What is the Most Influential Book of the last 20 years?

by MooshiMooshi

This article, from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, asks this question to a number of scholars. Not surprisingly, many of the books that are listed are dense reads. Some are overtly political; others have to do with culture, or the arts, or even the place of humans in a world of algorithms. I am definitely going to put some of these on my reading list. And of course, I started wondering what books I think are important. There are two ways to think about this. Which recent book or books are most influential to my own way of thinking? And which recent books or books are most influential to people in our society in general? What would you list? I am all ears, because I might find even more books to add to my already staggeringly long to-read list.

The New Canon
What’s the most influential book of the past 20 years?

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83 thoughts on “What is the Most Influential Book of the last 20 years?

  1. I didn’t read through why the nominators think they are influential, but I’ve only even heard of two of them. I guess I have a different definition of influential than these people.

  2. Interesting that two of the people chose “Bowling Alone” which (1) I’ve actually read vs the rest which I have not even heard of and (2) was the only one, I believe, that got some traction in general circles by being discussed in the popular press.

    MM – thanks for posting this. I’m always looking for stuff to read and this is a good list for me to keep around.

  3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl–An amazing book about his experience in WWII concentration camps, and the philosophical lessons learned. Seriously, I cannot think of a better book.

  4. Agree with Lark on Hamilton, if only for the musical it inspired. Which I still haven’t seen.

    One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve recently read is “The Good Man of Nanking,” which is a compilation of John Rabe’s diaries. Rabe was a German businessman — and member of the Nazi party — who had lived in China for 30 years and saved some 200,000 poor Chinese from death during the Rape of Nanking in 1937. (At one point, he ordered his employees to erect a large Nazi flag over the Siemens factory to discourage attacks by Japanese planes.) He sheltered 600 Chinese in his own home. After returning to Germany in 1938, his reports of the atrocities he had witnessed led to his arrest by the Gestapo. After the war, he was arrested and subject to a “de-Nazification” process that rendered him penniless and forced to live on food parcels sent by Chinese families. He died in 1950. Absolutely amazing man.

  5. More than 20 years old now, but the Overworked American by Schor, was influential to me. The theme that stood out most to me was about how we change standards to fill our leisure time. For example, in the early 1900s it was sufficient to beat your rugs annually, but now we must vacuum our rugs weekly. On the technology side, when reports were typed, you didn’t just decide a add sentence on page 1 of a 50 page document would to make it sound better because it meant retyping all 50 pages. Now, we will make many, many minor changes that do not affect meaning or accuracy because it is so easy, but it takes up our time.

    I found this book to make me think about what I do that is needed (yes, I vacuum more than annually, but not the entire house routinely every week), vs what is a standard that is just busy work.

  6. I was just looking at the list of best selling non-fiction books – trying to see what people actually buy & maybe read.

    It is mostly political crap (both sides – Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore). Or memoirs of famous people. (Lance Armstrong’s autobiography was at the top for awhile, for instance). And some sappy stuff – Marley & Me.

    Meanwhile, the adult fiction best sellers are mostly James Patterson, Danielle Steele, etc.

    Harry Potter is a good one. It’s certainly had a huge influence on children’s literature in general.

  7. I have always been intrigued by Fate and the question of why some people get to succeed easily where someone else in the same spot may have a different trajectory. I firmly believe in Karma and rebirth and how Karma from past lives can shape your present and future. Malcolm Gladwells Outliers further proved it me how while also giving me a fresher perspective.

  8. “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray is another interesting read, and touches on many of the themes we discuss here regarding the divergent paths of Totebaggers and Others.

  9. I’ve been meaning to read both Bowling Alone and The New Jim Crow. Maybe this post will get me out of my usual fiction rut.

  10. I think there are a crop of books written since 2008 that are making people think a lot about capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century comes to mind immediately. Of course, no one has actually *read* it, but that doesn’t seem to matter much – it has made it OK to talk about inequality and the failures of capitalism. Before that point, inequality was the preserve of leftist activists and students. Now, they even talk about inequality in the National Review.

