century literary critic Lionel Trilling once commented that “it can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.”

But Cervantes’s impact isn’t confined to literary spheres. “Every generation of intellectuals has seen its own preoccupations and its own most cherished discoveries anticipated in Cervantes’s text,” Cervantes expert Carroll B. Johnson said in a 2006 lecture [PDF]. “The rationalists of the 18th century discovered that Cervantes had anticipated them by writing the epic of good sense and social integration. The romantics of the next century discovered the opposite, that Cervantes had anticipated their own preoccupation with the tragic situation of the eccentric genius in a hostile society.” The list goes on, right up to our modern-day musings on the nature of reality: “Cervantes had discovered, or intuited, that reality is never a given, just out there, existing independently of us, but is always constructed by humans through socio-linguistic practice.” —Ellen Gutoskey

10. Giovanni’s Room

The early to mid-20th century was no place for frank discussions about being gay, which makes James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room all the more remarkable. The 1956 novel explores the same-sex relations of numerous characters inhabiting post-World War II Paris. Its lead character, David, is preparing for marriage to his girlfriend, Hella, when he meets an Italian bartender named Giovanni. Their affair is complicated by legal troubles that threaten Giovanni’s very existence. David’s introspection toward his true sexual identity was uncommon for literature of the era: Baldwin brought it to the surface, using a literary reputation burnished by his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, as currency for a controversial subject. Baldwin explained that it wasn’t an autobiography, but “more a study of what might have been or what I feel might have been.”

James Baldwin
James Baldwin, author of 'Giovanni's Room.' / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

That the book lent its gay character compassion wasn’t as troubling to some as the fact that Baldwin, a Black man, chose to write about a white cast of characters: The writer later said he “could not handle both propositions” of race and sexuality in the same book at that point in his life. However Baldwin needed to approach it, Giovanni’s Room stands as a courageous work—one that provided welcome company to readers waiting on a society to accept them. In Baldwin’s work, they were seen. —Jake Rossen

11. Common Sense

In January 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a 47-page pamphlet that galvanized American colonists to break from Great Britain by systematically laying out all the reasons why they should, was published. Not only was Britain doing a bad job serving its North American holdings, Paine explained, but monarchy was an inherently flawed system of government to begin with, and the colonists had a golden opportunity to build a completely new one run by and for the people.

Engraving of Thomas Paine by William Sharp After a Painting by George Romney
Thomas Paine, author of 'Common Sense.' / Historical/GettyImages

Paine’s arguments struck such a strong, patriotic chord among the general public that the Founding Fathers realized the only way forward was to hurry up and declare independence. John Adams said of the work in March 1776, “all agree there is a great deal of good sense, delivered in a clear, simple, concise and nervous Style.” (Though he wasn’t all positive—Adams was highly critical of Paine’s plan for the new government and noted the author “has a better Hand at pulling down than building.”)

Just as Paine had hoped, the American Revolution resulted in a whole new kind of self-governing nation—one that would inspire similar self-governance around the world. And Paine’s influence wasn’t confined to the United States: From 1792 to 1802, he lived in France, where he did his best to help the country implement and fortify a republican government, too (though admittedly that process was way more turbulent). —EG

12. The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli’s early 16th-century treatise on how to get and keep power is often boiled down to a couple key platitudes: the end justifies the means and it’s better to be feared than loved, neither of which appear in such stark terms in the book itself.

What Machiavelli does say about the former is that since people “are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it,” a leader can operate knowing that whatever means he employs to “[conquer] and [hold] his state … will always be considered honest.” Regarding love and fear, Machiavelli expresses that because it’s tough for a ruler to be feared and loved, “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two must be lacking.”

Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli, author of 'The Prince.' / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

Both instances reveal the underlying pragmatism present throughout The Prince, which sharply contrasted the idealism of many other political theorists of the era. In this way, Machiavelli essentially introduced a whole new lens through which to view politics.

“Machiavelli is famous, or infamous, for shifting the sense of ‘virtue’ from moral worth to effectiveness. The virtuous figures of The Prince are those who do whatever it takes to seize and maintain foreign territory, even if it entails the grossest violations. This is a morality, if that’s the right word, of ends,” Boston University history professor James Johnson said in a 2013 interview.

Robert P. Harrison, professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, put it even more simply back in 2009: “Machiavelli was the first theorist to decisively divorce politics from ethics.” —EG

13. Silent Spring

An open book that reads "silent spring by rachel carson" with an illustration of a dead bird next to it
Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' laid bare the consequences of pesticide use. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Istry Istry/Shutterstock (bird), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

“There was a strange stillness,” Rachel Carson wrote. “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and the woods and marsh.”

In Silent Spring, Carson described the environmental harms of man-made pesticides with lyrical words and visceral truths. She exposed the destructive power of agricultural chemicals, which killed pollinating insects, polluted rivers and soil, and caused cancer in humans. Readers, including President John F. Kennedy, pushed for stronger environmental laws. “In the ‘60s, we were only just waking up to the power that we had to damage the natural world,” Jonathon Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth, told The Guardian in 2012. “Rachel Carson was the first to give voice to that concern in way that came through loud and clear to society.” Directly or indirectly, the impact of Silent Spring can be seen in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, and the modern environmental movement. —Kat Long 

14. The Art of War

Could a book about tactical warfare from around the 5th century BCE be relevant today? Without doubt. Author Sun Tzu’s 13-chapter treatise on combat strategy has had an application in everything from corporate battles to sports to politics to actual war. (It’s also, strangely, not very much of a warmongering tale: Tzu advocates for diplomacy whenever possible.)

