When you think about it, books are just ink pressed onto the skins of trees and bound together with glue and cardboard. How is it possible that such small objects wield such incredible power? All booklovers carry inside them a handful of books that changed their world, the way they live and see their lives, but what about books that actually changed the whole world? What about the books that nudged the course of history in a different direction? I’ve rounded up some of my favourites here today in this list of seven books that changed the world.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Technically speaking, books wouldn’t be able to change the world if there were no books, right? (The horror!) So, it makes sense to start this list with the first novel ever written – that’s right, the very first one, in the form that we understand today – back in the 11th century, The Tale Of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Court, and (believe it or not) that was actually a pretty dull life. A lot of sitting around and, y’know, waiting. So, she picked up a pen and started writing, just to fill in the time. Her book doesn’t have a plot per se, but it does have a cast of characters and many of the other elements we recognise as defining the modern novel. It shaped Japanese culture for hundreds of years, and paved the way for all written literature that has come since.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was kind of awesome. She was a middle-aged, middle class white lady, living in the mid-1800s in what we now call the United States (which is pretty much her doing, as you’ll see). She took a look around her and went “You know what? Slavery is fucked. God would not be down with this at all. I’m gonna write a book about it.” So, she sat down and wrote a powerful abolitionist novel about Uncle Tom – a heroic slave who won’t be kept down by the forces that oppress him – and other slaves who suffered under the system. It was so popular (selling 300,000 copies in its first year, no mean feat, even by today’s standards!) that it is now credited with fueling the fire of the abolitionist movement that became the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, said: “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book who started this great war.” Today, it is widely recognised as having turned the tide of public opinion against slavery, and still manages to reveal new insights to people about the oppression that continues – such is the power of fiction.
See also: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Maybe George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t pivot the course of history as directly or immediately as some of the other books on this list, but given its ongoing resonance and how frequently we refer to it in today’s political discourse, I’d say it definitely counts as one of the books that changed the world. Even though it was written in 1949, and set in a totally imagined dystopian future, every time I pick it up I still learn something new about the real world that we live in today: state surveillance, acts of resistance, power and control, and collective action. We use Orwell’s language – “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime” – every day, and cite this book frequently in our attempts to quash totalitarian regimes. This is one of the defining books of the dystopian genre, a treatise in defense of human rights, and a powerful call to arms, all in one. Oh, yeah, and there’s kind-of a love story, too…
Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank has become synonymous with our understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. It is the very definition of the political made personal, and I defy anyone to read this book and not become a more empathic, compassionate, humane person as a result. It has also become a symbol of hope in the face of atrocity, and a testament to both the cruelty and resilience of humanity. I think this book changed the world in the sense that it finally gave us a universally relatable human face to put on the devastating impact on war.
See also: No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani – I was struck, in the most horrifying way, by the parallels between Anne Frank’s experience of living through the Holocaust and Behrouz Boochani’s account of torturous off-shore imprisonment by the Australian government. Perhaps the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped…
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
I won’t deny that feminism has evolved and changed dramatically since Betty Friedan’s time, and there were views and opinions held at that time that we can recognise as deeply problematic today. Still, I think it’s important that we also acknowledge the foundational texts – The Feminine Mystique being one of them – for the revolutionary, ground-breaking, world-changing works they were. The Feminine Mystique effectively sparked the second wave of the feminist movement; where the first had focused on suffrage and property rights, Friedan pushed feminists to think more broadly about domestic labour, reproductive rights, and access to the workplace. In this book, we can see the germinating seeds of the later movements that are more in line with our values today. Friedan’s obituary, printed in the New York Times, said that this book “permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States” – and those effects rippled out through the rest of the world.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Look, I’m not going to lie: I didn’t love Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I came in expecting all kinds of smut, and aside from a couple of heaving bosoms and c-bombs, there was none to be found. Disappointing! Still, even I can acknowledge the important impact that this book has had on our access to literature and the right to read. It was widely censored and banned – completely prohibited in the UK for many decades – because of its supposedly-explicit sexual content. The brave souls at Penguin forged ahead and published the book anyway in 1960, leading to a major trial about whether they had contravened the laws against obscenity. In the end, the publishers won, which established a precedent that continues to govern our access to literature (especially the smutty stuff) today. A publisher’s note in my edition dedicates the book to the twelve jurors that declared them not guilty. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.
See also: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and pretty much any other “dirty” book that has been subject to challenges and censorship around the world.
Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
It’s almost difficult to count the ways in which the Harry Potter series has changed the world. What started as a daydream on a delayed train for Rowling has become an international sensation, a cultural touchstone, and a beacon of children’s literacy. Many kids who would not otherwise be interested in reading have discovered their love of books through Harry Potter. People who feel isolated and alone still turn to them for comfort and nostalgia. The readers my age, the ones who grew up with these books as they were being released, are now having kids of their own and re-discovering Harry Potter along with them. The New York Times had to create a whole new Best Seller List (for Children), because Rowling’s books had dominated the regular list for so long. Rowling has donated millions from her Harry Potter profits to charitable organisations that do vital work (yes, I’m deliberately ignoring some of her more problematic politics that have come to light in recent years, because I want to end on a happy note). No matter which way you slice it, Harry Potter has been a force for good, a series of books that changed the world for the better.
Can you think of any other books that changed the world? Add them to the list in the comments below!
March 11, 2020 at 7:43 PM
And after all that dedicated reading, attending the Warner Brothers Exhibition and so on for some reason Harry Potter has become the equivalent of Game of Thrones for me.
I suppose if I was of another era I would say I am “so over it” – at least I think that’s the terminology.
Sad thing is that the more the popularity of something is trotted out to justify my parting with cash for it the less interesting it seems to be.
On reflection the very first book was interesting because I was discovering a world about which I knew nothing. After that it was like all those follow Matrix films, ok, yer, I get it.
July 9, 2020 at 10:14 AM
July 9, 2020 at 10:18 AM
July 11, 2020 at 4:08 PM
Oooh, interesting Gail – why do you think so? 🙂