    There are likewise a number of books that have addressed racism in very influential ways. I think that article mentions The New Jim Crow. I would also put Ta Nahesi Coates book Between the World And Me into the list of books that have influenced people’s thoughts on racism. I also personally found that the book The Half Has Never Been Told to be very influential on my views on slavery. Its central point was that slavery had turned into an industrial system, generating much economic growth in the US during the period leading up to the Civil War. I had never thought before about the idea of enslaved labor as a large machine.

  11. Harry Potter is certainly a massive best seller, and generator of profits for all sorts of collectible manufacturers. I wouldn’t say that it has profoundly changed anyone’s view of the world though. It is not much different in its worldview from other fantasy books. I guess it made British boarding school life trendy in a way that Enid Blyton could never achieve.

  12. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century comes to mind immediately.

    Yes. For a while there was the sense that the 1950s were the default and any divergence from that was due to some policy hampering that natural state. Now we’re moving past that and are more open to the idea that what free market capitalism provides may not be what the public wants.

  13. “We asked them to select books — academic or not, but written by scholars”.

    I think many people have never heard of most of these books because of this sentence. It would be great if this list could be shared with more people in the broader population because so many people just turn to Amazon, friends or newspaper best seller lists to find books to read.

  14. I wouldn’t say that it has profoundly changed anyone’s view of the world though.

    But I think it made enthusiastic readers out of a whole generation of kids that might not otherwise have been, which is profoundly influencing.

  15. In terms of nonfiction that Totebaggers might like, consider _100 Diagrams that Changed the World_

  16. Scarlett said ““The Warmth of Other Suns” was another great read.”

    Oh definitely. It made me realize that a lot of the black kids that I knew in elementary school were likely the kids of that migration.

  17. It is difficult to profoundly change the view of the world if you never heard of, or read the book. This list needs a publicist because it seems like some Totebaggers haven’t read most of these books. If we haven’t read these books, I bet that most Americans haven’t read these books. They might not be able to get through some of these books.

    There are some people that would argue that more mainstream authors such as Michael Lewis or Mitch Albom write books that profoundly impact millions of people. Their writing style is simpler, and they obviously sell millions of books.

  18. It’s hard for books to “profoundly change the view of the world.” Most people don’t read serious books, and even most of us who do are not going to read dense, academic tomes. Someone like David McCullough or Malcolm Gladwell is going to reach more people.

  19. Lauren, I think it can be argued though that books that are very influential on a certain class of “thought leader” can then pass into mass culture. Look at the trajectory of the idea of inequality and the failure of capitalism. These two intertwined ideas really were the puview of radical leftists, and came into mass consciouness with the Occupy movement. But Occupy was a bunch of students, crybabies in many people’s minds. It was Piketty’s book and a number of others that came out about the same time that influenced more mainstream economists and writers about economic topics, which then make it “OK” to talk about this stuff.

  20. I agree with Harry Potter as a book that changed the way many children thought about reading itself.

  21. “It is difficult to profoundly change the view of the world if you never heard of, or read the book.”

    I think it’s possible to do so in a second order way, i.e., the book influences someone influential.

  22. It’s hard for books to “profoundly change the view of the world.” Most people don’t read serious books, and even most of us who do are not going to read dense, academic tomes. Someone like David McCullough or Malcolm Gladwell is going to reach more people.

    Right. I don’t understand how you can call a book “influential” when there don’t seem to be very many people who have heard of it, let alone read it. I would argue that something like Freakanomics was influential because of how much attention it got.

  23. I think required reading books and read a book of your choice get many kids to read in school. I am not talking about the natural born readers but those who read because they have to.
    I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird – I can see why it’s still on book lists after all these years.
    My tolerance for dense tomes has declined with age.

  24. One of the books mentioned in the article is Das Kapital. I am guessing very few people read it when it was written, yet it became profoundly influential for millions and millions of people. Same for Origin of Species, a book I have never read.

  25. I also think the biggest impact of the Harry Potter series was the way it made reading glamorous for a whole generation of what are now young adults. We still see the effect, e.g. the statistics showing that millenials read more than older generations do.

