Avid readers might often describe their favorite books as “world-changing,” and, of course, for any reader, there are some books that alter the course of her life or make her think of things in a totally different way. But aside from the books that are personally a revelation, there are some books that quite literally changed the world. It might be hard to believe that a bound up stack of paper and ink could make that much of an impact, but not all world-altering changes are made by inspiring speeches from stern-faced leaders. Sometimes, the book is what inspired the speaker, or inspired the audience to show up, or that sparked the idea that changed everything.
Whether it was making unaware majorities acknowledge issues and communities to which they had previously been blind, or awakening people to political or philosophical ideas that inspired revolution, or the written discovery of a new scientific principle, there are some books that changed everything about what we know and how we see the world.
These books take all different forms and are spread all over the historical timeline, but they all have one crucial thing in common — you should absolutely, definitely, no-doubt-about-it, read them. I mean, they did change the world, after all. You never know, some of these books might just change your whole world, too.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
The trials that Phillis Wheatley faced in order to prove that she was, in fact, the real author of her own work are more famous than the work that started it all. Yet her poetry was praised by the highest intellectual authorities in colonial America, and that caused a big ol’ stir in which people suddenly didn’t believe she could actually be capable of writing good poetry. The positive outcome of Wheatley’s trials to prove authorship of her own poems forced a lot of white people in the U.S. and England to wrestle with the notion that black people were actually people (gasp! No way?!) people capable of art.
On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
There’s no denying that Darwin’s book on the nature of human evolution was anything less than world-changing. It's scientific ideas were a big part of helping science wriggle its way out of the grasp of the church.
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
The first novel written by a black woman in America, Our Nig tells the story of Harriet E. Wilson’s life as a slave and after her freedom. She took up the pen to make money when she found herself unable to work by her usual means. Some editions of the brief story include the letters of sympathetic white acquaintances who were advocating on Wilson’s behalf for the sympathy of other white liberals. It is among the narratives of slavery that spoke directly to white people as a plea for the acknowledgement of the inhumane conditions of black slaves.
Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims by Sarah Winnemucca
This book was written to expose the wrongs committed against Native Americans, as well as the peacekeeping efforts of Native American leaders at a time when the mistreatment of Native Americans was not exactly on the public agenda of important issues. Winnemucca’s book, created with the help of women activists, was not only among the first written English-language books written by Native Americans in the colonized U.S., but it was also a book that awakened the public to the plight of the internally displaced peoples around them.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown
Because even as progress is made more issues arise, and because the world needs constant reminders that history is living creature influencing the issues of today and tomorrow, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee brought America’s violent history with Native Americans to the fore at the height of the American Indian Movement, stoking its revolutionary flames. It was even invoked by activists opposing the Vietnam War who drew comparisons between the violence in Vietnam and the the cruelties committed on America’s own soil against Native Americans.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Zinn basically changed the way history was written, exploding open everyone’s minds with the concept that history is more complicated than what you read in your school textbook, the narratives told by the colonizers and the leaders and the winners of history. Instead, he presented history from the view of “the people,” and changed a lot minds about the history they thought they were so familiar with.
Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara
Guevara revolutionized the use of guerilla warfare against totalitarianism and in places where political protest and legal means of resistance just wouldn’t do the trick. And this is the book that has since guided many a resistance against tyranny.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart forced the conversation about the European colonization of Africa into the classroom, and awakened generations to cultural preservation.
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton
The dude kind of discovered gravity. If anything’s world-changing, that most certainly is.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Black communities have a particular and particularly complicated history with LGBT rights and LGBT love. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room dared to place the love between two men at the center of this novel, and that boldness was another effort in the fight for recognition, acceptance, and liberation for LGBT people of color.
The Complete Poems of Sappho by Sappho
Sappho was a well-regarded poet in her own time, but it was centuries later that her influence really took off, giving the world the word “lesbian,” and her name being invoked for lesbian and queer liberation movements.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Ain’t I A Woman? by bell hooks
Titling the book after the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech by Sojourner Truth, bell hooks drew attention to the monochromatic and classist tendencies of the women’s liberation movement of the '60s and '70s, basically reviving the call for intersectionality that Sojourner Truth invoked some 120 years before, and forever changing the women’s liberation movement.
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
Back when scientific essay and historical narrative and epic poetry of the likes of The Odyssey were the main form that literature took, this guy Miguel Cervantes threw it all into disarray when he practically invented the whole idea of a novel. The fictional (usually chronological) narrative that we all know today as the novel was a total novel (ba dum) experiment back in the 1600s.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Not all world-changing books are things of the distant past. There are still issues overlooked and communities marginalized and rights denied and scientific discoveries that need exposing. In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s book put the prison industrial complex in a whole new powerful light that nobody could ignore, and now we’re in the middle of grappling with this startling new understanding.