More philosophical than instructional, The Art of War has influenced millions by its concise wisdom. “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks” could apply to a military general or a sales team leader. But Tzu himself may not have been the sole author or even a real person. Not that it’s ever mattered to readers. Warfare is, after all, “the art of deception.” —JR

15. The Feminine Mystique

Published in 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique challenged the popular notion that being a housewife and mother was a woman’s only path to fulfillment. Its radical message resonated with readers, and in its first three years of publication the nonfiction book sold nearly 3 million copies.

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan, author of 'The Feminine Mystique.' / Susan Wood/Getty Images/GettyImages

Many scholars credit Friedan for launching the second wave of feminism in the 1960s (which is not to say the book doesn’t have issues: It centers on the white, middle class woman and mostly ignores issues faced by Black and LGBTQ+ women). According to the National Women’s History Museum, The Feminine Mystique “gave voice to millions of American women’s frustrations with their limited gender roles and helped spark widespread public activism for gender equality.” —MD

16. Unsafe at Any Speed

For the first part of the 20th century, automobiles were viewed as an engineering marvel—but not necessarily a safe one. Accidents were common, and thanks to a lack of mandatory safety laws, features like seatbelts were typically ignored to trim costs. That all changed with Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 1965 polemic on the callous nature of the auto industry. Inspired in part by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and its influential environmental message, Nader set out to do the same for the car world, describing automotive designs that ignored passenger safety.

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader, author of 'Unsafe at Any Speed.' / Janet Fries/GettyImages

The response was immediate: Less than a year after the book was published, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, establishing federal oversight that made sure automakers were adhering to new safety standards; state-mandated seat belt laws expanded. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts saved 374,000 lives from 1975 to 2017.

Even those who had the most to lose from Nader’s crusade were impressed. “The book had a seminal effect,” auto executive Robert A. Lutz told The New York Times in 2015. “I don’t like Ralph Nader and I didn’t like the book, but there was definitely a role for government in automotive safety.” —JR

17. The Kinsey Reports

Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and its 1953 companion, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, weren’t flawless reference texts on the subject of sexual habits. His data came from interviews with people—5300 men and nearly 6000 women—who weren’t even close to representing the American population as a whole: They were all white, for one thing, and there were outsized proportions of certain demographics, such as college students and incarcerated men.

Sexuality Researcher Alfred Kinsey
Alfred Kinsey, author of The Kinsey Reports. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

But both books, together known as the Kinsey Reports, did become bestsellers, spotlighting an appetite for more transparency when it came to sex. This helped lay the groundwork for the sexual revolution and paved the way for decades of further study into sex and gender. Kinsey’s researched also reinforced the idea that “exclusively heterosexual” and “exclusively homosexual,” in his terms, were just two points on a much more expansive spectrum; his “Kinsey Scale” accounted for people whose sexual experiences were “equally heterosexual and homosexual,” “predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual,” and more. Our modern-day understanding of sexuality is significantly more nuanced, but the Kinsey Scale was an influential jumping-off point. —EG

18. 1984

“It is a fantasy of the political future, and, like any such fantasy, serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present,” wrote The New Yorker upon the 1949 publication of 1984. That review could have been written yesterday. Though hardly a horror tale, Orwell’s novel—about writer Winston Smith, duty-bound to shift the truth to suit the domineering state—has long been a touchstone for warnings of dystopian futures.

George Orwell
George Orwell, author of '1984.' / adoc-photos/GettyImages

The phrases big brother, doublethink, and newspeak all sprung from Orwell, who was seriously ill with tuberculosis while writing the book. (He died just months after it was published.) The story has become shorthand for gluttonous authority and elastic truth—or, in a word, Orwellian. —JR

19. Native Son

“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,” wrote literary critic Irving Howe in a 1963 essay for Dissent magazine. “Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.”

Richard Wright
Richard Wright, author of 'Native Son.' / Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/GettyImages

More than 80 years after the 1940 publication of Native Son, Howe’s comments still ring true. Wright’s first published novel, about a young Black man who accidentally kills the daughter of his wealthy white employer, was one of the first mainstream books to explore the personal and societal damage that systemic racism inflicts. It quickly rooted itself in America’s collective conscience, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication and becoming the first novel by a Black writer to be selected by the influential Book of the Month Club. In 1971, Ralph Ellison called it “one of the major literary events in the history of American literature. And I can say this even though at this point I have certain reservations concerning its view of reality.”