    I vacuum more than annually, but not the entire house routinely every week

    We are vacuuming A LOT MORE these days thanks to our Roombas, Phineas and Ferb. (They needed names so I could have Alexa tell them what to do.)

  26. Mooshi, Newton’s Principia is another example. Writing an influential book creates a reference for future scholars, whether the masses read the book or not.

    Rediscovering old works, as happened for Greek/Latin works in medieval monasteries and with the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also significant.

  27. I don’t understand how you can call a book “influential” when there don’t seem to be very many people who have heard of it

    How many people read Das Kapital* or On the Wealth of Nations?

    * Obviously lots of people were forced to read it after communism had been established. But before then?

  28. Mooshi, I agree, but the world is different now and the youngest generations seem to be heavily influenced by different forms of media and people. They don’t seem to have the same respect for academics/scholars/professors. The consume and learn about information from very different places and sources. I am curious to see how the next 20 years will unfold.

  29. In the home country banning a book was a sure fire way to make people want to read it !

    I don’t think that banning books is much of a thing in Ireland anymore, but back in the day there was a joke that all the books banned in Ireland should be printed in Irish, as it would be a great incentive to the Irish people to learn their own language.

  30. ” I would argue that something like Freakanomics was influential because of how much attention it got.”

    I agree.

  31. I don’t think that banning books is much of a thing in Ireland anymore,

    Now that Ireland is being run by a gay Indian, I’m guessing not.

  32. “the world is different now and the youngest generations seem to be heavily influenced by different forms of media and people”
    That’s what they said in the 60’s about those young ‘uns, getting all their information from the TV…

  33. There are instances of books which were at one time banned in Ireland subsequently not only having the ban overturned but the books in question becoming required reading on the Leaving Certificate syllabus, e.g., Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (banned in October 1951).

    That’s kinda funny.

  34. I wasn’t posting a for a few months in between and now I notice that a lot of regulars are missing. What happened to Milo, Atlanta mom, the two regulars who got divorced, PTM? or are they posting under different handles?

  35. What happened to Milo,

    Milo checked in the other day. He got a new job so he’s busy transitioning out of his old job and getting up to speed in the new job.

  36. Trip report – Hawaii

    I am not going to use diacritical marks in place names because it makes the typing easier, no disrespect intended. Also great suggestions for places to go are already posted on the Travel page, so this is just a description for the readership on the regular ephemeral page.

    I loved Hawaii and intend to visit again with my daughter(s) with a couple of days on Oahu and a longer active time in Kauai. The flights were on time, clean and uneventful. The 10 hour direct HNL flight is very easy, and soon there will be one from Boston which avoids the extra 5 hours with connections just to get to another airport. The on-the-ground prices in the Islands are high, but you can do very well even in Waikiki by walking just a couple of blocks from the main strip for food or stocking up at the ABC (convenience) stores. The direct sun if very strong. Be aware.

    One thing DH and I discovered is that we prefer the mixed income NCL cruise (staying in concierge level, to be sure, with terrific service) to the stuffier Viking all UMC+ cruises we have taken. The onboard food in general lacked seasoning and the fancy restaurants would not have been worth an upcharge (they were included in our package), but we still managed to put on a couple of pounds eating in the diner and grill, plus the free room service. We enjoyed the Vegas style entertainment, the pool and the trivia games. As Milo reported on his cruise, there is rarely any need to book the company shore excursions – there are operators at much lower prices waiting on the pier for you. The mass market cruise model is annoying in that it charges extra for everything (soda! Water bottles!) instead of being so-called all-inclusive, but at the higher price tiers a lot of the nuisance extra charges go away.

    In Honolulu I used public busses to get around on the days when DH was playing bridge and I was not. Everything takes time with traffic. I had the opportunity to meet with totebaggers FTF. I also visited the Bishop museum. I did the star navigation planetarium show and was the only person there for the general 3 o’clock tour and got a private showing that was really special. That will get a return visit. They have the actual 18th century feather cape from the King Kamenehana statue! We did a city tour with Pearl Harbor and the Missouri. That was also worth the time. I did an all day north and east shore Oahu tour – just an overview with a short hike, great informative narration from the guide, and waterfall swim and lots of photo stops. On the last day we had time to kill between check out and flight and took the submarine fish viewing ride. A waste of money for me, but DH liked it. I will stay somewhere other than Waikiki if there is no convention hotel involved.

