10 of the Most Influential American Books

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A Brief History

On March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story about an African-American family enslaved in the Antebellum South was published.  It went on to become the best-selling book in the U.S. during the entire 19th century, second only to the Bible.  Its anti-slavery message rallied abolitionists and infuriated and scared slave owners, perhaps fomenting the American Civil War.  Many books have influenced Americans over the years, and here we list 10 of the most influential.  Please tell us which books you would have included in the list. 

Digging Deeper

10. The Turner Diaries, William Pierce, 1978. 

This novel, written by William Pierce under the pen name of Andrew Macdonald, quickly became the “bible” of the militia and “white power” movements.  It details a violent revolution and race war in the U.S. and is largely believed to encourage just that.  An alternate take is that it warns of this “likely” scenario and thus serves as an alarm for white people to organize and arm themselves for the coming conflict.  Jews, members of the LGBT community and non-whites are exterminated in the novel.  Needless to say the book was denounced by various religious and civil rights groups.  Well over half a million copies have been printed and numerous crimes have been committed under its influence, including the terrorist bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

9.  Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962. 

Detailing the negative effects of various pesticides on the environment and wildlife, particularly birds, this book was instrumental in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the nationwide banning of DDT, a common insecticide.  Although often criticized, the enormous impact of this book cannot be disputed.  Many actions taken by the EPA are debated, though, and there is some belief that the ban on DDT has actually cost lives. 

8.  A Grammatical Institute of the American Language, Noah Webster, 1783

As the United States became its own nation, the country needed a lexicographer to document and outline the nature of its unique brand of English.  As you may  have noticed, American English does not match the written and spoken language in England, with many spellings, terms and usages somewhat different.  It is part of what makes America what it is, and Webster’s Dictionary has been its “word bible.”

7.  The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 1906. 

It is often said that two things you do not want to observe being made are sausages and laws.  This novel had nothing to do with lawmaking, but it does portray the miserable, filthy meat-packing industry in such a horrible way that it shocked Americans and resulted in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  The novel was actually intended to focus on the exploitation of immigrant workers, and although it did raise consciousness to their plight, its greatest impact was on the meat industry.  President Theodor (Teddy) Roosevelt initially reacted as if Sinclair was a demented goof but was finally swayed to action when his investigators reported that the horrible conditions described in the book were true.

6.  Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley, 1976. 

Written by the author of The Autobiography of Malcom X, this book had its strongest impact when made into a 1977 television mini-series that was viewed by an incredible, record-setting 130 million Americans.  The story is about an African family taken from their pastoral life in Africa, enslaved and transported to America and their subsequent life there.  The book and series were poignant depictions of what slavery was about as well as the lasting aftereffects of that “peculiar institution.”  Black Americans found pride and a foundation in the story, and white Americans got an insight into African-American background they had rarely seen before.  A sequel was filmed in 1979, continuing the saga.  Later charges of plagiarism and the fabrication of facts to fill in gaps did not detract from the power of this emotional story.

5.  Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader, 1965. 

More than any other factor, it was this book that caused a revolution in automobile design in regard to creating and maintaining safer cars and trucks, which has probably saved hundreds of thousands of American lives in the years since.  Although only 1 of the 8 chapters concerns the Chevrolet Corvair, the book is often associated with that unsafe auto, although it is actually about all cars as well as pollution.  Unsafe at Any Speed has influenced consumers rights, environmental protection and the safety of people in cars, more or less leading to the creation of the safety lobby.  Conservatives have named this book one of the “most harmful” books of the 20th century for the weight and cost that have been added to cars.  Good or bad, the book certainly has had a huge impact.

4.  The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963. 

Sparked by a 1957 poll of her classmates from Smith College on the occasion of their 15-year graduation anniversary, Friedan found rampant dissatisfaction in the lives of these women, prompting her to begin writing The Feminine Mystique.  Friedan also conducted exhaustive and serious research into various business, social and cultural factors as well as psychological aspects concerning women and their success and happiness.  Her book is often credited with kicking off the second great feminist movement (the first being the women’s suffrage movement) and inspiring the “women’s libbers.”   Well over 3 million copies have been sold, and with women comprising about half of all Americans, the influence this book has had is enormous.

3.  The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Benjamin Spock, 1946. 

With a half million copies sold in the first 6 months following its publication and 50+ million copies sold so far, more copies of this book have been sold in the U.S. than of any other book in the 20th century, other than the Bible.  Often accused of spoiling children with “soft” treatment and little discipline, Spock is sometimes held responsible for the indolence and disrespect in the two generations that were raised with his advice.  Spock was later seen as somewhat less than an “All-American, He-Man Patriot” (my made-up title) when he became a protestor of the War in Viet Nam and later a vegan.  Still, millions and millions of children were raised (and still are) by mothers who followed his book as if it were a type of child owner’s manual.

2.  The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, 1830

Although purportedly also written by prophets dating back to 2200 B.C.  through 421 A.D., it was Smith who published The Book of Mormon in 1830.  150 million copies of this sacred text of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have been printed.  In addition to the “mainstream” Mormons, this book is also the sacred text of another dozen spin-off denominations of the Latter Day Saints Movement.  With its 15 million adherents, the Latter Day Saints (LDS) are currently the 4th largest Christian denomination in the United States.  Despite not publicly releasing financial data for several decades, it is estimated that the Church of LDS has over $30 billion in assets and is one of the world’s richest churches per capita.  Because of church secrecy, it is not publically known how much U.S. land the church owns, but, in terms of property, it is reputedly only rivaled by the Catholic Church.  Some notable modern Mormons include: former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney; U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; former Governor of Utah Jon Huntsman Jr.; singer Gladys Knight; the family music group the Osmonds; Jeopardy ace Ken Jennings; businessman J.W. Mariott; baseball players Harmon Killebrew and Dale Murphy; football player Steve Young; and the inventor of the TV Philo Farnsworth.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park even produced a Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon.

1.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1854. 

With 300,000 copies sold in the U.S. in its first year of publication and another million copies sold in Britain, it can be reasonably argued that this book had a  massive influence on the public perception of slavery and accelerated the seemingly inevitable Civil War and emancipation of American slaves.  Without British anti-slavery opinion, the UK may well have supported the Confederacy.  Although less than historically accurate and filled with stereotypes, this novel is still often assigned as reading material to schoolchildren.  An unintended consequence is the addition to American slang of the term “Uncle Tom” to denote a subservient (sell-out) African American who caters to white people. 

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Andrew, Taylor. Books That Changed The World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History. Quercus, 2009.

Campbell, W. John. The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics. Barnes & Noble Books, 2000.

Downs, Robert B. Books that Changed the World. Signet, 2004.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today. Citadel, 1998.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.