Eugenius Survey   41 comments

I have an idea for a series of posts along the lines of the series I wrote last summer about ten objects that can be found in my apartment. It’s about the important books in my life, which is something I’m sure I have in common with anyone who bothers to read my blog.

The old Cincinnati Public Library. What a crime they tore it down . . .

The old Cincinnati Public Library. What a crime they tore it down . . .

I asked myself a few questions that I thought I should try to answer, which got me thinking about the way that books can influence an entire culture. Then I thought it would be interesting to put those questions out there and get your response and in this manner conduct an informal survey.

I would appreciate your response, and assume it would be interesting for you to take a bit of time to consider these questions. You can reply either by writing a comment directly on my blog, then it would be there for the world to see, or if that’s too much bother you can do it on Facebook.

So without further ado, here is my survey. Thanks for taking the time to take part in it. I’ll share the results and begin my series when I feel I’ve had a significant response to the survey probably in a week or so. So, here we go . . .


1. Which 5 books do you believe have changed the course of history, or at least the way that we perceive the world? Some of these will be so self-evident that no explanation will be necessary, but feel free to comment on your choices if you like. Briefly, briefly.

2. Be brutally honest: how many of these have you actually read?

3. How many of these books do you personally believe? Or believe in?

4. Irrespective of the books you listed, what is the one book that you have read that has influenced you personally the most?

5. Do you believe that a book could still be written, whatever its mode of dissemination, that could wield as much influence as any of the books on your list? If not, why not?

That’s it, that’s all. Enter once, enter often. I’ll get back to you with the results and then I will begin a series of posts about the influential books in my life.

Thanks for reading.

Here’s something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything but maybe it will get your feet moving  which is never a bad thing!




41 responses to “Eugenius Survey

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  1. These are great questions! I would choose the following books:

    Those that most influenced the world:

    The Iliad
    The Odyssey
    Portrait of a Lady
    Wuthering Heights
    Silent Spring

    Those that have influenced me:

    The Iliad
    Decoration of Houses
    Little Women
    The American

    I have lovingly read all of them, some more than once!

    On some level I believe in all of them, they each reflect the “modern” view of that particular period in time (shared values, gender bias, family issues, affluence (or not), states of mind, relationships, politics, racism, etc), but they all transcend time.

    Hands down the one book that has influenced me the most is Orientalism, for so many reasons! It really changed the way I view literary works in general and how fiction can at times, does not help to positively develop our view of others and other cultures.

    Yes, I do believe that a book could still be written that could wield as much influence as any of these. On the flip side, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a discovery of an ancient text that we could all revel in for years!

    • Thank you, Carol. What a great list. I have never even heard of Orientalism and would love to learn more about it. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this in the first place. Thanks again and take care,

  2. The Bible, The Qu’ran, Principia (Isaac Newton), Art of War (Sun Tzu), Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler), Das Kapital (Karl Marx), I am endorsing none of these treatises, however, each in their own way influenced more human beings, either negatively or positively, that any other written works. I have read all five. On my life, Getting to Yes (Fisher and Ury) had the most profound influence, it taught me how to listen.

  3. 1. Which 5 books do you believe have changed the course of history, or at least the way that we perceive the world? Some of these will be so self-evident that no explanation will be necessary, but feel free to comment on your choices if you like. Briefly, briefly.

    Copping out with an individual focus: here I keep returning to the idea of history as struggle and political leaders (or more the tiny subgroup capable of study, weight and consideration) getting enchanted or hoodwinked by a text in their formative years, which continued to influence and perhaps inform their decision-making processes in the great pitches and moments of historical upheaval. I find it more compelling than the low hanging fruit of massively influential religious texts and their demonstrable success in getting us to kill each other in huge numbers. From the world-changing individual angle could be chosen mostly memoirs.

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom
    Communist Manifesto
    Prison Notebooks
    Mein Kampf
    The Prince
    (maybe toss in also Age of Reason, Homage to Catalonia, Autobiography of Malcolm X, God and Man at Yale, Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Other America, Atlas Shrugged)

    2. Be brutally honest: how many of these have you actually read?
    I never got through Mein Kampf.

    3. How many of these books do you personally believe? Or believe in?
    I believed Gramsci and lots of what Orwell tried to get across

    4. Irrespective of the books you listed, what is the one book that you have read that has influenced you personally the most?
    Choosing just one here is agony. I read Finnegans Wake at 13 and for all that failed to get over the apron into my understanding, I remain punstruck — can’t stop punning the way sociopaths can’t stop punching people. For my writing, it would be Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Aristotle’s Poetics. Favourite novel is Crime and Punishment, and following Darwin, my fave book of the past two decades is Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. All big influences.