    On the cruise we stopped two days in Maui – the only day that was vaguely rainy. DH was on a schedule of one geezer bus outing and the next day on the ship, so I stayed with him the second day rather than go snorkeling. In Hilo we visited the volcanoes park and saw the results of the recent crater collapse. In Kona I went on a couple of mild hikes and visited a coffee farm/factory. On Kauai, my favorite, we saw Waimea Canyon (long drive but worth it). On the second (my active) day I went on a kayak and hike excursion.

    It was a great and relaxing vacation for me. I did not lift a finger. I insist on never going to the buffet on the ship – I want to be waited on. Avoided the bad weather at home. DH looked more peaceful and rested than I have seen him in a long time, and our bridge playing time (me 2 days, him 5 days) was enjoyable too.

  37. And On topic I think Rhett might have to grant me golden pair of reading glasses. When Piketty’s book came out, I kindled both it and Das Kapital. And read most of both (I won’t lie and say all).

  38. Somewhat of a tangent – I was at an event yesterday and the discussion came around to how to get younger people involved in activities, organizations, etc. when they seem to want to be more engaged with their electronics. One of the young women pointed out that her peers use the electronic information to “screen” groups or people to determine if they are worth investing the time. But, once they pass the “screening” then they prefer in-person activities. She said she sees the screening process as a safety/security process.

    OT – I agree that a book can be influential without having a large percentage of the population read it. As several noted, if someone, who has a large following or has access to influencing large numbers of people, reads it and spreads the word, that is as good if not better than having the original book read by many. And, yes, I too am less likely to pore through dense tomes as I get older.

    I really enjoy Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast. Along those lines, if school had presented topics that are drier and denser in the way he does or someone like Bill Bryson, or even many of the PBS science and history shows do, I would have been much more engaged.

  39. Interesting Meme that you preferred NCL to Viking. I must tell my parents. They took Carnival the first time, liked it a lot. Then, they took Viking but felt that the food wasn’t that great, maybe NCL is a nice mid point.

  40. Louise – Viking was fine. I preferred their food to NCL, and I vastly prefer all-inclusive to nickel and dime charging. At the end of the day we spent less than 200 onboard after all the credits and cash spending allowance, and that was only because of a couple of spa treatments. I liked the wider spectrum of travelers. I think each ship and each sailing is its own experience. I am going to put down a small deposit on a Panama Canal transit SF to NYC in Jan 2020 – a much longer cruise with sea days.

  41. The No. 1 school on the list is San Jose State University. Despite being the oldest university on the West Coast and the founding campus of California’s state university system, the Silicon Valley school is “chronically underrated” by students, guidance counselors, and traditional ranking systems, according to CollegeVine. Despite not even making U.S. News & World Report‘s latest ranking of the top 300 national universities, their analysis found that San Jose State was “comfortably” in the top 40 when it came to return on investment. San Jose State says it supplies more Silicon Valley employees than any other university in the country.

    The second most underrated college was the University of Houston, followed by SUNY Binghamton, City College of New York, George Mason University, WPI, Fordham University, and University of Texas at Austin — with Babson and Wellesley rounding out the list.

    https://www.boston.com/news/education/2018/12/03/most-underrated-colleges

  42. Meme, enjoyed your trip report as always. I’m still wanting to do a river cruise with my crew but no one can agree on destination.

  43. I went to a presentation tonight in the HS and one of the presenters discussed the stats behind US News and World report rankings. He works for Stanford and he has never met a single person in/out of education that has been asked to complete the survey for US News. It was part of larger discussion about college rankings, but he was implying that a lot of the “data”and sample size is garbage.

  44. One thing that many of the schools on the underrated list are highly successful alums in/near some of the largest metropolitan areas in the US. Fordham alums are all over Wall Street because the school was a regional college that attracted a lot of local kids. Many of these local Fordham kids made a lot of money in finance, law, media and other NYC strategic industries. These alums tend to hire and recruit from their alma mater, and then there are even more opportunities for future Fordham grads. The same is probably true at San Jose State in SV, UT in Texas etc etc.

