What Books have had the greatest effect in the Real World?

In response to the thread on the effect of movies ( http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=787175 ) in the Real World, I wondered about the effect of books and plays in the world before we had movies. I think they may have had a greater impact, especially because there was a much smaller media scene. A few examples:

1.) Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the case that prompted this thread. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel undoubtedly had a big impact in helping polarize opinion about slavery just prior to the Civil War. It became a huge bestseller, and had the effect of making people who had been apathetic or lukewarm about slavery more aware of it and its implications. It also angered the slave-holding states, who had gotten the Fugitive Slave Act passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, and were relying on people, especially those in non-slave-holding states, to return escaped slavges (or those suspected of being). Stowe wrote the original sketches that became this book in response to that Act.

2.) Cato a play by Joseph Addison, first produced in 1712. It’s surprising to see how many of the prominent characters in the American Revolution – on both sides – read this play, and quoted from it. A lot of those famous quotes that you learned in history class were ultimately derived from this work:


3.) Ivanhoe and other works by Sir Walter Scott – Mark Twain was of the opinion that too many Southern Gentlemen read these books and were both captivated and blinded by its vision of an aristocracy devoted to knightly virtues, particularly the defense of honor and belligerence, and that this helped inspire them to defend the South during the civil War, and to blind them to the realities of the North’s material advantages. I don’t know if he’s right, but if he is, the US owes the Civil war in part to the Scottish baronet. Here’s Twain in *Life on the Mississippi:

Comic History of the United States cartoonist Larry Gonick is skeptical of Twain’s claims – in his history of the US he draws a Civil War soldier in Ivanoe armor, saying “Forsooth!” But I can’t help but think there might be something to Twain’s argument.

Any others?

The Bible, for the win.

Is this a question that pertains purely to literature, or does it extend to religious texts, manifestos, etc?

If not, it’s hard to argue that the most impactful texts aren’t a variety of high-profile religious texts and political manifestos. Ivanhoe hardly stands to measure against, say, The Communist Manifesto, after all.

I had literature in mind. There’s no question that The Wealth of Nations jhad a bigger impact overall than Gulliver’s TRavels, but that’s like comparing an educational film against an entertainment movie in the other thread. So The Bible, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, etc. are out of the running. So is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
But if, say, Voltaire’s Candide caused lots of people to drop what they were doing and plant gardens, that would be what we’re looking for.

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair—providing a key inspiration for the important, and certainly lifesaving changes in food and drug safety regulation in the United States.

(Hey, better than nothin’.)

JohnT is right with the Bible, particularly if you take an inclusive view of bible to include other religious texts.

How about Principia Mathematica and On the Origin of the Species?

I think this question is less interesting mostly because books have been so much more influential on the real world than movies. It’s interesting when a movie has any real-world effect, let alone a big one. The effect of movies on the world is both new and rare. Books have had this effect for centuries.

Look up to my correction two posts above. In the same spirit as the thread on movies, I’m looking at fictional entertainment books, which disqualifies your examples.

Mao’s Little Red Book

The Prince

Emily Post’s books on manners

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet-(not exactly a book but…) Created the modern concept of “Love” for all practical purposes.

Profiles in Courage-

Hemingway’s early novels- created that weird culture of macho-

Ned Buntline and his fellow dime novelists - For all practical purposes they created the “Old West.” Thus dragging people out there.


The Color Purple


Fahrenheit 451

Animal Farm

(non-fiction - The Art of War)

Didn’t Charles Dickens’ books, like Oliver Twist, point out the plight of the underclasses in London/GB?

Well, Mao’s book and The Prince aren’t fiction – one is propaganda and the other a practical treatise on politics. And Emily Post doesn’t fit, either.
But can you say how the others had big effects (as you try to do with Ned Buntline and Hemingway)?

I’d like to see some argument that Romeo and Juliet “created” modern love. I’ve never seen that suggested before, and I don’t buy it.

What a ridiculous claim.

I’m sorry. I overlooked your clarification. Fiction books does make it more interesting but I’m having a more trouble coming up with good examples. I might have suggested Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle but I was beat to the punch.

I think that dates back more to the French Arthurian legends.

Speaking of which, the Arthurian legends. They created the idea of chivalry and England as its own country, separate from the Norse and French, besides creating a whole history of England (fictional though it may be).

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol did a lot to establish traditions around the Christmas season. Remember that in the seventeenth century the Puritans ignored Christmas, because it’s not really mentioned in the Bible.

The Lord Of The Rings.

It probably didn’t have much of an effect on things like politics, but the effects on culture include:

Popularizing the whole fantasy literature genre (of course it existed beforehand, but it’s unlikely to have become as big without LOTR)
D&D-style games and WoW-style videogames - there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have even existed without LOTR paving the way.

I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I’m just not aware of any huge effect The Color Purple had on the world at large. Roots I agree with, since it was a huge phenomenon that personalized the slavery experience AND made genealogy a much bigger hobby. But I just remember The Color Purple as a fairly popular book and movie, not as something that caused any large-scale changes.

I was a grade school kid in a lily-white Connecticut suburb when Roots was published, and made into a monster miniseries on ABC. I remember that after that, all kinds of people were tracing their family roots.

Arguably, Washington Irving’s Christmas stoiries did it earlier. Irving was widely read – including by Dickens.

Nowadays, though, Irving’s Christmas sketches are completely unfamiliar to the general public, while Dickens’ A Christmas Carol lives on.

(Deservedly so – it’s my favorite Dickens work. But I wanted to point out that Dickens didn’t come out of nowhere and establish Christmas on his own.)

Come to think of it, I could argue that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is powerfully important in its own way. “The T. Rex of the Vampire World”, as horror historian David J. Skal points out. And it was. Although the idea of vampires in the modern sense had been popular for almost a century, since polidori wrote The Vampyre, Stoker is the one who crystallized the legend, bring together odd bits of vampire folklore into an easy-to-find place, but Inventing most of his traditions out of whole cloth. The idea of vampires being creatures of the night, sleeping in coffins, and being dispatched by a stake through the heart were there before. The idea of Transylvania as a vampire homeland just barely predates him. But he gave us:

– Vampires avoiding garlic
–Vampires not being visible in a mirror
–Vampires “having to sleep in their native earth”
– Vampires not being able to cross water
–Vampires not being allowed in unless invited by the master of a house
–Vampires having superhuman strength
– Vampires vulnerable to holy water
–Vampires vulnerable to communion wafer
– Vampires being repelled by the cross.
Stoker didn’t give us vampires dissolving in daylight, but that notion derives from Nosferatu, an interpretation of his Dracula. It still would have been forgotten (Stoker’s widow, who didn’t get any royalties from this pirated work, went on a legal rampage to destroy all copies), had it not been remembered by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who incorporated the idea into the script for Son of Dracula (where Count Alucard dies this way) and for House of Frankenstein) where a resurrected Dracula – played by John Carradine – dies this way. It was then cemented in the public consciousness by the death of Dracula in the Hammer film Horror of Dracula. So Bram Stoker’s character and story were responsible for propagating that meme, as well.

In Japan, the legend of the Forty-Seven Ronin was fairly central to the creation of Bushido. (Technically, it was a historical event, but I doubt that the story was told with a historical eye.)