    5. Do you believe that a book could still be written, whatever its mode of dissemination, that could wield as much influence as any of the books on your list? If not, why not?
    Yes. Shakespeare will never be touched, but fresh new planes and angles on our souls will be conceived and put into writing. And let’s get in the game here, please: if no one achieves it in my lifetime I’ll have to write it myself, and I’m a lazy bastard.

  4. Bible, Portrait of an Artist, The Energy of Slaves, Field Notes, Under the Volcano, Ada. Read them all, ok, about 75% of the bible (managed less than 10% of the Quaran, sorry), and I don’t expect anyone to write a book like either again, at least not in my lifetime. Imagine the Committee! A new circle for Dante’s hell! They all made a difference, can’t speak for western civilization, but these all rocked my world. for long list.

  5. Five books that changed the world?
    First — every religious text ever written. As an atheist, they are all the same to me and within their sphere of influence, had the same effect.
    Second – Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica with its related works introduced Calculus and much of physics to the worl
    Third — Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (presented as two short books) forms the basis of almost everything modern society operates on including the computer you are reading this on.
    Fourth — Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, without which we would not have much of modern medicine; evolution is the core theory of biology. Every thing else falls out from this.
    Fifth — A tie, Adam Smith’s On the Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Das Capital upon which the two major competing economies in the world are based.
    After that Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (which was critical to the Renaissance), The complete works of Shakespeare for its impact on the most widely spoken language in the world and, perhaps, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, which combined with his other work gave birth to Modernism, one of the most influential movements in world literature (even if you reject it)
    Have I read these?
    Both the Old and New Testament as well as most European mythologies (Ovid, Virgil,Homer, The Mabingion, various Norse sagas) and a smattering of world religious texts. Not Newton in the original but lots of derivative texts. Einstein, yes, though I don’t claim to understand it all (though it’s easier than Quantum Mechanics). Darwin, yes, Smith, yes but only the first volume of Das Capital. Lucretius, yes, 80% of Shakespeare and all of the Cantos though I needed a guide to understand it all, especially the parts written in Chinese.
    Do I believe in them?
    Short answer is no. Long answer is, well, long. Truth is found in myriad places.
    Books that influenced me?
    Too many to mention but here is a few. Hemingway, especially Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast, Asimov’s Foundation series, plays of Tennessee Williams, The Cantos, Karl Marx’s Early Writings, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic, the novels of Michael Chabon
    Can a book still change the world?
    Yes – I may have one on my shelf right now. Hell, I may have one in me.

    Hayden Trenholm
    • Thanks, Hayden. What a great response and you touched on something that no one else has, that maybe one of us (Ok, or just you) has that one great book inside us. Why not believe that, right? Hope you’re well, thanks again,

  6. Anything by Albert Camus

  7. Here is my list:
    Most Influential Books (I’m including plays/poetry in the list) in History:
    -Don Quixote
    -Paradise Lost
    -The Divine Comedy
    -Augustine’s works

    Most influential works to me personally:
    -Gilead-Marilynne Robinson
    -Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte
    -T.S. Eliot’s poetry (especially The Waste Land)
    -Anna Karenina-Tolstoy
    -The Wings of the Dove- Henry James

    I absolutely believe that a book can be written to wield as much influence as the ones above. For instance, Robinson’s novel was published less than a decade ago. In fact, I think we need to fight the hopelessness that all great literary works have been written already.

  8. 1. Tough to narrow it down to five books, eugene. Obviously, the big religious books have been very influential, The Bible and the Qur’an, in particular. These books have shaped the world profoundly as we know it. And there are some of the heavyweight political books or manifestos, such as Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto that have also had a profound impact on various societies as well as history and the way we view it. With regards to popular culture, books such as The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series have, again, had a huge impact on the world in various ways. Personally, Shakespeare’s readings have impacted me, as well as classics such as 1984, War and Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird.

    2. I have read at least bits and pieces of all of the books i have listed above. And have probably read through to completion about half of these.

    3. I believe there is a great deal of truth about life and the afterlife in all of the books I have listed.

    4. The one book that has influenced me more than any other is quite likely The Bible. I was a churchgoer at a very young age. I no longer attend church regularly, but what I learned in The Bible has stayed with me throughout my life and has helped me immensely on many occasions.