  45. Meme – thanks for your trip report. I always love reading about Hawaii. I’ve been to Kaui and the Waimea Canyon and would love to go back someday.

  46. I’ve put a couple of books mentioned in the comments on my to be read list, but none of the books from the article are screaming out to me as must reads. As far as personal influence on my way of thinking, I keep going back to Siddhartha, which I first read in school a hundred years ago. The last time I re-read it the part about parenting caught my attention for the first time. An aha moment, in a way.

    “I liked the wider spectrum of travelers.” — Interesting. Maybe you could elaborate.

    I agree with Lauren that some of those underrated colleges have strong, but maybe smaller, alumni networks.

  47. Lauren, you have perfectly characterized Fordham. That is the number one school attended by grads of our HS (I think SUNY Stony Brook may be second)

  48. July, I keep meaning to read Bowling Alone – maybe I finally will. I am actually deep into a book on the waning influence of the State Department, which evidently goes back pretty far. It is pretty surprisingly entertaining because the author recounts lots of personal experiences at State.

  49. One thing that many of the schools on the underrated list are highly successful alums in/near some of the largest metropolitan areas in the US.

    Exactly. Per the article:

    “We’ve also seen that families tend to undervalue the importance of the metropolitan area that a college is located in,” Carson said. “Job opportunities in the US are still overwhelmingly local, and being in a larger job market with strong job growth creates more opportunities for early career student success.”

  50. My DS’s friend’s sister, a NMSF is going to Fordham. DS said that the family is a Fordham family. I’m sure more of her siblings will follow her there.

  51. I knew many grads from both Babson and BC in the Boston area. One colleague had two daughters at BC. Those were some big tuition bills.

  52. I also noticed a big uptick in kids heading to CUNY from our HS. I think most of my oldest kid’s friends ended up there.

  53. July – Viking ocean carries ~800 guests. No children under 16 allowed. Guest composition is overwhelmingly white “active adult” US citizens over 60, primarily in couples. No honeymooners or ten year/twenty year anniversaries. On each of the two cruises I took, there were two or three black guests – members of mixed race couples, 10 to 20 East and South Asians in family groups. A few continental Europeans or South Americans in addition to some Canadians and a few Brits. On the Xmas week cruise there were quite a few family groups with young adults. Lots of Retired military officers. Almost all cabins are small balcony. 100 mini suites with balcony, a few real suites, a few interior/”budget”.

    NCL Pride of America has 2000 plus guests. Children, even babies, not as many as I expected over the holiday week, actually. Honeymooners who were always tipsy and funny in the games, magic shows, etc. Milestone birthdays and anniversaries. Elderly using scooters and wheelchairs. 25 percent Japanese/Chinese/Korean/Australian/Canadian/other foreign citizens- that is specific to Hawaii itinerary. US citizens of all colors/ethnicities in sufficient numbers that none stood out as countable. Lots of people with tattoos, significant extra poundage, retired and still active duty enlisted military as well as officers, non drinkers. Wide range of accommodations and price/service points.

    As for content – Viking has an included “free” excursion at every port – usually a shorter geezer friendly bus tour. Excellent in cabin internal TV content with lectures and port talks taped an available for later viewing. Free meh wifi. Beer house wine and soda with meals included. Lots of receptions with pitchers of drinks. Elite dining rooms by reservation but no upcharge. Lots of quiet public space.

    Pride of America has to operate under Hawaii state and US employment and liquor rules. So the free drinks are limited to invitation only receptions with a single glass of meh champagne. On the international sailings which have sea days I expect there is more of everything including lectures and margaritas. The wifi is excellent, but not free. Elite dining rooms but with upcharge. Not much quiet public space.

  54. Rhett, my Silicon Valley friends say the San Jose State engineering degree is very highly regarded, whereas the San Francisco State engineering degree…is not. So it’s not JUST location. SF State makes a big deal out of trying to get previously-excluded groups into college, but unsurprisingly, they don’t always do as well as other groups.