Native Son was and remains a difficult book to read. The crimes committed by Wright’s protagonist, 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, are horrific and depicted in harrowing detail. But it isn’t sadism that initially drives him to acts of heinous violence; it’s a fear and hate of white people so intense it threatens to erase his humanity. But Wright wasn’t just condemning the Jim Crow South and its culture of fear and violence he’d fled in 1927; Native Son argued that even well-meaning white people benefitted from a fundamentally racist society and participated, whether they knew it or not, in the brutal oppression of Black people. For countless readers, Native Son marked the first time they’d been forced to consider the true, wide-reaching consequences of that oppression. —AS

20. Gray’s Anatomy

A reference book published in 1858 isn’t necessarily the kind of source you’d think would stand the test of time, but this illustrated guide to human anatomy is still considered “The Doctor’s Bible.” Surgeons Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter’s collaboration was fairly short-lived—it took just three years for them to create the original text and woodcut images of a person’s insides—but formed the basis of an essential piece of any medical student’s education. More than 150 years later, Gray’s Anatomy has been in continuous publication ever since; it’s currently in its 42nd edition. —Jennifer Marie Wood

21. On the Origin of Species

On the Origin of Species is often called the greatest science book of all time. It introduced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to a wide audience, backed up by evidence he collected on his voyage to the Southern Hemisphere on the H.M.S. Beagle in the early 1830s and a further two decades of researching the scientific literature, experimentation, and consolidating evidence for his theory. Darwin wasn’t the only naturalist who had arrived at the idea that all life on Earth descended from earlier ancestors according to their fitness for survival; Alfred Russel Wallace spent years in Amazonia and Southeast Asia studying the local flora and fauna and came up with a similar idea. A letter from Wallace spurred Darwin to complete his work, and it was Darwin who became famous for the theory of natural selection—and bore the brunt of the fallout.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, author of 'On the Origin of Species.' / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

The book offended both religious and scientific minds. Prior to Darwin’s theory, many people believed the world was organized according to “natural theology,” a system in which species’ characteristics, designed by a benevolent Creator, were immutable. Religious leaders pushed back on the idea that humans could have evolved from animals rather than being created by God in his image. Some prominent scientists, like astronomer John F.W. Herschel and paleontologist Richard Owen, disputed parts or all of Darwin’s conclusions. Darwin did have his supporters, though, including physicist Thomas Huxley (who vigorously defended the work) and geologist Charles Lyell.

As time went on, Darwin’s theories were tested, and they held up to scrutiny. The public largely came to accept his evidence and conclusions. With natural selection, On the Origin of Species explained the mechanism responsible for species’ adaptation, providing the foundation for the modern field of evolutionary biology in an elegantly written form. As the Princeton University geneticist Lee J. Silver told Discover, “Darwin revolutionized our understanding of life.” —KL

22. The Jungle

An open book reading "the jungle by upton sinclair" with two cows next to it
'The Jungle' changed food laws, but not labor laws. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Tatyana Komtsyan/Shutterstock, Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

A more nauseating, change-demanding novel could hardly have been imagined in the first decade of the 20th century—and that was the point of The Jungle. Upton Sinclair, a journalist and ardent socialist, wanted to expose the dangerous conditions, economic exploitation of workers, animal cruelty, and corporate monopolies in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The Jungle humanized these offenses in the struggles of its protagonist, a Lithuanian immigrant, to make an honest and fair living in America. It was an instant bestseller. The book also bolstered support for progressive food safety laws such as the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, aimed at protecting consumers from adulterated or harmful products. Sinclair regretted that the novel did not have the same impact on improving labor conditions, however. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he once wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” —KL

23. Roots

Whether you call it a historical novel, semi-autobiography, or, in the word of its author Alex Haley, “faction,” his 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family sparked widespread interest in African American history and genealogy. The story follows a Gambian boy, Kunta Kinte, who is kidnapped in the 1760s and brought to America, where he and his descendants suffer generations of enslavement.

Author Alex Haley
Alex Haley, author of 'Roots.' / Peter Jones/GettyImages

Haley suggested that Roots was the story of his own family and ancestry, though some scholars argued with the veracity of his claim. Nevertheless, the hit book was turned into an eight-part TV miniseries in 1977 that made an even bigger splash, with more than 130 million people tuning in. Roots prompted Americans to look back on their own stories with a clearer lens. —KL

24. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Young adults around the world have pored over the pages of Anne Frank’s diary, an intimate window into the life of a young teenager facing the horrors of the Holocaust that has sold more than 30 million copies in nearly 70 languages since it was published in 1947. It can be hard to picture the terrible day-to-day experiences of life during such a terrible time; Anne’s diary, written over the course of two years that she and her family spent in hiding in the Secret Annex, makes that era of history feel undeniably vivid and real. On August 1, 1944, Anne wrote her last entry, and three days later, the family was discovered. Anne died of typhus at Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The only person from the Secret Annex to survive the Holocaust was Anne’s father, Otto, who would go on to publish her diary.

Millie Perkins And George Stevens
Anne Frank, author of 'Diary of a Young Girl.' / Keystone/GettyImages

One of the most widely read nonfiction books in the world, The Diary of a Young Girl has inspired everyone from Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Malala Yousafzai to Nelson Mandela. It’s incredibly important today—not just because many Holocaust survivors have passed away and are no longer able to tell their own stories, but because, in the words of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Diary of Anne Frank is the first, and sometimes only, exposure many people have to the history of the Holocaust. … Anne has become a symbol for the lost promise of the more than 1 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust.” —Kerry Wolfe

25. A Dictionary of the English Language

For eight years, Samuel Johnson and a handful of assistants crammed into the garret of 17 Gough Square in London. On cold days, they huffed warm breath onto their hands to heat their fingers as they worked, paging through books and noting how words were used. Their work was tedious, but it culminated in the 40,000-entry A Dictionary of the English Language.

