Most Influential Books of All Time
In any list of the most influential books of all time, you have to admit the power of the Bible, The Torah, and The Qur’an, not to mention I Ching, The Bagavad Gita, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. For the sake of the book summaries here, you might as well concede the influence of these religious texts and move on to other titles.
The Illiad and The Odyssey (c.762 BCE) and The Aenied (c.29-19 BCE)
In these extraordinary lyric epics, the poetry alone is marvelous, but they each provide a thorough sense of their cultures and introduce archetypical plots and characters that influence the rest of Western literature.
The Republic (360 BCE)
Plato wants to define justice as worthwhile in and of itself. He does it with a solution and process that appeals to human psychology, rather than to perceived behavior.
The Geography (c.150)
Ptolemy draws detailed maps of the entire known world, a collection that will direct exploration, trade, and economy for centuries.
Summa Theologica (1265-1274)
Thomas Aquinas argues Christianity”s most pertinent questions satisfying any existential concern or a philosophical question, maybe the most important document of the Middle Ages.
The Prince (1513)
Machiavelli explores the role of the ruler. He separates ethics from politics in a challenging understanding of pragmatism. This pairs well with Sun Tzu’s ancient The Art of War with its emotionally detached examination of military purpose and strategy.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
This is a treasury of dramatic brilliance, unforgettable characters, and Renaissance thought. It reveals the master’s exceptional knowledge of history, philosophy, botany, and more.
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
Isaac Newton leads science into a new era of stunning and revolutionary work. Read the Principia in a sequence that includes The Origin of the Species (1859), Albert Einstein’s Relativity (1916), and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988). Or, find out exactly what Copernicus and Galileo had in mind centuries before.
Common Sense (1775-1776)
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet was the single indisputable link between the thinking of the leaders of the American Revolution and the common man. Paine belonged to the extraordinary tradition of pamphleteers and essay writers including Michel de Montaigne, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and David Hume.
The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Adam Smith offered the ultimate logic of capitalism. Every subsequent treatise on economics – Marx, Keynes, Friedman, Samuelson – have confirmed or challenged Smith’s position.
Communist Manifesto (1848)
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels opened a completely new world that proved not so brave in the end. It influenced a century of revolution and misery captured in other ways in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), both of which could as easily been about the extremes of capitalism.
Psychological Types (1916)
Carl Jung found a universal unconscious in the very minds that Sigmund Freud had opened in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). You might read them along with Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1983) and B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
I and Thou (1923)
Martin Buber’s gentle rabbinic voice creates a dialogue between the I that exists and the Thou that actuates the existence. He remains the cohesive voice among the existentialists that include Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1787), Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (1843), and jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943).
This short list of book summaries fails to honor Sophocles, Plato, Nietzsche, Calvin, Locke, Thoreau, and many others. It is meant to inform and not to define a new canon of learning.