    5. Of course, I believe there could be a book written that has as much influence as any of these. I have an open mind, I believe, and think that perhaps the most influential book has yet to be written. The world is always changing and with it philosophy and ideas change, as well. Books are important in capturing these changes and creating a new world.

  9. My thoughts HERE, (cheating somewhat on titles, offering book clusters instead:)
    1.TORAH/BIBLE/QU’RAN—Western Religion
    ARISTOTLE/PLATO—Western Philosophy
    SHAKESPEARE—Dramatized Secular Humanism
    ROUSSEAU/VOLTAIRE—Politicized Secular Humanism
    DICKENS/HUGO/STOWE—Dramatized Social Justice
    DARWIN/FREUD/EINSTEIN—The Scientific Revolution

    2. I’ve read half the Bible, half of Dickens, most of Shakespeare, bits of all the others (except Qu’ran & Einstein).

    3. Torah/Bible/Qu’ran are fascinating & sporadic insight, but I reject their cosmology. I believe in all the others, except Freud, in which case I prefer Jung.

    4. My personal icons are Shakespeare & Dickens (and Jung).

    5. I think our modern world is fracturing into diverse narcissisms but anything can happen and the world might be rocked by a book again. But a) it might be in a format other than the traditional printed page, and b) it may not be an influence for the good (hello Mao, Hitler, Rand, Hubbard, etc).

    Michael O'Brien
  10. Forgot a central honorable mention: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina! (really, anything by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky)

  11. I’ll give this a go and I know there will be overlap with others:

    1. Five books that changed the world (I’ll have to limit myself to the Western World as I’m woefully ignorant of other literary traditions; these will also be immensely biased by my interests in philosophy and religion): I would definitely have to say the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Regardless of one’s belief system or hermeneutic, these texts have changed the manner in which we see life, nations, communities, religion, divinity, etc. However, I tend to agree with the old German scholar Gerhard von Rad who famously argued that what the Hebrews actually gave us was a sense of history that came with being a pilgrim people. Ancient Near Eastern religions were often cyclical in how they viewed time and were caught in what Mircea Eliade (if memory serves) called the “eternal return of the same” (cycles of night/day; seedtime/harvest; and the religious reenactments which accompanied these). However, with having a national narrative of being a wandering people it gave a sense of linearity and therefore history based on a concept of divine promise. Whatever one thinks if the historicity (or lack thereof) of many of these texts, the human sense of history and progress, I think, came from here. If the Hebrew texts gave us a sense of history, Socrates gave us a sense of critical thought. We get our picture of Socrates primarily through Plato’s works (even where in Plato’s later works he diverges from Socrates). I will specifically mention The Republic for teaching us about politics and justice, the Euthyphro for freeing us from uncritically accepting a “divine command”, and the Symposium for teaching us that beauty is truly a transcendent. Third, I will say Augustine’s Confessions (it was a debate between the Confessions and City of God). The Confessions gave us the autobiography. Moreover, they essentially structured religious thought for most of history. I think countless people have found in Augustine’s opening, “My heart is restless until it rests in you, O God”, a comrade who has given expression to a deep longing for some sort of meaning in a world apparent meaninglessness and seemingly unending, unsatisfying options (again, regardless of one’s personal convictions on matters of religion). Fourth, Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). While Darwin’s theory of natural selection helped to de-hierarchicalize humanity’s relation to the rest of the natural world, in large measure this had already been accomplished in Copernicus. Moving to a heliocentric universe (which, of course, we also now know to be inaccurate) decentred humanity from being the (literal and figurative) centre of the universe. Humanity seemed a little more small, a little more humble, and Copernicus already opened us up to the idea that the universe wasn’t just about us. Fifth, Descartes’s Discourse on Method. With Descartes’s famous axiom, cogito ergo sum, he placed the thinking self, or human subjectivity, as central to knowledge and understanding. Regardless of what we think of this or how the Enlightenment proceeded to develop the idea of subjectivity, there is no denying its influence or that Descartes can still be felt everywhere.

    Honorable mentions: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Nietzsche’s On the Geneology of Morals

    2. I have not read Copernicus. I can’t honestly say I ever will.

    3. I personally believe in all of the books I mentioned. I also engage in a complex hermeneutical task every time I read and so believe them each differently and with qualification. It would be boring to go through each and explain how each is qualified and what it means, but I have taken from each, been changed by each, and have an evolving, changing, frustrating, but ultimately loving and tender relationship with each.