Though Johnson is known as the “Father of the English Dictionary,” he wasn’t actually the first person to write a dictionary. But he did, as Lynda Mugglestone, a professor of the history of English at the University of Oxford, tells Mental Floss, “turn dictionary making on its head.”

Samuel Johnson - English
Samuel Johnson, author of 'A Dictionary of the English Language.' / Culture Club/GettyImages

Many previous lexicographers sought to preserve a language as it was. Their authors defined words and aimed to essentially freeze a language in time, without paying much regard to how the masses actually used the words contained within. Johnson, too, was approached to compile such a tome by a group of booksellers. “It's a very prescriptive model of a dictionary that he's in essence invited to write,” Mugglestone says. “But that's not the kind of dictionary he does write.”

Instead, Johnson created a more descriptive dictionary. “Johnson's method moved into much more what we might see as a democracy of words, going out and finding evidence,” Mugglestone says. He pored over a rich assortment of material, plucking words from everything from the works of Shakespeare to people’s personal letters to find evidence of how people used the language. He drew upon a mix of classic literature and everyday domestic sources, and even cited work by women writers in his research—a radical move at the time. (That said, according to one analysis, “of the 114,000-odd quotations in the Dictionary, fewer than thirty … are from female authors.”) Even today you can see evidence of his, well, evidence; some of the annotations he created while researching for the dictionary still exist within the books he read.

Johnson’s work is also incredibly nuanced. He does more than give a single definition for each word. “He provides an extraordinary wealth of labels whereby we can see, OK, not only does the word exist in English, but we can see which context, which meanings are used,” Mugglestone says. Johnson’s dictionary lists alternate spellings, and he notes which words are phasing out of or creeping into the English language.

A Dictionary of the English Language is packed with evidence and nuance. But it’s also surprisingly personal. Johnson sprinkles quotes and musing throughout the text, remarking upon the words themselves and the process he undertook to create the dictionary. “There’s a human story of someone in the really upper cold territories of a historic house, working with his assistants in this enormous space of time,” Mugglestone says. “There are very few dictionaries where we can get behind the print text to such an extent.”  —KW 

26. The Iliad

Homer’s the Iliad is, according to LaTrobe University professor Chris Mackie, typically regarded as “the first work of European literature.” The tale is epic—in every sense of the word. It’s believed the lengthy poem about a brief period within the Trojan War dates to between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE (6th century at a push). The Iliad captured elements passed down via a long tradition of oral history and helped shape Greek culture in the years that followed. It influenced ancient scholars and artists, and even, as the BBC notes, “changed the way people worshipped”: Homer’s saga described the Greek gods and introduced heroes that remain legendary today, thousands of years after the poem was penned. —KW

27. The Color Purple

An open book reading "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker with a purple flower next to it
Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple' is both beloved—and banned. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), DashaDasha/Shutterstock (flowers), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

A cultural marvel for Black female-led literature, The Color Purple won Alice Walker both the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the 1983 National Book Award for hardcover fiction, making her the first Black woman to win either. The Color Purple detailed struggles with identity, independence, and oppression within the Black female experience—and it was challenged as unfit for schools as early as a year after its publication. In 1984, a California high school cited it as having “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” While “troubling” is up to interpretation, the story undoubtedly sparked some controversial conversations about race, religion, gender, and sexual fluidity.

But what some deem controversial, others deem comforting: The Color Purple resonates with Black women in part due to its effort to break down the “strong Black woman” trope. The Black female characters in the book exemplify vulnerability and paint Black women in a soft light that many have historically tried to harshen. The stress Walker places on the importance of fostering relationships with other Black women in a setting with “us against the world” conflicts exemplifies the sense of community created within marginalized groups. —Bethel Afful

28. The Lord of the Rings

If you're a fan of Skyrim, Game of Thrones, or Dungeons and Dragons, thank J.R.R. Tolkien. The British author revolutionized the modern fantasy genre when The Lord of the Rings—his adult-oriented follow-up to the children’s book The Hobbit—became a global sensation.

From 1954 to 1955, the epic story (which Tolkien considered one work) was released in three installments: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Though it didn’t invent dwarves, elves, or wizards, the book launched a new movement.

The Grave of ''Lord of the Rings'' Author J.R.R. Tolkien
The Grave of ''Lord of the Rings'' Author J.R.R. Tolkien. / Graham Barclay/GettyImages

According to John Garth, the author of The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and Tolkien and the Great War, fantasy as a marketing label “didn’t exist” prior to Tolkien. “You would see books marketed as romance in the old sense of the word—not meaning a love story, but meaning an adventure in which improbable things happen,” he tells Mental Floss. “Fairytales had kind of died off with the First World War, and Tolkien set about rescuing the fairy story from that death knell. What he did was he took fairy stories and made them heroic, and used them to process his feelings about what was going on in the contemporary world—particularly the First World War.”

Publishing companies were hungry to recreate the success of The Lord of the Rings. New books labeled “high fantasy” flooded stores, and their influence began to bleed into other areas of pop culture. “This huge popularization of fantasy novel led in other strange directions, surprising directions,” Garth says. “Roleplaying games—Dungeons and Dragons in particular—are inspired by that fantasy genre as a whole, but obviously by Tolkien too. Then right on into computer gaming, so all the roleplaying games that people play now can be traced back to Tolkien’s impact on publishing—and arguably too, of course, the huge rise in science fiction and fantasy movies.”

