I have had a longtime fascination with turning points, those events that changed the course of history. They can be sudden, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But they can be subtle and evolve slowly, such as the advent of air conditioning or the spread of deadly diseases through the indigenous people of the New World.
From my study of history the past 50 years, I now realize that certain books can shape the course of history. A few years ago, I wrote a column in this newspaper that related the books that arguably changed America. Today’s column expands its focus to books that helped shape world history.
They are based on at least one of the following criteria: They can be either fiction or nonfiction; they are not necessarily great literature or bestsellers; they shaped public attitudes and/or policy; they helped form people’s beliefs and actions; and most importantly, there is no right or wrong candidate. These are my subjective opinions. I intentionally left the Bible and the Quran off my list, not because they do not deserve inclusion, but rather their choice is so obvious.
Here are my selections:
(1) “The Travels of Marco Polo” (c. 1300) — When he was 17 years old, this son of a wealthy Venice merchant accompanied his father and uncle on what became a 24-year odyssey to the Near and Middle East, eventually traveling as far as China. Upon his return from the Far East, Polo fought and was captured in a war between Venice and Genoa. While imprisoned, he dictated an account of his travels to his cellmate. When released from prison, he had his narrative published, thus giving its European readers their first comprehensive look into the exotic world of the Far East. Polo’s words inspired European adventurers to begin looking for shorter routes to the Far East, and led to the Age of Exploration, including Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the “New World.”
(2) John Locke, “Two Treatises on Government” (1689) — A physician by profession, Locke dabbled frequently in political issues and philosophy. He was an outspoken advocate of religious tolerance, and he argued that there is no “true religion.” He further contended that trying to enforce religious uniformity by government led to civil unrest. To him, the primary purpose of government was to protect the rights of individuals, and that its powers should be limited. His words profoundly influenced intellectual thinking in Western Europe and America. Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on Locke in drafting the Declaration of Independence.
(3) Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations” (1776) — Born in Scotland and educated at Oxford, he joined the faculty of the University of Glasgow in 1751. There he developed the discipline of economics and coined the word “capitalism.” His “Wealth of Nations” argued that industrial production and labor were more important than precious metals or land in creating wealth. He described the law of supply and demand, which leads to competition, and in turn leads to prosperity. Smith believed in “free markets” that operated without government interference and were guided by an “invisible hand.” His book sold well, and eventually led to his being regarded as the father of free enterprise or modern capitalism. Many scholars regard him as one of the 10 most influential philosophers of all time.
(4) and (5) Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital”(1848) — An economist, historian and philosopher, among other things, Marx is considered one of the most influential persons in history. His “Manifesto” and “Das Kapital” asserted that the past is based on a struggle among the classes that would eventually end with the victory of the proletariat and the end of the class system. He frequently is referred to as the father of communism.
(6) Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852) — Described by many scholars as the most influential book published in America, this novel vividly described the ordeal of a Kentucky slave family and immediately became a sensation. Eventually published in multiple languages, the book influenced public attitudes as few others had, helping solidify both pro- and antislavery sentiment and fanned the flames that led to the Civil War.
(7) Charles Darwin, “On the Origins of Species” (1859) — Born and raised in a wealthy English family, Darwin developed a keen interest in the natural world. Forgoing a medical career, he became a professional naturalist, biologist and geologist who argued that all forms of life have descended over time with common ancestors. His theory of evolution became one of the fundamental principles of science today.
(8) Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” (1890) — Virtually unknown today, Mahan’s book argued that throughout history powerful nations possessed strong navies and far-flung strategic outposts. Written by the president of the U.S. Naval War College and read by strategic thinkers beyond the United States, this book arguably led to the first worldwide arms race and contributed to the buildup of seagoing forces prior to World War I.
(9) Adolph Hitler, “Mein Kampf” (1925) — In this autobiography, Hitler presented his radical political philosophy advocating transforming German society into one based on race. Written while he was jailed for treason, he singled out Jews as a threat to a stable society and advocated their removal from Germany and eventual extermination. Hitler’s turgid prose did not deter more than a million readers from purchasing the book, and helped him rise to power and eventually became Germany’s head of government.
(10) Your Choice — Now it’s your turn to suggest one more book to add to the list. Here are a few possibilities: George Orwell, “1984” (1949); Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962); Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963); and Mao Tse-tung, “The Little Red Book” (1964).
Modern readers might regard some books on my list as deadly dull. Nevertheless, each contains a message that changed or molded opinions that in turn led to new ways of thinking or acting.