Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.
Literature is more than just stories. It is more than entertainment. Over the years, literature has inspired change that has rocked the world. Here are the top ten books that I think have inspired change in the world.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
It has been said that this book was the cause of the American Civil War. While that might be a little extreme, it did play a major role in bringing awareness of slave life to the general publish.
Like many things even today, slavery was a subject that many considered themselves expert on while few fully realized the facts that lived on in that peculiar institution. Simply put, half the country practised slavery while the other half did not. Those that lived in the non-slavery areas had many misconceptions about the life and those who lived it. Those misconceptions were from all aspects of the spectrum with few being factual.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first non-extremely biased pieces of work that most Northerners read. In its pages were presented the harsh master, the kind and loving master, the freedom fighters, and the just as many different types of slaves. It wasn’t a piece that showed slavery as a wonderful way of life that all Africans should be thankful for as some pieces of pro-slavery literature showed. It also wasn’t one that showed all slavery as evil and all slave owners as the hands of the devil. It showed a more realistic view of it which was an eye opener for many people.
The publication of this book got tongues wagging and politicians talking. The debate about slavery intensified as one side called the book a masterpiece and the other a flat out lie. While the change was to come and the book didn’t exactly cause the war or bring about a new social focus, it clarified and intensified the subject.
The Communist Manifesto
Remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall? It all began with this book by Karl Marx. The impact was so great that “ by 1950 nearly half the world’s population lived under Marxist governments.” (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/marx-publishes-manifesto) The working class heard their philosophy and many embraced them.
The predictions within the work published in the mid- late nineteenth century of revolutions sweeping across Europe were quickly fulfilled. Government after government toppled. While not everyone took up the banner of communism, they were inspired by many of the words found within Marx’s work. They called out to their leaders and removed them if they were ignored.
In the early twentieth century, one particular man took up the banner and declared himself a Marxist and helped to overthrow one of the oldest and largest monarchies on the planet. Vladimir Lenin helped to establish communism in Russia and laid the groundwork for other countries to follow suit.
The original work took nearly a century to change the face of the world politically, socially, economically, and geographically but it did happen. That change is still being felt today as many of those same nations are rejecting communism.
The Rights of Man
This was not exactly a book but a political pamphlet written by Thomas Paine. It was a reactionary writing after Mr. Paine read a British publication not in favor of the French Revolution. Paine disagreed and wrote The Rights of Man which was published in 1791. The book has been called “finest statements of eighteenth century democratic philosophy ever formulated.” (http://www.earlyamerica.com/writings/rights-of-man/)
Everyone in America and in Britain clamored for the book. Many took the book as their flag for freedom England and beyond. Needless to say, Paine was not a welcome person in his own country anymore.
The ideas in this book weren’t just ideas. They were revolutionary and continue to inspire people today to move toward a more democratic way of life and shake the foundation of all of Europe and eventually the world as the ideas were also what inspired the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and many more.
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Many times the government tends to ignore issues that plague the citizens. That is until they are brought to the attention of the world and the government is shamed into acting. That was the case with Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle.
With no knowledge of what was happening within the meat processing plants, people were buying their food and enjoying it. After Sinclair’s book, citizens began to question if what he said was true. Was it really as disgusting within those plants? Were they really eating what he said they were? The uproar was so loud that the American government couldn’t ignore it any longer. Investigations ensued only to discover that the gross scenes were true.
Known as a muckraker for exposing issues society was unaware of, Sinclair has changed American government, business, and social awareness like no other. This one particular book led to first legislative acts for food purity which in turn has led to many others over the years and the reason why food meant for consumers has to be handled in such specific ways to avoid contamination and sickness for the consumer. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/sinclair.html)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Here is one book that didn’t so much change history as it made one look at it at differently. Dee Brown took the original documents of the 1800s concerning the Native American tribes and laid them out as evidence of “he battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them [tribes] demoralized and defeated” which in turn “changed forever our vision of how the West was really won.” (http://libcom.org/library/bury-my-heart-wounded-knee-indian-history-american-west-dee-brown)
History can be portrayed anyway the speaker/writer wants it to. Over the years, the ugly side of settling the United States was not exactly ignored as it was more glossed over. Through the hard work including that of authors such as Brown, Americans stopped and took a closer look at the interactions between ‘Americans’ and the native tribes that fought to keep the land their ancestors called home.
Change was inspired by this book to look closer at the original documents of history and not to accept facts at face value the historical writers present. Truth was pulled forward as the nation began to recognize an injustice.
Origin of the Species
This book has much more impact on the world than Charles Darwin ever dreamed of. It changed the view of society politically, culturally, and religiously. All because one man questioned, ‘what if’ and touching science, literature, religion, economics, politics, and more by its words.
Darwin challenged traditional views of biology. He proposed a theory of evolution that science at first challenged but later embraced. Throughout his book, he gave theories which got the world thinking. A large number of the theories have not been proved even some proved false, but it was the challenge to tradition that changed the world.