  55. Guest composition is overwhelmingly white “active adult” US citizens over 60

    I was in Tucson over the weekend with some friends, and we went to the Botanical Gardens Luminaria Nights program one evening. Quite crowded. I immediately started referring to it as Festival of White People, and I could have added “over 60”. I don’t know why I’m such a damn member of my socioeconomic and educational class.

  56. I don’t know why I’m such a damn member of my socioeconomic and educational class.

    Because you are :-) ! And you like what you like.

  57. Well as comparison to the Tucson display, we have driven through the holiday light display at the NASCAR Speedway, just down the road from a huge outlet mall. It’s like the comparison between the Viking ship and a Carnival ship.
    I didn’t know till Meme mentioned it that Viking doesn’t allow under 16. That rules it out for a family trip with my parents, kids and their younger cousins.

  58. Meme’s trip report has presumably caused all my totebag ads to be from Hawaiian Airlines.

  59. So DS2 did Model Congress at Yale this weekend. As part of it, Yale pitches themselves to the kids during one morning, taking them on a tour and so on. My DS2 came back saying No Way to Yale. Not that he ever would have had the grades and leadership activities anyway, lol. His issue was mainly with New Haven, which he pronounced an ugly dump. I pointed out that his brother is at school in a town that more than qualifies as an ugly dump, but he said, first, Newark is a lot bigger, and second, it is a subway ride into Manhattan.
    So I guess Southern CT State, also in New Haven, is out for my kid.

  60. ” I don’t know why I’m such a damn member of my socioeconomic and educational class.”

    Oh I feel like this a lot at events like that. Except sometimes I look around and DH & I are the youngest in a sea of rich, old white people wearing expensive scarves. (The Totebag/NPR crowd)

    @Meme – Thanks for the trip report. Sounds like a wonderful vacation!

  61. I think the location of the school makes perfect sense. It’s like we’ve said before – around here, a degree from a Big Ten school is going to get you in the door more easily in certain circles than more “prestigious” schools (especially east coast SLAC). Also – DePaul, Loyola, and UIC have lots of connections for internships and entry level jobs.

    One of my good friend’s husband went to SJSU. I have watched them in many minor bowl games over the years!

  62. I think the location of the school makes perfect sense.

    How does job hunting work for seniors at a place like the University of Michigan? I assume many companies are doing on campus recruiting etc. but I assume they are usually fairly large. If you want to work at a smaller company in Chicago then you’re going to have to find a way to get there, right?

  63. ” I assume many companies are doing on campus recruiting etc. but I assume they are usually fairly large. If you want to work at a smaller company in Chicago then you’re going to have to find a way to get there, right?”

    Yes – I assume so. I would also think there are plenty of people interviewing for smaller companies in the suburbs of Detroit. Most of the Michigan business grads that I know around here started out in public accounting, a big bank training program,big consulting firm, etc.

  64. I immediately started referring to it as Festival of White People

    You should come sailing.

  65. Lauren –
    No one completes the survey for USNews. They aggregate/analyze data that each school submits to IPEDS – the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the US Dept of Education)
    https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/

  66. If you are not planning to go to grad/prof school or you are not already hooked up with a job after college, it pays to go to school where you plan to work in the future. And if there is going to to be a transition time living back at home to get launched (or if you want to stay near family), it pays to go fairly local. My friends’ WPI grad children with good jobs out of school – one works in Cambridge and one for the Navy in Newport RI. WPI is a great school, one of the hidden gems to which Rhett referred. But if you want to work in Texas, I wouldn’t choose it. And vice versa person who wants to work in New England for a grad of a fine Texas institution. Ivy grads and other HSS grads who don’t get recruited into consulting or leverage family connections for the first job tend to go to grad school.

  67. The kids and I have discussions about culture almost every day. It has taken me 20+ years to become American.
    Meme that skit is hilarious.

  68. I second RMS’ friends WRT SJSU’s engineering reputation.

    IME, SJSU, along with the local CCs, helped a lot of kids, many of Hispanic and Vietnamese descent, move up the SES ladder.

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