Humans are story tellers by nature. We relate to those around us through a process which is fundamentally narrative. Our sense of rationality is not based on strict logic, but on the probability, cohesion, and fidelity a possibility has with the way we see the world. Our history is nothing more than a series of stories passed on from generation to generation. Everything we know and learn is relative to the point of view from which it is presented and absorbed. Therefore, one could argue that stories are one of, if not, the most essential components to our existence. And, as we all know, some stories are more powerful than others. But which ones have been the most influential?
That question is incredibly difficult to answer as so many stories have been written and told throughout the course of history. However, I can attempt to narrow the criteria down and have a crack at it. I have compiled a list of the 25 most influential stories of the past 125 years. What qualifies as influential in this case must meet the following criteria:
- The book has been read by a large and wide-ranging audience.
- The book has served as a common cultural talking-point when an important, real, socio-political issue is discussed.
- The book may have been adapted into a different (often times non-written) form because of its popularity in an attempt to appeal to more people and/or to adapt the story to a more modern audience.
Most of the books on this list are well-known novels in recent history (there is one exception). All of them are narratives, rather than information or reference-based texts, and all of them have been highly influential in their own right. Written Word is proud to present the 25 most influential stories of the past 125 years (in alphabetical order by title):
1. 1984, by George Orwell (1949)
From big government to Big Brother, George Orwell made his mark with this futuristic critique of the Soviet Union and Communism. This novel tells the story of Winston Smith and his attempts to defy the totalitarian regime of Oceania. Phrases such as “big brother,” “room 101,” and “thought police” all originated from this classic. At the time, Orwell feared that British democracy wouldn’t survive long past World War II and wrote 1984 as a representation of what the future would be like if the nation succumbed to a fascist coup d’état or a socialist revolution. Neither of those events ended up happening and the House of Commons still stands as a crown jewel of democracy to this day. The story of what could have been lives on and is still highly prevalent in the realm of socio-political critique.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich M. Remarque (1929)
Originally published in Germany, this novel tells the story of Paul Baumer and the difficulties German soldiers faced during World War I. Remarque uses the tragedy of war to critique jingoistic nationalism and society’s willingness to enter into a continental war of proportions never before imagined. Furthermore, the novel explores the psychological conflict soldiers felt while on leave and after the war was over. Remarque greatly humanized the concepts of “shell shock” and post-traumatic stress in an attempt to warn the world about the unseen dangers soldiers face after they leave the battlefield an re-integrate into society.
3. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
From a young age, we all learn that our actions have consequences. This was the message Robert Penn Warren reiterated in his novel about a young and ambitious populist named Willie Stark, who becomes Governor in the 1930’s American South. His character was inspired by slain Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the bombastic politician who at one time considered running against FDR (albeit he did not live long enough to attempt a Presidential campaign). Warren insisted after his novel was published that it was not meant to be about politics. Rather, he wanted to use a political backdrop as the vehicle for his message. Nevertheless, All the King’s Men is widely considered one of the greatest political-fiction novels ever written.
4. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (1957)
Heavily criticized at the time of its publication, “Atlas Shrugged” has become more popular as it’s aged. The story tells of heroine Dagny Taggart and her efforts to lead society’s most productive minds to strike against a collapsing United States where the government has gained control of industry and innovation. Rand uses her novel to make the case for the profit motive by equating it to creativity and production. This view of social commentary has grown significantly in the past 30 years and Atlas Shrugged is now one of the most widely read works of fiction.
5. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1961)
Joseph Heller’s famous novel takes place in the later years of World War II and tells a non-linear story revolving around several airmen in the U.S. Air Force. The entire novel is used to critique bureaucratic circular logic and the tragic lose-lose situations it often produces (especially in war). The term “Catch-22” refers to a stipulation in the book that the military uses to make sure soldiers carry through their orders regardless of the situation. Like Orwell’s 1984, Catch-22 has entered our common vernacular and is widely cited as one of the most influential works of the 20th century.
6. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield, an expelled preparatory school student who decides to spend a few days in New York City instead of going home to confront his parents. Holden Caulfield’s character has become synonymous with teenage angst and rebellion. Although Salinger meant the book to be for adults, it is heavily read amongst the teenage and young adult demographic. The book deals with many complex themes that all tie into coming-of-age and experiencing the world as an adult.
7. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962)
The story takes place in Britain where a young man named Alex leads a life of crime. Burgess uses violent imagery to emphasize the horrific nature of violence itself and how inherently immature it is. However, Burgess uses this book to make another point: people must have free will to choose good or evil. The book makes a strong argument that the ends rarely ever justify the means. A Clockwork Orange unapologetically delves into the issues of reforming prisoners and morality, making a powerful argument against violence.
8. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982)
The Color Purple is perhaps the most widely-read novel that centers on African-American feminism. Walker tells the story of Celie, a poor, southern African-American woman who has been mistreated her whole life and is forced into a marriage she does not really want. Walker paints a graphic picture of what life is like for minority women in the early 20th century South. Praised by many for its realism and criticized by some for its unabashed detail, this book has already touched the lives of millions in a little less than three decades.
9. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
In a dystopian future, America is at the brink of war and society is on the verge of collapse. In a nation-wide attempt to minimize cultural offenses and strengthen political correctness, all forms of literature have been banned. The job of firemen is not to put fires out, but to burn houses that contain illegal books. Ray Bradbury tells of the transformation of one of these firemen named Guy Montag. Fahrenheit 451 is a warning of what can happen when a society takes censorship too far and pays too much attention to meaningless television media.
10. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
This novel not only inspired the critically-acclaimed movie of the same name, it became a hugely popular account of life in the old South. The story takes place in Georgia during the Civil War where Scarlett O’Hara lives on her family’s plantation. Mitchell decides not delve into the issue of slavery itself, but rather into life as it was during that time period for white women. Although the blunt writing concerning race relations in this book were common three quarters of a century ago, today’s readers may find some of the dialogue highly offensive. However, reading this book while recognizing the audience and time for which it was originally written, one can delve into the mindset of white privilege as it existed during the Civil War (which continued to remain prevalent in the South up until and even after the Civil Rights movement).
11. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)
John Steinbeck opened America’s eyes to the plight of the agrarian community in the Plains States during the dustbowl and the Great Depression. This book follows a poor Oklahoma farming family as they’re forced off their land and head west to California in search of a brighter future. You can’t help but admire the characters’ optimism during the most destitute of situations which includes both death and despair. The Grapes of Wrath is a must-read on high school reading lists in schools across the country and is considered by almost everyone who has read it to be one of the great American classics.
12. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
The Great Gatsby is the quintessential critique of the American Dream. Nick Carraway is a young business man that relocates to Long Island after serving in the Great War. He befriends his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws lavish parties in an attempt to get the attention of another married neighbor (Daisy) who he’s been fond of for a very long time. Fitzgerald shows that money and luxurious accommodations can often come with corruption and betrayal. It is considered to be one of the great American novels of all time by critics from around the world.
13. Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling (2007)
This seven-part tale has been read by hundreds of millions of people in hundreds of countries and has captured the minds of both children and adults everywhere it has been read. Rowling tells the story of a boy-wizard who becomes the Chosen One that must defeat the most evil sorcerer of all time (with lots of adventures along the way). It may sound like a children’s fairy tale, but anyone who has read it would most definitely disagree. Rowling explores complex themes surrounding growing up and dealing with a world that is not inherently good or fair (including issues of free will, power, evil, tolerance, and sacrifice). The series is currently the most-challenged by conservative groups who desire to remove it from public school libraries.
14. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair (1906)
Upton Sinclair may have single-handedly put the issues of an impoverished working class, corruption in business, and the exploitation of labor in the center of American discourse. The Jungle tells the story of a Lithuanian family that immigrates to Chicago in search for a better life only to succumb to con men, jobs with horrible working conditions, homelessness, and untimely deaths. It is a tragic tale that was used to promote a socialist alternative to the early-American corrupt capitalist society.
15. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)
William Golding gives a shocking reflection on human nature in his story about a group of boys that are stranded on a tropical island after their plane crashes. Forced to fend for themselves, the boys steadily divide into separate groups and regress into savagery. The scenes in which seemingly well-adjusted and well-educated boys commit brutal acts of aggression were part of a strategy that Golding used to capture the attention of his audience. His writing lives on to this day; Lord of the Flies is required reading for many middle school and high school students in the United States.