The world began to question authority in the various academic studies. Just as the Renaissance leaders questioned the governments and the Catholic church, Darwin’s book spawned an academic revolution that spun out of control.
As with any work, many construed the words within the pages to be what they wanted it to say. Some claim that the book “justified the inherent racism that was an essential part of the European empires” which in turn showed that the white skin should rule the world. (website that has now been removed - magazine.emw.org.uk) Others say that Darwin disproved the religious stance on creation which meant religion was void. Scholars have misquoted Darwin many times and created ‘facts’ that are theories of their own. Few have actually read his book yet quote it in the media, in scholarly reports, and from the pulpit whether it be religious or political.
Agree or disagree with Darwin’s theories, he wrote words that changed all aspects of society that still is quoted, right or wrong, today.
This is one book that exploded through the upper societies of England at the time. It is the story of an orphan who finds himself being mistreated as a child and then living on the streets working for a gang of thieves. He wants to do good, but society is against him. A few rays of hope help him out only to find that society won't let him better himself without a fight to the death.
Most people went through their daily lives without thinking of how others around them fared. If they were starving, they knew nothing. If they were poor, they went to the workhouse. People of the middle and upper classes had no idea what the living conditions were. They just heard from the politicians that it was the smart thing to do.
"Dickens explores many social themes in Oliver Twist, but three are predominant: the abuses of the new Poor Law system, the evils of the criminal world in London and the victimisation of children. The critique of the Poor Law of 1834 and the administration of the workhouse is presented in the opening chapters of Oliver Twist. Dickens gives the most uncompromising critique of the Victorian workhouse, which was run according to a regime of prolonged hunger, physical punishment, humiliation and hypocrisy." (Victorianweb.org)
Charles Dickens wrote this book to bring attention to the true conditions of the orphanages, work houses, and the lower levels of society. England got a rude awakening. Because of this book, people began to look closer at the world around them and began to make changes.
The Feminine Mystique
We live in a time where the idea of feminism is nothing new, but the world we live in is nothing like it was sixty years ago when this book first was published. Betty Friedan's book caused quite a stir when it was published. It is seen as "a rich keyhole into the popular culture of the 1950's". (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/books/50-years-of-reassessing-the-feminine-mystique.html) It stirred up controversy about the role of women in the world. Not everyone enjoyed it. Some women were insulted by it, but it did get people talking and get women acting.
This book shattered the image of the perfect housewife whose only goal in life was to make her husband happy with a warm home and well-behaved children. In fact, it "implored women with the education and talents to do so much more, to seek out occupations, paid and unpaid, which would improve the quality of their lives." (http://origins.osu.edu/review/strange-stirring-feminine-mystique-and-american-women-dawn-1960s)
The book called out to the world that women were more than just one role in this world. They were so much more.
The Holy Bible
This book can be attributed for many good and bad things throughout the ages. It was used to change the Roman Empire, create the Catholic faith, behind many wars, the foundation for the creation of universities, orphanages, hospitals, and more. So many historical events can be traced back to the influence of the Christian Bible.
Most of Western history can be traced back to the Bible. The religious work was tied into the government and society since the downfall of the Roman Empire. Changes in social norm has occurred in waves throughout history since this book was pulled together. Even today, many decisions are said to be made based on the words on its pages.
Many religious texts can be said to inspire change. When Martin Luther felt something wasn't right, he looked deeper into the scriptures and started the Protestant Reformation. That led to an upheaval that was felt throughout Europe and beyond. In the Western world, this one book has had the most impact, both good and bad. Justification for torture was used for the Spanish Inquisition while justification for mercy was used for the founders of hospitals.
Wealth of Nations
In this book, Adam Smith gave the world a new idea about economics. In fact, he is called the Father of Modern Capitalism. The book focused on the politics of economy and "a much more expansive mixture of philosophy, political science, history, economics, anthropology, and sociology. The role of the free market and the laissez-faire structures that support it are but two components of a larger theory of human interaction and social history." (http://www.iep.utm.edu/smith/)
Smith's words were an inspiration to the Enlightenment. It was a period of thought that changed the Western world and opened the door to science and philosophy. He felt that the government had a specific purpose for the people. It was not there to be catered to but to be there for the people themselves. He proposed that the government was to protect the people from foreign invaders, keep peace in the cities, and maintain an infrastructure to allow growth within the country. Those who pushed the Enlightenment saw merit in many of Smith's ideas and sought to make them a part of the world they moved in. By doing so, the ideas "made the enlightenment a new place for people to live. The enlightenment brought a new life for the poor. They soon got jobs and many other benefits for these poor people. The Enlightenment brought more trade to the people. They felt that, along with Adam Smith, countries should only make items that they can do for the cheapest amount. This spread trade to many different countries that had items others needed." (http://www.thehistoryconnection.com/Enlightenment-And-Economics.html).
The economics of today can trace most of the structure back to Adam Smith's ideas. New democracies use his book as a guideline. The change it brought was legendary.