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Literature in History: Books that Changed the World

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Nowadays, literature as a form of media is frequently overlooked. As a tool capable of changing the course of history. The written word has always been a commanding force, serving as a base for influencing cultures, challenging social norms, and being the ignition behind revolutions and new ideas.

The world created in books has been responsible for the unparalleled skill of transcending time and space and permanently marking humanity. History is put together by a myriad of books that were responsible for entertaining people in their worst and best times, altering societies’ courses, and even inspiring many into the pursuit of a new life, cataloging the cornerstones of humanity and the progression of ideologies and ideas.

This text will shine a light on a few of the most influential books throughout history.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE):

The book that started it all kickstarts the list—"The Epic of Gilgamesh" is the oldest, earliest survival piece of literature known in the world. From ancient Mesopotamia, the poem is loosely based on the ruling of King Gilgamesh, Sumerian Uruk’s king, in 2700 BC.

It recounts the quest for immortality while navigating themes of power and friendship, laying the foundation for storytelling as we know it today and inspiring several cultures before its writing.

The group of tales relates closely to the same Bible character, which is shown in The Book of Giants. Gilgamesh is seen as one of the Giants that ended up killed in the Flood—detailed in The Book of Watchers.

The Bible (circa 6th century BCE - 2nd century CE):

Arguably the most popular book to ever exist, the Bible has had an incomparable impact on our world and culture. It reunites storytelling in many forms and genres as it goes beyond narrative, with poems, prophecies, and historical prose.

The Bible was behind several historical landmarks and shaped various beliefs and how humans follow ethics and politics. These effects go beyond spirituality, as this book also helped determine the advances of art, literature, philosophy, and human thinking.

The Qur'an (circa 7th century CE):

In many ways, the Qur'an has shaped and impacted the landscape of culture and thinking in the Islamic world.

The holy book of Islam founded societal norms, architectural constructions, and art, while also contributing to the fostering of literary traditions and religious boundaries. More than that, the Qur'an's impact was responsible for extending and inducing multiple fields while also serving as a base for the civilization and construction of culture in the Islamic world.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532):

More recently, in the Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli's "The Prince" marked the transformation in political ethics and its notions, basing many legal systems in many countries around the world, rather as a model to be followed or one to be abstained from.

It was the introduction of the concept of “real politics," inspiring rulers around the world to not be caught up in moral deliberations but to be pragmatic and to think logically. This book still sparks debates among social sciences and law studies as it promotes talks about power, morality, and modern political thinking. As a piece of literature, it will probably transcend time and space for many centuries to come.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States (1776):

Surely, when talking about literature, one does not think about the Declaration of Independence of the United States. However, it was a piece of text that served as a breaking point in literature’s history.

Captured by Thomas Jefferson, the document did not merely declare the independence of the thirteen U.S. American colonies from the British crown’s rule but voiced various principles of human rights and self-governance that are still present in the modern political and administrative landscape.

These ideas and thoughts are present in many other independence movements and the fight for democracy all over the world, inspiring many governmental foundations.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818):

It is not a book only about a monster. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is considered a pioneer in the genre of science fiction and gothic literature.

The novel touches on topics such as scientific ethics and the consequences and implications present in its innovations. It is still extremely relevant in modern times, as we seem to struggle with the management of technology and modernization and how ethics and the human condition intertwine.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848):

Controversial and turbulent, this book has marked in many ways the happenings and ideologies of the 19th century. "The Communist Manifesto" came to life as a seminal work in a pamphlet that described communist principles and criticized the capitalist system.

It was behind several social movements and revolutions and helped to lay the groundwork for the political and ideological landscape of the 20th century as well.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949):

A feminist work that is often regarded as a catalyst for the Second Wave of Feminism and the “feminist bible”, "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir, is to this day a reference for gender studies and feminist philosophy.

A seminal text where de Beauvoir inspects the role of women in society and how factors such as culture, history, philosophy, cultural, historical, and philosophical factors provide this societal belief of the ‘inferior’ gender. 

De Beauvoir critiques societal norms and analyzes the relations between women and men’s views as a cycle of oppression provided by history while contemplating existentialism and a concept she names "otherness."

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960):

The context follows the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and alludes to social change at its core. The novel addresses issues such as racial injustice, moral growth, and societal norms.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” promoted discussions about empathy and racism and, as with the other books on this list, influenced and laid the groundwork for debates to this day. It has a clear presence in classrooms and bookshelves all around the world, promoting the discourse of equality and justice.

Final Thoughts

As reflected by these works and their permanent perspectives on the world, literature has been one of the main driving forces in human history’s trajectory throughout the centuries.

From documents, novels, pamphlets, and books, the power to shape and change ideologies, and inspire revolutions and new ways of thinking has always been present in literature.

It is imperative to analyze and recognize this impact to learn from mistakes and allow the future to be shaped by the past, present, and future. Literature becomes timeless and stories are of paramount importance for the foundation of our world and actions.

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