Throughout history, major events have played a big role in shaping the world we live in and our views of it. Reformation, revolutions, revelations – you name it! And the majority of these events will have been influenced by books in one way or another. A big statement maybe, but though they may seem like insignificant bundles of paper to some, books are one of the most powerful things humans have ever created. Like extraordinary events, they hold the power to change not only their readers’ life but also the society in which they were created.
Often representations of movements in society, they give a voice to all the frustration, injustice and calls for a different world, and sometimes a voice is all that is needed to spark a change.
Some books are a more obvious choice than others for this list. These include books like the Bible and the Quran, but whilst these two religious texts have had a major impact on history, I have chosen to focus on five non-religious books that have also managed to change our world in substantial ways.
- The Analects of Confucius
The Chinese proof that books don’t necessarily lose their power and relevance as time goes by.
The Analects by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was written more than 2,000 years ago, but even though the book is ancient, it’s still one of the most widely studied works of literature in China today.
Unlike the spiritual focus in books like the Bible and Quran, the Analects is more of a practical guide containing Confucius’ sayings and ideas on how to live a proper life.
The importance of the book is tangible in the very fabric of Chinese culture; views on moral, integrity, education, political ideals, and what constitute a good government have all been shaped by Confucius’ teachings.
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
“… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin
One of the never-ending discussions (mainly in America) about where we come from was triggered by a little book which states that everything around us is the result of evolution and not the work of an all mighty god.
Whether you are a fan of Mr Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or not, I think we can all agree that it caused quite an uproar when it was published in 1859. It has since sparked extensive research within zoology and biology, but other fields of study like anthropology, sociology and even political theorists have also explored Darwin’s ideas about the natural world.
By explaining how our world was shaped by evolution, the book has in turn shaped how many of us view the world. Not many books can claim to have done the same.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
11 years before Darwin’s Theory of Evolution changed the world, two men managed to change history with their political manuscript. German philosophers (among other things) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 which summarises their (mainly Marx’s) theories about the nature of societies and how a revolution by the working class would eventually end capitalist society.
The manifesto is recognised as one of the most influential political books ever written and the ideas expressed in it have sparked revolutions all over the world (well-known examples include Russia, China and Cuba).
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Books are powerful, but are they really powerful enough to start wars? American president Abraham Lincoln supposedly though so. When he met the author of Uncle Tom’s Cain in 1862, he reportedly greeted Stowe by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
With her informal and conversational writing style, Stowe managed to tell a heart-breaking story that presented Americans with the horrors of slavery in a way that political speeches and newspaper accounts hadn’t been able to do before.
It may have tipped America into a bloody civil war, but the story resonated with people all over the world, making it an instant bestseller. Only surpassed by the Bible, it became the second most sold book of the 19th century and has been translated into more than 60 languages.
- Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Okay, we need to talk about this. In none of the other “books that changed history/the world” roundups, which I have found online, mention this particular book. Something I find extraordinary. Whilst Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped fuel the abolitionist cause and contributed to ending slavery in America, Mein Kampf by the infamous Adolf Hitler is very much an example of how a book can turn one man’s horrible ideals into a bloody world war.
The two-volume book about Hitler’s life, political ideals and aspirations was written whilst he was serving a prison sentence for a failed coup attempt in 1923. The first volume was published in 1925 and the second volume was out a year later in 1926. By the time Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he had earned 1.2 million Reichsmarks from the sales of his book – a massive amount when you consider that the average annual income for a teacher was approx. 4,800 Reichsmarks. In 1939 the book was available in 11 languages and had sold about 5.2 million copies, a number which had increased to around 10 million copies when the war ended in 1945, bringing Hitler’s total earnings from the book to about 7.6 million Reichsmarks.
Without the money from the book, Hitler would have struggled to finance his climb for power – even with the royalties, he was deep in debt before he became Chancellor. The most destructive thing about Mein Kampf, however, is not the financial support it gave Hitler, but the ideology which he shared in the book. It was read by thousands of people, and like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it managed to create a spark – unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was a spark based on a perverted view of the world and the humans who live in it. Had the book proven to be a massive failure, Hitler may not have had the same confidence nor the opportunity to grab power.
Books can be powerful in inspiring ways, but they also have the potential to corrupt or mislead. All of the examples above prove just how enabling books can be when it comes to changing history, and they show us that books should never be taken lightly – who knows, the book on your nightstand might just be about to change the world.
Which book do you think is the most powerful, non-religious book? I would be interested to know which ones you would like to include in the short list above!