Friday, January 18, 2013

Important Texts and Books in History

It's no secret we are shaped by the experiences we have in our lives. In chapter 1 of our text, Cooley argues the written word helped directly pass down information from generation to generation and it helps craft the environment we live in how. He quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as saying, "We owe our development to a thousand influences of the great world." (More from Goethe here.)

In 1998, British literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith wrote a book called The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. In it, he outlines why each of these 100 works are important and what they did for society and the environment of civilization. (easy-to-read and sort-able Wikipedia list here)

These entries include ancient Chinese Classic Texts, also known as the canonical history and cultural information about China (11th century BC). They also include the Jewish Hebrew Bible (8th century BC),   Homer's Iliad, and Odyssey (7th century BC),  as well as the works of Aristotle, Confucius and Plato (4th and 5th centuries BC).

It also included religious texts like the Quran and the Christian New Testament as well as scientific and philosophical works such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, John Stewart Mill and Charles Darwin. 

Interestingly, the most recent entry in his list, B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, came in 1971. My question is, why haven't there really been any worthwhile entries since then?

These texts, as well as the rest in the complete list, seem to represent works that either completely changed the way people thought about things or how they lived their lives. They were a foundation for cultural and societal change and they helped shape the environment Charles Horton Cooley wrote about in the book.

I would argue the most culturally relevant books written since 1971 include, but are definitely not limited to, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Goerge Orwell's Animal Farm, and others of that ilk. 

One thing I notice is that the farther along in history we go, the more epic and entertaining these texts and books tend to be. Take, for example. the top five selling books since 2000.

They are:
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
2. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hoeseini 
5. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Of these five, only the last is based more in truth-finding first, and entertainment second. I simply find this fascinating and the subject of a whole new debate as to why.

***There are obviously going to be all kinds of lists put together by various sources of important texts and books. Another good one was put together by the Library of Congress in 2012 and it lists the top texts that shaped the United States. Also, Time's Ten Best.


  1. Wade,
    Thank you for the post and the link to the list. I'm not terribly surprised that recent literature is not on the list, as it likely takes decades to determine whether or not a literary work is influential on shifting social/political thought. I'm looking forward to exploring the list a bit more.

  2. Right now, I'm reading "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers" about a slum in Mumbai. Not exactly light, feel-good stuff. But I do wonder what people will make of our society when they look back at our art, literature and entertainment. We produce excellence...and we also produce Honey Boo-boo.