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Tag Archive: 100 Books that Changed the World


Review by C.J. Bunce

As history writer Colin Salter remarks in his new book 100 Speeches that Changed the World, “Speeches have always been the greatest form of advocacy.  The speaker’s careful choice of words, phrases, and sentences to persuade his or her audience is as creative an act as the poet’s or playwright’s.”  And the speech has a job to do, a mission to accomplish.  “They must convince the listener of something; perhaps a speaker’s devotion, an apology, a government’s decision, or an accused man’s innocence.”  Speeches have a target audience, and if written and delivered well, they can change the world.  Salter has collected 100 speeches to defend the thesis in his title, that words can change behavior, and that his selections fit the bill.

Any time a writer conquers a work that looks like a list, along with considering and listening to the rationale for the inclusion of the entries, the reader is required to challenge that list.  It’s the challenge and fun of these kinds of books to ask whether these are good choices, bad choices, or whether there are better works that should have been included.  In the case of 100 Speeches that Changed the World, most of the speeches are from the 20th century, so there is a modern sensibility here.  This is a book ideal as a supplement for a high school or 100 level college literature course–most entries are from Americans, but many are from England.  Socrates’ response for being accused of corrupting the youth of Athens is the oldest, from 399 B.C.  Yet only five speeches pre-date the Gregorian calendar (so this isn’t a book for ancient history readers).  William Wallace, Patrick Henry, Robespierre, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, and several U.S. Presidents and authors make up much of the rest, with emphases on the World Wars.  Lincoln, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, MLK, JFK, Mandela, and Obama have multiple entries, with the most artful commentaries included coming from the mouth of Churchill (four).

Stranger references are to responses, not actually speeches, from Elvis Presley and John Lennon.  Some court case opinions and comments are included, but they seem out of place here, fulfilling the usefulness and persuasiveness of works, perhaps, but do not merit inclusion as “speeches.”  Still 100 Speeches that Changed the World is a thought-provoking review of how men and women have used words to make great things happen, and also twist them to bring about their own ill ends.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Lists, and by extension, books with lists, are the stuff that sprout conversation.  Sometimes good conversation, sometimes knock-down-drag-outs, but always something to talk about.  We saw that last month in our look at Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies that Are Out of This World, and it applies to Scott Christianson and Colin Salter’s new audacious work, 100 Books that Changed the World This book is not merely a list of books, but an argument supporting why the authors think each book merits recognition.  After all, with more than 2 million new books published each year (300,000 per year in the U.S. alone) and documented writings going back thousands of years, whittling them all down to 100 is a bit daunting at a minimum.  Grade schoolers, college liberal arts and sciences majors, and everyone else has probably encountered a list like this before, usually styled the “greatest,” “most influential,” or “most significant” books ever written.  Ultimately, readers may find the compilation of 100 books that “changed the world” results in a very similar set of books.

What would make your list?  You can probably list 20 included without much work.  The authors state in their preface that there are 50 books everyone would agree should be included.  Think religion and myths (the Torah, the Bible, the Quran), math and science (Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), philosophy and politics (Plato’s The Republic, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man), works of fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), classic children’s books (Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales), works of the often-disputed literary greats (I’m looking at you, James Joyce), and works of long undisputed literary masters like Homer and Shakespeare.  Yes, these are all “givens” for a list like this.  But noteworthy great additions I don’t recall seeing on a list like this before include Louis Braille’s Procedure for Writing Words, Music and Plainsong in Dots, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of TimeAnd no author made the list more than once, except the writers of the Bible, which appears on the list twice: for the Gutenberg Bible and the King James version.

The authors hope their book “makes you question your own choices or ours, or introduces you to a book.”  Criticisms of 100 Books that Changed the World aren’t going to be all that dire as much as simply topics for discussion.  They’re the same critiques of any list or book like this.  Thirty-seven books on the list were written by authors from England, removing the inclusion of any books from some countries.  The list is heavily back loaded, with 26 books from the 19th century and 35 books from the 20th century–explainable in part since the authors didn’t have a lot to select from the first 3,000 years covered.  The oldest book included is the I Ching, roughly 4,800 years old, and the most recent, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein, only four years old.  The late history scholar Robert E. Schofield postulated that historians cannot accurately assess the influence of a historical period unless at least 50 years has transpired, and consistent with that theory, nine books shouldn’t have made the cut, removing books like Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Art Spiegleman’s graphic novel Maus, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  

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