Revolutionary Books

Today is Independence Day in the United States. Much of the inspiration for the American Revolution and eventual structure for the new country came from a book, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, first published January 10, 1776. It is the best selling book in the history of the United States, other than the Bible.

Certainly there were rumblings of rebellion before the book was published, but as is true with most books, which make waves through a society, they often put into words what many people had already been thinking.

At just under 22,000 words, it is rather short, but it gave voice to a revolution, which has been celebrated for the last 241 years.

Brevity is not always a bad thing. In fact, some of the most powerful and formative speaking and writing in the history of the United States contained relatively few words.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was about 1,600 words.

The Declaration of Independence is just over 1,300 words.

The Emancipation Proclamation had 625 and The Gettysburg Address came in at 272 words.

(The current United States Federal Tax Code is about four million words…but I digress.)

Some of the more poignant and well-known quotes from Common Sense are:

“Give me liberty, or give me death.” 

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” 

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…” 

“When I was teaching children I began every day writing this on the blackboard: “Do to others what you would like them to do to you”, telling them how much better the world would be if everybody lived by this rule.” 

Over the centuries, since the invention of the printing press, books have entertained, informed, inflamed and also inspired readers to action.

The Bible, written by a variety of men under the inspiration of the creator God has transformed the world and is the greatest book ever written.

Other books sparked political movements, changes in society, science, education and religion, and some were even the explosive charge at the center of destruction, death and misery.

Some examples of revolutionary books are:

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

…and many, many more which profoundly affected our world. Books can be powerful catalysts.

Every nation has its own unique list of books, which were critical to their establishment and influential for either their improvement or destruction.

The Christian world has its own list of books which define it. In 2006, Christianity Today Magazine attempted to come up with the fifty most influential books for Evangelicals. Here is the list. 

Of course, even this list could be disputed based on a person’s background, denominational identification, age, preference in reading styles and the greatest difference, what language they speak or the country where they reside. Everyone who reads has a personal list of most important books.

Books need at least a generation or longer to be proven as groundbreaking. There might be a few books which have been published in the last twenty years or so which will make a “most important book” list of the future, but most likely it will be one, maybe two at most from this generation.

Only time will tell.

Lists of truly important books change slowly. In fact, a true revolutionary book will rarely give up its spot on a list without a fight.


10 Responses to Revolutionary Books

  1. Avatar
    Craig Pynn July 4, 2017 at 6:05 am #

    Well said, Dan. Alas, the list of the 50 most influential (revolutionary?) books for Evangelicals is hidden behind the CT paywall.

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    Carol Ashby July 4, 2017 at 6:08 am #

    Can’t access the full list without subscribing, but I find it interesting that one of those mentioned (Left Behind) is a fiction series.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow July 4, 2017 at 6:17 am #

      If you search for “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals” in Google or a search engine, the list has been posted in many places like Gospel Coalition, Crosswalk and Tim Challies.

  3. Avatar
    Dan Wright July 4, 2017 at 7:01 am #

    This was a family dinner table discussion a few months ago. I own one of the first editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 4, 2017 at 9:26 am #

    Interesting that so many influential books are short. Two of the books that influenced me during the 70s, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ and ‘Illusions’, both by Richard Bach, were not even novella-length.

  5. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D July 4, 2017 at 9:38 am #

    Thank you for sharing these awesome thoughts, Dan. Happy 4th!

  6. Avatar
    Rebecca LuElla Miller July 4, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    I’m struck by the number of books in the short list you gave which are fiction. Truth that changes lives is not limited to the non-fiction form.

    Love this listing, Dan. Makes me consider which books have had the greatest effect, not just on my writing (that question has been asked fairly often) but on my life. For me they were revolutionary. I can think of two off the top of my head: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and a little book that alternately has gone by the title The Green Letters and Principles of Spiritual Growth by Miles Stanford.

    I’ll need to find the hidden list now and see what CT considers the top 50.


  7. Avatar
    Edward Lane July 4, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    Great blog. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense reminds me of the saying “why do the call it common when so few people have any?”

  8. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh July 4, 2017 at 1:26 pm #

    Excellent. There are more as you have said. The Imitation of Christ impresses me as in this category. Thank you for sharing. I have some more reading to do!

  9. Avatar
    Judith Robl July 4, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    Here’s a link I found:

    I was disappointed that Brother Lawrence’s small book “The Practice of the Presence of God” had not been mentioned.

    For me, the constant awareness of God’s presence is foundational.

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