Most Important Books of All Time? Let the Debate Begin!

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Last summer I wrote a post about a cool web page that had created road maps for your favorite road-trip novels, from Jack Kerouac’s cross-country trip in On the Road to The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the journey he took with his wife Zelda from Connecticut to Alabama in a old automobile he called the “Rolling Junk.”

Keilah Keiser, one of the creators of that post, teamed up with Jennifer Jones to put together another blog post on an equally alluring website, largest.org. As its name indicates, that website curates lists of anything and everything that could be labeled “largest,” from the largest baseball stadiums to, I swear, “the 7 largest catfish ever caught.”

But in addition to the largest pzzas ever made (and largest toy museums and largest sinkholes), Keilah, Jennifer, and the website team have compiled a list of 25 of what they claim to be “The Books that Made the Largest Impact in the World.” As the creators explained to me:

“Books will continue to introduce everyone to fresh and revolutionary ideas, as they’ve done throughout the past. Only a select few titles are held up around the world as international staples — most of which are known for going against the grain. Each masterpiece exposes a writer’s thoughts through their words.”

That list of 25 begins more than 1,000 B.C.E. with the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), includes other great religious works (such as the King James Bible and the Qu’ran), and several significant pre-20th-century works that range from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species to The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

But where the list (and the reactions) get interesting–and controversial–is when we enter the 20th Century. More than half of the books on the list were published after 1900, and the final one, published in 2003, is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

I confess that I did the reader’s version of a spit-take when I saw that book on the list. Huh?? Dan Brown’s potboiler on the same shelf as the King James Bible and The Origin of the Species? To their credit, the website creators offer the following justification for ending their list with The Da Vinci Code:

It made a huge impact on the world, because it was strongly criticized by the Christian faith, and more specifically by the Roman Catholic Church, for its implications that the original story of Jesus Christ was mistold. However, many readers became enthralled in the story, and it sold 80 million copies worldwide. It was also translated into 44 languages and adapted into a motion picture film.

Well, maybe.

I can think of at least three other books I’d add to that list–four if you could include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but that masterpiece, as vibrant as ever and performed every year in scores of venues around the world, is a play, not a book. In chronological order, my three additions are:

  • The Odyssey. by Homer. This epic poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. It mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors. The cultural impact of this epic is widespread in both time and place, ranging from a key scene in Dante’s Inferno to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” to the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (which even inspired a flash card comparison of the movie to the original).
  • Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, was published in two parts (part 1, 1605, and part 2, 1615). The novel is one of the most widely read and widely celebrated classics of Western literature. By way of example, The Guardian placed it #1 on its list of the greatest novels of all time.
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Epic in scale, this novel delineates in graphic detail events leading up to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. It is regarded as a central work of world literature and one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

So read though that list of 25 on Largest.org. Is there a book you think should be included? If so, let me know.

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