The Lord of the Rings has been around for nearly 70 years, and the ubiquity of high fantasy adventures across mediums shows its influence is still strong today. —MD

29. The Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud’s 1899 book introduced some of his most famous concepts to the public. In it, he posited the existence of an independently functioning “unconscious mind” that expresses itself through dreams.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud, author of 'The Interpretation of Dreams.' / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

While Freud’s theories on the purpose and significance of dreams are met with scrutiny today, the influence of The Interpretation of Dreams is undeniable; many scholars credit it with laying the foundation for modern psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. —MD

30. The Communist Manifesto

An open book reading "Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx" with a hammer and sickle next to it
For folks in the modern era, the 'Manifesto' remains prescient. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Oxygen64/Shutterstock (hammer & sickle), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” So begins The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s 1848 exploration into the political theory of how major societal changes are often linked to historical class struggles.

Split into four sections, the pamphlet helped define the core tenets of communism as it existed in the mid-19th century and serves as a foundational text for what would later become known as Marxism. It also functions as a document of a revolutionary era, aligning the communist movement with the then-novel idea of democracy, which the Revolutions of 1848 (which occurred in Germany, France, and other parts of Europe) were predicated upon.

“It’s a document of a time when new possibilities [seemed] more and more realistic,” Drew Flanagan, Assistant Professor of History and Director of the History and Political Science program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, tells Mental Floss.

After falling into relative obscurity following the 1848 Revolutions, the Manifesto was reclaimed—and subsequently reinterpreted—by revolutionary political movements emerging around the world by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Bolshevik party of Russia during the October Revolution of 1917 and the Communist Party of China during the Chinese Communist Revolution. “People decades later were the ones who really picked this up, not so much people in the mid-19th century,” Flanagan says.

Given the historical significance of those communist-led revolutions, it would be easy to trace the roots back to Marx and Engels and specifically to the Manifesto, which predates Das Kapital (1867), another influential work penned by Marx. But Flanagan notes that it’s important to look at the Manifesto through its historical context, and to separate the ideas Marx and Engels laid out in their work from how it was understood and used in subsequent centuries.

Still, for folks in the modern era, the Manifesto remains prescient given that many societal issues that Marx and Engels identified in it (like class-based inequality) are still ongoing, and because it offers—whether one fully believes in its ideology or not—a vision of a different kind of democracy. “One of the reasons why the Manifesto matters for [modern-day] activists, but also for others, is that it contains an encapsulation of Marxism,” Flanagan says. In that way, it serves as “a primer for activists, and therein, I think lies a lot of the key to its impact. [In] reading the Manifesto, I could imagine an activist feeling like this has a sort of moral clarity and directness that’s very appealing. And the general picture of a society that’s dominated by ownership and by a capitalist class is one that arguably is very relevant.” —Shayna Murphy

31. A People’s History of the United States

School textbooks are often construed as the objective truth, but reality is often far more complex. That was the point of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s 1980 tome on the events that shaped the country’s past as told from the view of the historically oppressed: women, immigrants, and underrepresented groups; vaunted figures like Lincoln and Roosevelt were portrayed with blemishes.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn, author of 'A People's History of the United States.' / Fred Hayes/GettyImages

While not universally praised—sometimes criticized as “leftist propaganda,” it’s regularly made banned book lists, and some historians criticize it as just being bad history—Zinn’s work has led to renovated study curriculums and prompted generations of students to question the accepted narrative.  —JR 

32. The Second Sex

Although French writer and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir didn’t consider herself a philosopher, her groundbreaking 1949 work, Le Deuxième Sexe (translated as The Second Sex) is regarded by many modern-day scholars as one of the most influential existentialist texts ever printed.

As an exploration into society’s treatment of women, de Beauvoir’s book simultaneously sheds light on historical myths surrounding womanhood while also debunking commonly held misconceptions related to contemporary gender norms and sexuality (whole books have been written on the single sentence “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”). Yet throughout, her work is imbued with the principles of existentialism—the belief that every individual, regardless of sex or gender, has the right to self-determination and should be able to “take on the individual responsibility that comes with freedom,” according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Simone De Beauvoir
Simone De Beauvoir, author of 'The Second Sex.' / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

The book was initially published in two volumes, with some chapters appearing in Les Temps modernes (Modern Times), a journal de Beauvoir co-founded with philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter of whom she had an open romantic relationship with for about 50 years. The Second Sex was condensed for its 1953 English translation, and although it was banned by the Vatican until 1966, it helped pave the way for other quintessential second-wave feminist works, including Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963.

Credited by The New York Times with “creating modern feminism in a single, electrifying stroke,” de Beauvoir’s magnum opus would go on to resonate in other culturally significant ways, too. In 1986, screenwriter Daniel Waters began work on what would later become the 1989 teen-comedy satire Heathers. Yet part of his inspiration for the script came years earlier, when he came across a copy of The Second Sex while still in high school.