16. Lord of the Rings Series, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)
This epic fantasy tale has enchanted millions of people all over the world and has inspired an award-winning trilogy of films based the volumes of books written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Originally meant to influence social commentary, Tolkien wanted his series to be a critique on the negative influence of industrialism. The story is about an all-powerful ring that can be used to control the land of Middle Earth and the journey taken by a hobbit named Frodo and his companions to destroy it before it falls into evil hands. The story expands into great detail about an unforgettable world that has left many wishing for more.
17. Native Son, by Richard Wright (1940)
Richard Wright tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African-American living in the ghettos of Chicago during the Great Depression. He accidentally kills the daughter of his employer and is put on trial for murder. The novel paints a portrait of life that is neither just nor fair for African-Americans and makes the reader question the way society is set up. It includes one of the most prolific court room scenes in modern literary history. Powerful and blunt, Native Son brings to life the plight of minorities during the earlier decades of the 20th century.
18. Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)
Night is the story of Elie Wiesel and his time imprisoned in the infamous Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It is perhaps the most famous account of the holocaust ever written. When Wiesel was freed from Buchenwald at the age of 16, he kept his story silent for a decade in order to gain perspective on the world. His memoirs were eventually translated and abridged for a wider audience (the result of which became Night). Wiesel went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and his memoirs remain one of the most read in the world.
19. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kasey (1962)
Ken Kasey was inspired to write a story which revolved around patients in a mental asylum after he worked as an orderly at such an institution. His story takes place in Oregon where and inmate nicknamed “Chief” observes his daily life as an institutionalized mental patient. Before this book was released, many Americans did not know about the inner-workings of an insane asylum. Issues regarding patient care and institutionalization became more prominent after its release and its adaptation into an Academy-Award winning movie of the same title.
20. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (1890)
In Oscar Wilde’s only novel, he explores the concepts of vanity and hedonism. Dorian Gray is a handsome, young man who comes to greatly admire a portrait painted of him. Realizing that he will grow old and frail, he wishes for his soul to be encased in the portrait so that he may stay young and handsome forever. The Picture of Dorian Gray is often cited as the perfect example of a story that emphasizes the importance of virtue and what can happen to one who follows a path of debauchery.
21. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
In this unusual episode of science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut writes of Army Assistant-Chaplain Billy Pilgrim. He is imprisoned in an abandoned slaughterhouse in Dresden during the fire-bombing of the city in World War II. Bill is abducted by aliens and becomes convinced by his captors that free will is an illusion. Vonnegut manages to write about very complex themes in a very simple way which has made his novel accessible to many around the world.
22. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
Influential for its innovative writing style at the time, Ernest Hemingway tells the story of three men who try to win the affection of the Lady Brett Ashley. They travel to Paris and Spain where relationships develop and intensify. This was Hemingway’s first novel and one which many would argue is his greatest. It has received high praise from literary critics who commend Hemingway for his style of writing (spare and tightly-written prose) and is widely cited as one of the greatest works of English literature in the early 20th century.
23. Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed (1920)
The lone non-novel on our list, Ten Days that Shook the World is a first-hand account of the October Revolution of 1917. John Reed was a prominent socialist and political activist in the United States. He decided to cover the political turmoil in Russia as he thought civil war might be imminent. Reed hit the jackpot as he arrived in Leningrad just in time to witness the Bolshevik uprising. Inspired by what seemed to be the first successful socialist revolution the world had ever seen, he wrote about his accounts of what happened in great detail. His hope was to fan the flames of socialist revolution all over the world. Reed died in the Soviet Union in 1920 and was buried at the Kremlin Wall. His account is considered one of the greatest pieces of journalistic writing in human history.
24. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
Harper Lee tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. After a local African-American man named Tom Robinson is accused of rape, Atticus agrees to defend him in court. Atticus Finch remains to this day as one of the most memorable heroes in literary history. It has been read not only by many in the United States, but many around the world since its first publication 50 years ago.
25. The Trial, by Franz Kafka (1925)
Franz Kafka never finished his highly influential novel (he died of Tuberculosis one year prior to its release), but it still stands as a prominent and frightening critique of society when the State becomes too powerful. Josef K. is arrested for an unknown crime and is subsequently tried and convicted in absentia as he is unable to find anyone suitable to advocate his case. The Trial serves further as a search for realization in the midst of absurdity. It is a parable of the human condition that still resonates strongly to this day.