18 Books That Prove Writing Can Change The World
Right now, it definitely seems like everything has become unavoidably politicized — from the organizations you donate to and the media you consume, to your Instagram likes and your Twitter retweets, to how you spend your weekends and what books you’re currently reading. And you definitely know on some level that all of those things make a difference… but after a long day of fighting the good fight, you might also be lamenting: even my reading has to be political now, too? And while the answer to that question is: no, your reading definitely doesn’t have to be political (everyone has to take a break from the noise sometime) it’s also true that literature does have a history of being a force of resistance, and there are plenty of books that have changed the world.
When I say “changed the world” I don’t just mean “books that have changed the people who’ve read them.” I mean books that have actually changed the world — influencing policy, informing social movements, and transforming the way certain issues are considered on a global scale. The titles on this list are examples of books that have done exactly that.
Here are 18 books that have actually changed the world.
1. ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson
Credited as one of the earliest inspirations for today’s environmental movement, marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the devastating effects of synthetic chemical pesticides on the environment, and particularly on birds. As a result of Carson’s research, the aerial spraying of DDT was banned throughout the United States and other parts of the world, and significant legislative changes were made regarding the pollution of land, water, and air. Let's not turn back the clock on this, mkay?
2. ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan
After her article about housewives who were desperate for more meaning, adventure, and independence in their lives was refused publication by mainstream media, Betty Friedan turned her research into a book instead. That book is the feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique, which is credited with inspiring the second-wave feminist movement, and chronicles the lives of several 1950s housewives, and their dissatisfaction with the domesticity and dependency expected of them.
3. ‘The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair
Although fiction, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is responsible for the 1906 passing of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act, which later helped to establish the Food and Drug Administration. Although exposing the substandard meat processing facilities Americans were getting their nightly dinners from wasn't Sinclair's original intent (he'd instead aimed at revealing the dehumanizing treatment of immigrant laborers) this novel is still to thank for the food regulations upheld in the U.S. today.
4. ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe
First published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is responsible for furthering the abolitionist cause in the northern United States in the years before the Civil War, by bringing public attention to the horrors of slavery. Rumor has it that President Lincoln even credited the novel with being the final tipping point that started the Civil War to begin with.
5. ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ by James Agee and Walker Evans
Considered one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men takes readers into the daily lives of sharecroppers in the 1930s American South, blending photography and narrative with social conscious, and shedding light on lives that those living outside the rural south barely knew existed at the time.
6. ‘Rights of Man’ by Thomas Paine
Considered one of the primary inspirations for global democratic movements, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was initially written in defense of the French Revolution, and argues that not only is it a government's job to protect and provide for its people, but if that government fails to do so it's the people's responsibility to resist, dismantle, overthrow, and/or transform their government. I mean... Thomas Paine said.
7. ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison
Written almost a decade before the Civil Rights movement, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man introduces readers to an unnamed African American narrator, who tells a story of the repression and marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities living in the United States. This novel also illustrates the hypocrisy of many social and political movements that may aim towards greater equality, but fail to reach it.
8. ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe
As one of the greatest contemporary works written against colonialism, Things Fall Apart is Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s account of a tribal African society falling apart — losing their grasp on both their history and their culture — as a result of the arrival and influence of white Christian missionaries.
9. ‘Ten Days in a Mad-House’ by Nellie Bly
Published in 1887, Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House was a groundbreaking exposé on the unbearable conditions faced by woman living in mental institutions at the end of the 19th century. After faking her own psychotic breakdown, Bly spent ten days in the Women's Lunatic Asylum, where she witnessed the injustices committed against patients — leading to legislation designed to increase funding for facilities and ensure a humane quality of life for those living in them.
10. ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin
The fact that the ideas put forth in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species are still up for debate in some political circles is definitely a head-scratcher. But nonetheless, Darwin’s research and subsequent publications led to the foundation of the theory of evolution — a revolutionary idea at the time, demonstrating that the commonly-held principle of “survival of the fittest” was really “survival of the one most willing and able to adapt.” Something to keep in mind.
11. ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey
Another book that perhaps deserves a re-read these days, John Hersey's Hiroshima is an account of the first atomic bomb ever dropped on a city, as remembered by those who survived the disaster. Largely considered Hersey's literary masterpiece and one of the greatest works of World War II writing, Hiroshima's power lies in Hersey's ability to utilize spare and unemotional language, letting the haunting devastation of that bombing speak entirely for itself.
12. ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank
A book that will most certainly always remain on schools' required reading lists, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl invokes the horrors of the Holocaust like few other books have. Frank's unabashed sincerity and innocence only serve to highlight the tragedy that later befell her and over six million others.
13. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ by Mary Wollstonecraft
Considered the first great work of feminist literature, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman focuses largely on the rights of women to receive an education. Fun fact: Wollstonecraft was also the mother of Mary Shelley, author of the classic Gothic novel, Frankenstein.
14. ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ by Sigmund Freud
Although most of Sigmund Freud's theories have been largely discredited by modern psychologists, his 1899 title, The Interpretation of Dreams, is still responsible for presenting the science of psychology and psychoanalysis to mainstream readers in an accessible, groundbreaking way.
15. ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence
A novel that changed history less for its content and more for the public response to it, D.H. Lawrence's novel about a woman of English nobility who commits adultery with a working-class man, Lady Chatterly's Lover, was banned in both the United Kingdom and the United States for its sexual content. Its banning highlighted the idea and practice of censorship and subsequently helped overthrow it.
16. ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, has been credited with being one of the first sociological inquiries ever published — demonstrating how the history of slavery in the United States directly led to the social, political, and economic injustices the African American community would later face. The collection also works to dismantle the then-commonly-held stereotypes regarding African Americans.
17. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no denying that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels changed history when the wrote The Communist Manifesto. The slim text offers readers a step-by-step process for working class citizens to rise up against elite rulers, with the ultimate goal of eliminating class struggles. But what really made the ideas in The Communist Manifesto unique is that Marx and Engels went beyond economic analysis, demonstrating to readers that dismantling the economic status quo required resisting the overarching political structures as well.
18. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque
One of the very first and best-known anti-war novels ever written (the cover obviously forgot the "anti" part) Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front details the terrors of World War I, and especially the unique horrors of trench-warfare, from the perspective of a young German soldier — and was later one of the first books to be burned and banned by the Nazis. We’re still working towards a world where war isn’t the automatic go-to response to practically everything, so this title is another that might require a re-read.