The most influential books of the 20th century…

I spent all morning researching and writing this answer to the Quora question: What 20th-century novel has been most influential in shaping mindsets and changing lives? So I thought I’d share my answer here as well.

It is hard to pick just one novel, but I think that 1984 by George Orwell is the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s not the first dystopian novel, but it defined for most people what a dystopian government is and influenced every dystopian novel that followed. It introduced many terms and concepts into our language: Orwellian, Big Brother, groupthink, thought police. It describes the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression, and persuades citizens to be vigilant against government corruption in order to safeguard democracy. Even today, it influences political figures, judges and ordinary citizens in guarding against government over-reach when it comes to mass surveillance, loss of individual rights and personal freedoms, and manipulation of public opinion.

To round out my top 10 (because I can’t pick just one book):

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which caused many readers to question their own prejudices and has one of the most enduring heroic characters in literature.
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the defining novel of the Great Depression and one of the most widely read works of American literature. It exposes the plight of the poor in a capitalist, profit-driven system.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quintessential critique of the idea of the American dream.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which introduced a new phrase to the English language and exposes the absurdities of war and of bureaucracies like the military.
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, which captured the coming-of-age experience and has become synonymous with teenage rebellion.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which portrays how easily human beings can regress to savagery and influenced our perception of human nature.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which depicted the dangers of censorship.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the counterpoint to 1984, which exposes the dangers of loss of individuality and societal control via mass entertainment and consumerism.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson, which introduced the term “cyberspace” and influenced — or at least, predicted — the way the Internet developed.

There are so many other 20th-century novels that were highly influential in describing the human condition, bringing about political reform, establishing philosophies of thought, or exposing societal problems that it is really hard to limit this list. For example, it’s difficult to omit The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Native Son by Richard Wright;  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Roots by Alex Haley; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Trial by Franz Kafka; and The Stranger by Albert Camus. And then there are books that are just so widely read and highly beloved that they are bound to be personally influential, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

It just goes to show the power of literature! Never stop reading.

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