Changing the World, One Book at a Time
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
All of us can likely list the books that have changed our lives either for better or for the worse. The list we draw up at middle age is likely to be very different than the list we draw up as teenagers or college students, as young adults, or as older adults. Some kind soul has often handed us a book when our worlds have fallen apart, or we stumbled across a volume in our local bookstore that gracefully leads us on a journey of discovery. I’m not talking about self-help books here or the ever popular Chicken Soup books but about novels, philosophy or religion books, or other books that never self-consciously set out to help anybody but rather simply to tell a good story or engage an important cultural question.
My own personal list includes Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, Nikos Kazantzakis’ Saint Francis, Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus und Goldmund and Magister Ludi (at one point in my life, anything by Hesse was relevatory), Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which changes my life every time I read it), Vonnegut’s novels, especially Cat’s Cradle, Anne Sexton’s poetry, the Bible, and Dante’s Commedia.
I’ve been thinking this week, though, about books that have changed the world not just those that have rocked our personal lives. There are, of course, books that have challenged literary styles. Wordsworth and the Romantics, for example, overturn Pope and the Neo-Classicist’s view of nature but I’m thinking here of books that have changed the way people looked at culture, history, and society. This week I’m going to offer my list of twenty-five books, in no particular chronological order, that changed the world. I may comment on them as I go along, but I’m mainly offering a list of the books in order to ponder, especially during Banned Books Week, the role that literature has played in altering our world. I’m also using the word “book” a little loosely, too. When some of these works first appeared, they resembled nothing like what we would call books today.
The Code of Hammurabi. The first legal code set down by an external authority to shape a culture.
Gilgamesh. The mother of all epics: there’s flood, a creation myth, a love story, a quest story, and tragedy.
The Bible. Really a library (biblio) of little books, these sixty-six books contain as much sex as a torrid romance novel, as much violence as nay of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, and more wisdom than most of the world’s books combined. The Hebrew Scriptures record the changing world of the Jewish religion, while the New Testament offers a look at the ways that a new Hellenistic religion that came to be called Christianity challenged its environs.
The Koran. Another religious classic that set two clans warring against one another and whose arguments continue to shape our world.
Homer, Odyssey and Iliad. The great epics of quest, founding, and war.
Virgil, Aeneid. To Rome what Homer was to Greece, of course.
Mahabharata. The Indian Homeric epic
Milton, Paradise Lost
Shakespeare. Hard to choose just one here, but King Lear, Hamlet, The Tempest as well as the history plays are clear choices.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
Darwin, Origin of Species and The Descent of Man
Marx, Capital and The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Paine, The Rights of Man
Machiavelli, The Prince
Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
As you can see, this list is not long enough, and there are more than twenty-five works on it. Books from the twentieth century are noticeably absent from this list, and one, Mein Kampf, is missing, even though many would argue that it changed the world. You could certainly add the works of Martin Luther King, Einstein, and Gandhi to this list, as well as those of a long list of others like Dorothy Day and Simone Weil whose writings were earth-shattering at the time they appeared. This is one list of books that changed the world, and I hope next week to write in a little deeper way about some of the works that I haven’t written about this week. I wonder, though, what works might be on your list?
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at