“I thought this was great stuff for a movie, the way girls maintain their own oppression,” Waters told The New York Times in 1989. “I’m sure I'm the only person who ever read that book and said, ‘Hey, there’s money to be made.’” And with that, one could argue that The Second Sex helped inadvertently launch a whole sub-genre for teen comedies, including not only Heathers, but 2004’s Mean Girls (which Waters’s younger brother, Mark, actually directed).  —SM

33. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

How do everyday workers feel about their jobs? In this landmark 1974 oral history, writer and historian Studs Terkel set out to discover exactly that. Over the course of three years, he interviewed more than 130 men and women across the U.S.—including teachers, farmers, actors, supermarket workers, housewives, and even a gravedigger—about how they earned a living, but more importantly, whether or not they actually enjoyed it.

The end result is a work that, in Terkel’s words, is as much about “a search … for daily meaning,” as it is about “daily bread,” and about the hunger for “a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel. / Matt Carmichael/GettyImages

In a 1974 review, New York Times writer Marshall Berman described Terkel’s oral history as symbolic of the American Popular Front idealism of the era—as in, “a vision of a genuinely democratic community” filled with people from every race, class, and occupation, all striving to overcome barriers by finding solidarity within each other’s common struggles—while also crediting it with giving rise to a new type of idealism, one “more honest and genuine” about the working world, and reflective of people’s changing attitudes toward their professional lives.

Modern scholars have argued that Working functions as an important time capsule of sorts, showcasing “an old 20th century way of doing business,” as The Chicago Tribune put it, before the advent of the Information Age. Sometime around 2014, Radio Diaries and Project& gained exclusive access to the tapes of Terkel’s Working interviews and co-produced a series on them for NPR. Others have since linked the oral history to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the struggles faced by essential workers during quarantine, suggesting that as much as the book reflects change, Working’s overarching intent—to amplify the voices of ordinary folks searching for value and meaning within their jobs—remains as timely today as it ever was.  —SM

34. Frankenstein

An open book reading "Frankenstein by Mary Shelley" with a hand next to it
Some believe Mary Shelley invented the sci-fi novel with 'Frankenstein.' / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock (hand), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

The origin story of Frankenstein is nearly as famous as the novel itself. In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent the summer in Switzerland with Lord Byron and John Polidori. The story goes that one rainy evening, Byron challenged the group to a ghost story contest. After an initial bout of writer’s block, Godwin came up with an idea that would cement her as the clear winner. She started writing her novel about a monster made up of reanimated body parts at age 18 and had it published at age 20. In addition to creating one of the most iconic characters in literature (and later film), Mary Shelley is credited with inventing the science fiction novel and shaping the modern horror genre. —MD 

35. Gone With the Wind

Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s first and only published novel was a sensation unlike anything else encountered before. The tome—which clocked in at just over a thousand pages and weighed about 3.5 pounds—sold 1 million copies within the first six months of its release and later earned the Pulitzer Prize for Novel (later Fiction) in 1937.

While a 2014 Harris poll revealed that it’s still among America’s favorite books of all time, the Civil War and Reconstruction-era set novel has also seen its fair share of detractors over the years, with many critics arguing that the book (and its 1939 film adaptation) helped propagate dangerous myths surrounding the antebellum south, the “Lost Cause,” and the notion of “contented” slavery. In her 2022 book The Wrath to Come: ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Lies America Tells, author Sarah Churchwell refers to it as “a thousand-page novel about enslavers busily pretending that slavery doesn’t matter—which is pretty much the story of American history.”

Not only that, but the book’s defense of the Ku Klux Klan and reliance on racial caricatures (like the “mammy figure”) have been widely condemned in recent years; in 2020, HBO Max (now Max) even briefly removed the film adaptation from its catalog, citing its “racist depictions” of Black characters. In an interview with CNN, author Alice Randall—who wrote The Wind Done Gone, a 2001 retelling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of a former enslaved person—described the original book’s use of racial caricatures as “poisonous,” and noted that within her own work, she was attempting to “create an antidote to the poison” and push back against the “myth of Black intellectual inferiority,” which Gone With the Wind helped to perpetuate.  —SM

36. How to Win Friends and Influence People

The title may sound trite, but Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help book about gaining confidence and trust, which is based on his lectures, has won over readers and influenced them for decades. The advice inside is obvious: smile more, talk less, listen a lot. Yet for tens of millions, it has resonated. Warren Buffett once hung his certificate from Carnegie’s course in his office; Charles Manson was reportedly also a reader. —JR  

37. Ain’t I A Woman?

In her speech at the 1851 Akron, Ohio, women’s rights convention, Sojourner Truth—a formerly enslaved woman—asked white suffragettes whether she qualified as a woman in their eyes, as she didn’t share many of the qualities that defined their version of womanhood. Many women at the center of the suffrage movement advocated for their own rights and left women of color as an afterthought, and Truth’s speech provided an important critique of feminism during its first wave. (Though it’s likely that she never asked the famous question. The version of Truth’s speech published in 1851 doesn’t have it—the closest it gets is “I am a woman’s rights.” Then, 12 years later, Frances Gage published her recollections of the speech, seemingly changing Truth’s likely Dutch-accented speech patterns to Southern speech patterns—as well as many of the words—and having Truth say “ar’n’t I a woman?” The ain’t variant had become popular by the 1880s.)