    4. The books that have influenced me the most were Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments, Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation, Plato’s Symposium, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These books came along at key moments in my life and irrevocably altered me. These are the books to which I continually return and in which I never cease to find something new.

    5. This is a tough question for me. More than anything I would like to say “yes”. However, my skepticism tends to side with no. Perhaps if there were a grand unified field theory or a synthetic account of new knowledge which was conveyed in a manner where the lay person could understand it and could change the way we view science, politics, and the natural world (both human and non-human alike). I fear that the contemporary emphasis on increased specialization and the political myopia (left and right which displays only binary thinking) have placed structures in place which de facto limit opportunities for such a work. Perhaps a work which is able to create a new social structure….

  12. This is difficult to narrow down to five with very little parameters except having actually read them but I’ll give it a run.

    Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith – set the stage for economics today (read it in 1974)

    Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau – set the stage for the civil war and the end of slavery in North America (or so we like to tell ourselves). Still as relevant today in that we should never take our government or democracy for granted. (read it in 1969)

    Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – set the stage for the Clarence Darrow and the Scope Monkey trails. (forced myself through it in 1974) This in turn brought us the gem Inherit the Wind (play), a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee (saw the movie)

    The Republic by Plato – set the stage for the development of the modern justice system (made numerous attempt and after almost three years finished it)

    The two more contemporary works would include Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (read in 2006 and is also why I didn’t list the Bible) and Jennifer James, Thinking in the Future Tense (read it in 1998 and still have my hardcover copy filled with sticky notes)

    Fiction would be Lord of the Flies, Dune Trilogy and Foundation Trilogy.

    I suppose I could list War and Peace for example but never read and won’t comment on a book I haven’t personally read.

  13. 1:. The Bible (going to lump old and new testament together here), the Quran, the Upanishads, Plato’s Republic, and Paulo Coelho’s the Alchemist (im sure this horrifies some people but for the sheer universality of it). These 5 are really off the top of my head.

    2. I love old testament bible stuff for its imagery, and some of the gospels are pretty neat but i certainly havent read that much of the bible and probably have some chip on my shoulder against it after attending German catholic church as a child. Same for the Koran, though ive read some juicy bits and pieces. I should probably read more of it. I think I had a U of C prof who tried to torture us all by making us read the Upanishads, but i dont recall much – i should check it out now, id probably get more out of it seeing as im older and ‘wiser’. I read the Alchemist after serendipitously finding an english translated copy my first time in Istanbul a few years ago – it changed my life for better or worse, true fact. Plato im pretty sure I studied in Philosophy class but he didnt really interest me as much as some other philosophers, like Kant or Nietzsche.

    3. Even though it makes me sound like a flake, the Alchemist really did alter the course of my life. Ahem. As much as I have wanted to find something profound and affirming in religious texts, they never seem to affect me on the same level as poets inspired by those religious texts, do. I love Sufi Poetry but the Quran doesnt grip me; St. John of the Cross’ “dark night” is amazing, but the Bible itself never affected me the same way.

    4. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls changed the way I felt about my past, or my “fate” as some might put it, and motivated me in a way that few books have.

    5. I hope so.

  14. 1. Which 5 books do you believe have changed the course of history, or at least the way that we perceive the world? Some of these will be so self-evident that no explanation will be necessary, but feel free to comment on your choices if you like. Briefly, briefly.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (for teaching, anyway), Diary of Anne Frank, and The Communist Manifesto. These are just from the top of my head. There are definitely others.

    2. Be brutally honest: how many of these have you actually read?
    I have read all of them. That is the only way I could answer, which maybe makes me bias.

    3. How many of these books do you personally believe? Or believe in?
    I definitely believe in The Grapes of Wrath and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Oppression is not an obvious or direct thing. It is hidden and complex, and we are all a part of it even if we don’t mean to be.

    4. Irrespective of the books you listed, what is the one book that you have read that has influenced you personally the most?
    The book I read that changed my way of thinking is Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized. I can’t even touch the basis of this book, but it shows the sick relationship between those in power and those oppressed, and it changed my whole view of the MIddle East. I was too subjected to the USA’s portrayal of the Middle East before.

    5. Do you believe that a book could still be written, whatever its mode of dissemination, that could wield as much influence as any of the books on your list? If not, why not?
    Why not? Society is always evolving with old problems taking on new forms and newer problems emerging. Why would we ever think we have all the answers? Why would we ever stop thinking? There is still so much of ordinary experience to be analyzed, as well.

