The 20 Most Popular Books Throughout History (Infographic)

Avatar by Brendan Brown | April 5, 2019, 1:00 am

Although the term “blockbuster book” has only been coined recently, certain books have captured the public’s imagination well before Fifty Shades of Grey.

Going back as far as the 10th Century BC, when I Ching was nothing more than thoughts scribed onto bamboo, we’ve been captivated by brilliant writing and story telling.

Below Global English Editing presents the 20 most popular books throughout history.

From religious texts such as The Holy Bible to revolutionary texts such On the Origin of Species to the pure literary genius found in War and Peace, the following timeline not only highlights the history of blockbuster books, but also some of the most significant dates in human history.

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Would the world as we know it be the same without books such as The Holy Bible, The Quran,  A Vindication of the Rights of Women, or The Communist Manifesto?

These popular books, and others, have had immense influence on our society, and are still widely read today. Such books attest to the enormous power of literature, and just one book can alter the shape of history forever. Philosophy, religion, mathematics, science, and literature all have built upon the compilation of knowledge that came before.

Nowadays, when we think of blockbuster books, we often picture a popular book, read for entertainment value, such as Harry Potter, one of the most popular books of 2016. However, books which can withstand the test of time may be considered the most popular ones of all.

Ancient China

In 10th –4th century BC China, the I Ching, or Book of Changes came into the world as a book of oracles, and became highly influential in China for 3000 years. The West has since become curious of this book. Both Confucianist and Taoist philosophy has drawn from the I Ching. In fact, in the 5th– 3rd century BC, Confucius’ students compiled The Analects, the teachings of Confucius which became a cornerstone of Chinese philosophy.

Ancient Greece

Meanwhile in 8th century BC Greece, Homer presumably wrote The Iliad (about the Trojan war) and The Odyssey (about the Greek hero, Odysseus). These epic poems became part of Greek education and culture during Classical Greece, and remained popular during the time of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. Virgil’s Aeneid was influenced by Homer’s work, and both The Iliad and The Odyssey reappeared in Byzantine culture from 8th Century AD. These poems travelled to Italy with Greek scholars when they fled from the Ottoman Turks, and as a result, affected the Italian Renaissance culture. These poems have been translated all over the world, and serve as the most significant poems of Classical Europe. Today, they are part of the canon in the study of the classics, from which a rich array of symbolism and allusion can be drawn in literature.

In 380 BC, The Republic was written by the Greek philosopher, Plato. This work was to become one of the world’s most influential works on political and philosophical theory. Today, it is still a part of the canon in the works of philosophy. Written in a Socratic dialogue, Plato discussed subjects such as justice, moral character, the city/state, theory of forms, and the immortality of the soul. Plato was the founder of the Academy of Athens, the Western world’s first institution of higher learning.

The Greek mathematician Euclid wrote The Elements in 300 BC, which has become the most important book on mathematics. In this treatise, Euclid logically unfolds the development of geometry, number theory, theory of abstract proportions, and other mathematical concepts. Science and math have never been the same since.

Religious Texts That Aren’t Going Anywhere Soon

The stories of the Buddha became known in 3rd century BC, when the Dhammapada arose as a compilation of sayings of the Buddha, written in verse form. It is the most read and the best known text of the Theravada Buddhist scripture. In this text, each documented saying was given by the Buddha during a particular situation in the Buddha’s life.

In the 2nd – 4th century AD, the Holy Bible appeared and has since sold over 5 billion copies all over the world. Many different authors contributed to The Bible, which is a collection of sacred texts and scriptures.

The Quran is regarded as the best work in classical Arabic literature, and is the religious text of Islam. It came about in 609-632 AD and has since sold over 3 billion copies worldwide.

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Literature that is Forever

Don Quixote, written in 1605-1615 by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is a thought of as the most significant work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the whole Spanish literary canon. In this novel, the protagonist Alonso Quixano decides to live out his idealistic world of chivalric romances and stories by making himself a knight, recruiting his squire, and going on quixotic adventures.

William Shakespeare, an English poet, playwright, and actor, produced most of his works between 1589 and 1613. He is known as the greatest English writer, and his works are still studied today. He is the most often quoted by pretentious people, whether you like it or not.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is set during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia. There are many different characters in this novel, but the three main ones are Natasha, the daughter of a nobleman; Prince Andrei, who leaves his family to join the army against Napoleon; and Pierre, the illegitimate son of a count. The story of five aristocratic families unfolds, and the narrative is interesting in that it constantly shifts consciousness, taking in different points of views. Finished in 1869, Tolstoy spent 5 years writing War and Peace. Could you imagine editing this massive work?

Political Documents

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was published in 1532. Machiavelli was a political theorist and Italian diplomat. An important work of modern political philosophy, its theme is that immoral means can be justified in the achievement of glory and survival. A jerk’s handbook.

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, is considered one of the world’s most dominant works on politics. Originally a pamphlet, this work  analyzes and discusses class struggle, the issues with capitalism, society and politics, and gives a glimpse into how capitalism can be replaced by socialism.

Feminist Writings

A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written in 1792 by one of the first women’s rights activists, Mary Wollstonecraft lays out why women should be allowed to have an education, as they are human beings entitled to the same fundamental rights as men. During a time when women were considered property, this work contained revolutionary ideas.

Written in 1949, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir examines the way women are treated in society all throughout history. This book is an important part of feminist philosophy and sparked the emergence of second-wave feminism.

Science, Nature and the Environment

On the Origin of Species was written by Charles Darwin and published in 1859. This work is considered to be the foundational basis of evolutionary biology. Darwin describes his scientific theory of evolution through natural selection. Much of his presented evidence was gathered from his voyages to South America and South Africa upon the HMS Beagle.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was published in 1949, but was not really popular until the 1970’s, when it became so impactful that it influenced the environmental movement and made people excited about ecology. The author was an American ecologist and environmentalist, who wrote about the interrelationship between people and the land they live on.

Blockbuster Books Can Change the World

As you can see, even just one book can ignite a movement, change minds, and alter the course of history. Which will be the next blockbuster book that will change the world?

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