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth, author of 'Ain't I a Woman?' / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Published in the waning point of feminism’s second wave, bell hooks’s book, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, continues Truth’s dissection of the gender binary through a racial lens, asserting that race and gender are part of the same animal. hooks’s examination of racism and sexism as an intertwined force helped foster conversations of intersectionality and inclusivity throughout the third and fourth waves of feminism. —BA

38. Grimms’ Fairy Tales

The fairy tales and other folk stories collected and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in a series of seven editions throughout the early to mid-19th century are important for the very simple reason that they’re still ubiquitous in Western culture today: A new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White materializes seemingly every time you blink.

But they aren’t only important for that reason. In fact, initially, the Grimms weren’t trying to produce globally popular entertainment—or entertainment at all. They were German academics who collected German folklore not only to preserve it, but as a means of fostering a national identity among the many fractured demographics scattered all over a not-yet-unified Germany.

Portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, authors of 'Grimms' Fairy Tales.' / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

“[The Grimm brothers’ collecting] had everything to do with ‘artistically’ creating a German popular culture rooted in the belief systems and customs of the German people,” Jack Zipes wrote in his 2014 book Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales [PDF].

Their work inspired folklorists all over Europe and North America to do the same. These collectors began traveling around on the hunt for folk stories that hailed from oft-overlooked and under-represented parts of their countries.

“Not only did educated middle-class collectors give voice to the lower classes, but they also spoke out in defense of their native languages and in the interests of national and regional movements that sought more autonomy for groups with very particular interests,” Zipes explained. In this way, compiling folk stories was “a social and political act.” —EG

39. Hiroshima

Most readers who picked up the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker had no way to prepare themselves for what was inside. The cover illustration depicted a carefree summer day at the park, but the editors had devoted virtually the entire issue to war correspondent John Hersey’s devastating account of the horrors wrought by the bombing of Hiroshima. Hersey’s narrative focuses on the experiences of six survivors—an approach inspired by Thornton Wilders’s 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

For most readers, Hiroshima was the first accurate account of the suffering caused by atomic warfare. Before it, Americans had only gotten watered-down, highly censored reports of the destruction caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Congress had even been told that radiation sickness was “a very pleasant way to die.” Hiroshima aggressively dismantled those lies with stomach-churning descriptions of the vast human suffering caused by the bombings. 

The issue sold out almost immediately, and Hersey’s story was quickly printed in book form by Alfred A. Knopf; the influential Book of the Month Club gave a free copy of its edition to almost a million subscribers on the grounds that hardly anything in print “could be of more importance at this moment to the human race.” Full radio readings were broadcast in several countries, and newspapers around the world printed it, with editorials insisting that Hersey’s story be read. Thanks to Hersey, writes author Lesley M.M. Blume, the horror of nuclear war was now “a matter of permanent, policy-influencing international record.” —AS

40. Things Fall Apart

An open book reading "Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe" with yams next to it
'Things Fall Apart' was partly a response to racist portrayals of African characters in popular books. / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Daria Ustiugova/Shutterstock (yams), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Before Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, the story of the European invasion and colonization of Africa had been told almost entirely from the perspective of white writers and historians. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe changed that with his debut novel about a respected member of an Igbo clan whose life unravels after he kills a boy in the village. Partly conceived as a response to the reductive and racist depictions of African characters in some popular books of the time, Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to achieve global acclaim, and one of the first widely read works to explore the devastating impact of European colonization. It laid the groundwork for African literature as we know it today and helped dispel the notion of Africa as “the Dark Continent.”

Philosopher and ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah has called Things Fall Apart “a starting point for the modern African novel.” To ask how Achebe influenced African literature, Appiah wrote, “would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.” —AS

41. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres)

One can hardly blame Nicolaus Copernicus for holding off on publishing his revolutionary work De Revolutionibus for more than a decade after it was technically finished: The book, which he had labored over from 1515 to 1532 before revising and finally sending it off to be published in 1543, sought to upend beliefs—both scientific and religious—held since the 5th century BCE: That the Earth was at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies moved around it. Copernicus argued that the Earth and its Moon, along with all other heavenly bodies, revolved around the Sun. In a foreword to the volume addressed to Pope Paul III, Copernicus wrote, “I can readily imagine, Holy Father, that as soon as some people hear that in this volume, which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the universe, I ascribe certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will shout that I must be immediately repudiated together with this belief.”

Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus, author of 'De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.' / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

Copernicus wasn’t the first to hold this view, but unlike his predecessors, he worked out the details using math rather than physics (the title page even reads “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here”). He got certain things right—arguing, for example, that the Earth spun on its axis as it traveled around the sun and said that wobbling of the axis caused equinoxes. He also got things wrong: His system isn’t particularly simpler or better than the old geocentric model (that would have to wait for Johannes Kepler).

Copernicus didn’t live to see the effects of De Revolutionibus: He died in May 1543, reportedly rousing just long enough before passing to hold his book. As expected, he was widely criticized, and De Revolutionibus was eventually banned by the Vatican. It would take another century for Copernicus’s idea to become accepted, but De Revolutionibus would eventually influence the likes of Kepler and Galileo on the way toward upending everything we thought we knew about our corner of the universe. —EM

42. Walden

Henry David Thoreau went into the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, in 1845 because he wished to “live deliberately.” The two years he spent in a homemade hut on the shore of Walden Pond—with frequent excursions to town, visits from friends, and a trip to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin—were an experiment in transcendentalism, in which he hoped to show that it was possible to work much less and live much more.

