Reading the 50 most influential books – or not

This list of the 50 most influential books of the last 50 years or so comes from a site I stumbled across and there is nothing by which to judge its judges. In fact, it comes from one of those sites that seem to be fairly prominent these days, they look like blog but are there to promote online colleges or the like. Regardless, I found the list at least interesting and, at times, a bit confounding. Still, I found it intriguing enough to mention.

At the outset, it should be noted that whoever compiled it says, “Not all the books on this list are ‘great.’ The criterion for inclusion was not greatness but INFLUENCE. All the books on this list have been enormously influential.” The compilers also recognize reality, trying to balance the list between books everyone buys and doesn’t read (can you say Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time?) and books that weren’t widely read but were quite transformative.

So, here’s the list with the ones I’ve read in bold and the ones sitting unread on my bookshelves (or Nook) underlined. On a few, I there are parenthetical comments, one of which is repeated frequently with one variation.

  1. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)
  2. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) (Why so high on the list? It “reinvented the science fiction genre.”)
  3. Robert Atkins’ Dr Atkins’s New Diet Revolution (1992, last edition 2002) (C’mon. Who didn’t read this in the ’90s?)
  4. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006)
  5. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987)
  6. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) (C’mon. Who didn’t read this in the ‘oughts?)
  7. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)
  8. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)
  9. Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957)
  10. Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (1989)
  11. Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996)
  12. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
  13. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980)
  14. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1962)
  15. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)
  16. Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
  17. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995)
  18. Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man (1971)
  19. John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) (C’mon. Who didn’t read this in the ’90s?)
  20. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) (Does watching the television series count?)
  21. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988, updated and expanded 1998)
  22. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961)
  23. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, last edition 1978)
  24. Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)
  25. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  26. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  27. Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue (1981, last edition 2007)
  28. Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987)
  29. Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984-89) (Four novels.)
  30. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965)
  31. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks’ The 9/11 Commission Report (2004)
  32. Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (1988)
  33. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  34. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971, last edition 1999)
  35. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series (seven volumes, 1997-2007) (I’ve read only the first three or four.)
  36. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988)
  37. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980)
  38. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001)
  39. Amartya Sen’s Resources, Values and Development (1984, last edition 1997)
  40. B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
  41. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (in three volumes, 1974-78) (I read only the first volume.)
  42. Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capitalism (2000)
  43. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946, last edition 2004)
  44. Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan (2007, last edition 2010)
  45. Mao Tse-tung’s The Little Red Book, aka Quotations From Chairman Mao (1966)
  46. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (2002)
  47. James D. Watson’s The Double Helix (1969)
  48. E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975)
  49. Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
  50. Muhammad Yunus’ Banker to the Poor (1999, last edition 2007)

What I find interesting isn’t so much that I’ve read 14 of the books on the list; it’s that I am now somewhat abashed at having read about 20 percent of those. It seems to reflect that, to some extent, influence is dictated by whether the crowd follows something rather than innovation.

The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.

E.M. Forster, “A Book That Influenced Me,” Two Cheers For Democracy

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1 comment to Reading the 50 most influential books – or not

  • I’ve read 13 books on the list. Some of these influenced me, sure. But the rest did not. Certainly, my life was not transformed by reading the Da Vinci Code :). Thanks for the list.