Henry Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, author of 'Walden.' / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Walden, or, Life in the Woods shows Thoreau putting the transcendental values of self-reliance, civil disobedience, individualism, and the spirituality of nature into practice. It was a moderate seller upon its publication in 1854, but since then, its influence on American identity and ideas has grown. Walden articulated the rationales behind social justice, environmental conservation, and individual conscience in ways that are ever more relevant to our times. —KL

43. The King James Bible

While not the first English translation of biblical texts, the King James translation has become the most storied. Published in 1611 after a group of 47 scholars translated the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the King James translation standardized the Bible into a text that was constant within churches and the home. Before its publication, the Bishop’s Bible was read in churches, and the Geneva Bible was read in domestic settings, and disparities led people to question the true meaning of the text.

Now, the King James Bible is the most widely printed English book in all of history. Christians across denominations have referenced it in sermons over the centuries, and the text itself even remains culturally relevant in secular spaces. In the words of the BBC, “No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible.” Its poetic imagery and cadence lent itself to references in music and art across the centuries, from classics like Handel’s Messiah to contemporary references like in The Simpsons. —BA

44. How the Other Half Lives

The 19th century saw an extraordinary wave of immigration to the U.S. In the 30-year period from 1870 to 1900, nearly 12 million immigrants landed on U.S. shores. Many of them settled in New York City, where they lived at the mercy of predatory employers and slumlords who charged exorbitant rates for housing in filthy, appallingly overcrowded tenements. In 1890, journalist, photographer, and lecturer Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, an incendiary exposé of living conditions in New York’s slums. Riis, a police reporter and an early pioneer of flash photography, had gone into the tenements himself to document the conditions there.

Jacob August Riis
Jacob Riis, author of 'How the Other Half Lives.' / Historical/GettyImages

The response was immediate and dramatic. Riis’s book became a bestseller, offering readers what was often their first glimpse at the lives of impoverished workers and their families. Not long after it was published, Riis received a message from U.S. Civil Service commissioner Theodore Roosevelt: “I have read your book, and I have come to help.” When Roosevelt went to New York to head up the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, he made good on his promise. Besides purging the NYPD of corrupt officers, diversifying the police force, and instituting firearms training for the city’s police, Roosevelt shuttered the city’s police lodging houses and, according to Roosevelt biographer Kathleen Dalton, “set up a new system of municipal lodging houses, which was what Riis had wanted for years.” Riis’s book also prompted New York officials to begin the process of improving living conditions in the city’s tenements.

How the Other Half Lives is considered a fundamental work of muckraking journalism, and it demonstrated the power of photography to inspire social change. It became a formative influence for prominent activists to come, including labor secretary Frances Perkins, who was a key figure in establishing Social Security, the minimum wage, and other pivotal New Deal reforms. —AS

45. The Wealth of Nations

Open book reading "The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith" with a pile of coins next to it.
Historians still debate the myths and misunderstandings 'The Wealth of Nations.' / Luria/Shutterstock (watercolor background), Uncle Leo/Shutterstock (money), Jiri Hera/Shutterstock (book) // Photo Illustration by Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Few books can define an entire society. When they do, it’s not often with any brevity. The Wealth of Nations, Scottish economist Adam Smith’s massive tome on economic policy, arrived in 1776 with a thunderclap. (Or something close, provided you dropped it on the floor.) As the late journalist P.J. O’Rourke put it, Smith describes three basic tenets of financial prosperity for a country: freedom of trade, labor division, and owning up to one’s own self-interest. (“Even intellectuals should have no trouble” with the basic concepts, O’Rourke noted.) With division of labor comes trade; with trade (hopefully) comes wealth. That wealth was not simply piles of cash, Smith wrote, but in the products bought and sold in a competitive marketplace—an idea that countered the conventional thinking of the era, which was that hoarding was best and importing or exporting goods was to be avoided.

Would someone have voiced support for hese basic tenets of classical economics if not for Smith? Most likely—indeed, others were working on similar ideas. And while historians debate the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the work, it is still The Wealth of Nations that became the by-word for the entire free-market economic system. —JR

46. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

When Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970, America was already in a period of extraordinary civil unrest. The Kent State shootings and the Augusta civil rights riot had occurred in May; details of the Mỹ Lai massacre were still coming to light, and distrust of the federal government was high. Hitting bookstores just two years after the 1968 establishment of the American Indian Movement, Dee Brown’s book was a radical retelling of the country’s history, centering its narrative on Indigenous people rather than European settlers and their descendants, with a focus on the American West.

At a time when the average white American’s views of Native Americans was shaped more by Hollywood Westerns than reality, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee forced people to reconsider the popular narrative of westward expansion and its fallout. It wasn’t just Americans of European descent who were jolted by the book; Brown’s bestseller is credited with setting the stage for a wave of Native American activism. Some historians draw a straight line between the book and the Wounded Knee occupation that began in February 1973, which resulted in the shooting deaths of two Native American men at the hands of federal agents.

Many historians think Brown overcorrected, portraying Native Americans as passive victims, and some have taken the book to task for creating the impression that Native American history essentially ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. But its lasting impact is undeniable; when Brown died in 2002, The Guardian called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee the book that “demolished for ever the heroic myth of America’s conquest of the west.” —AS