    Dr. Kerri Singer
  15. 1. The five books that have most changed the way we see the world (and here I draw from the Western Canon, as I am ignorant of eastern literature, etc.) begin with the Hebrew Bible* and its influence on all subsequent literature. The general arc of how we understand the human story (at least outside of purely biological/anthropological—“Out-of-Africa—accounts of our past) follows this narrative: we once possessed ideal circumstances; then we erred, lost paradise, and now find ourselves in the plight of work and indecision and confronting other people who are flawed and immoral and selfish like we are; but our efforts are not futile because we’re headed for something better, a redemptive stage that may even parallel the paradise of our origins.
    Also, the Hebrew Bible shows forcefully how a nation retains (or even creates) its identity by (re)telling stories that account for its origin and how it got to its present state. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey reinforce this idea: a nation knows itself through stories that form a common heritage, theology, heroes, moral ideals, and a standard curriculum, too. So, the Iliad and Odyssey are the second “book” on this list. (I have seen them joined in one volume, so fuck off.)
    Plato’s dialogues* are the third “book” that formed how we understand ourselves because the dynamic and even relentless questioning of our assumptions that Plato’s practices established the rigors of real thinking for its own sake, to just strip a notion bare and see what it really is, if anything. Plato’s rigorous thinking led to philosophy.
    Aristotle’s works* take the fourth spot. He rejected Plato’s idealism for a method of exhaustive induction as the way to the truth. I agree with those who claim Aristotle was the first scientist: at least his method of gathering as much data as possible and deriving tentative conclusions from such data encouraged a way of thinking that led towards the scientific method.
    Fifth most important is On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, which suggests the atomic makeup of existence; such a makeup implies the end of our human existence at death, that when we die our “soul” dies with the body and goes the “way of our ankle bone.” So, On the Nature of Things seems to me a distant harbinger of what later became modernism—a secular, indeed worldly view of our short lifespans that is unshackled from supernatural beings and after-worlds but still retains the general thrust towards improvement, perhaps not to an Edenic garden but to a world that has evolved into universal health and equal wealth.

    (6,7, and 8: On the Origin of Species, and the works of Marx and Freud.)

    * Now I have not named specific books of the bible or of the two Greek philosophers, and so if someone takes issue with this, just consider the Hebrew Bible one volume or a single collection, and so too with the dialogues of Plato or works of Aristotle.

    2. I have read and reread The Iliad, Odyssey, and On the Nature of Things. I have read about 75% of the Hebrew Bible; I’ve read about 50% of Plato and about 60% of Aristotle.

    3. Hmmm. I believe Lucretius is closest to an accurate view of the world, and after him Aristotle. The other works perhaps hold what I consider greater “truths” but are not historical works to be justly considered accurate; that is, I don’t believe in Zeus, a realm of the forms, or talking snakes.

    4. Thoreau’s Walden has most influenced my worldview.

    5. A book more influential than any of the above mentioned could still be written: one that might exhaust physics by explaining in plain language/ simple formulas the theory of everything. Or, perhaps a book that gives some sweeping account of the mind and its machinations.
    But for beauty, not influence and explanation, I doubt anything coming will outdo Job, Shakespeare, or Goethe. Aesthetic pre-eminence, I believe, has likely been achieved.

    Aaron Francis Roe
    • Aaron, I am humbled by your immense scholarship and sensitive insights. You have upped the bar on my little survey. Thank you and all the best with your PhD at Louisiana State University!

  16. …numero uno…probably my thinking, books are a definition of the writer on subject, pov, topic, event and many other reasons, secondly the author has thought out the effect a book will have when read and confronted with a subject etc western culture is seemingly evolving such as politics (not so in alberta!:) ) western culture is complex as more and more people bring insights, experience, cultures and melt it with western type of doing, french books affect their culture, european books the same etc and books written by western authors will be read either academically, biographically, fiction or non fiction, sometimes changing. defining, rewriting the western culture etc…the west is protective of its culture and as gatekeepers reflect this in many ways, books are interesting and hopefully stay around from the profusion of the computer age…similarly,black and white movies are also more refined amid the grainy texture subject it conveys literally making it interesting,refined, idealistic and aged with wisdom!

    delford twain louis
  17. books ; johnny got his gun, napoleon hill, the greatest series by og mandino, most of john steinbecks’ books, johnathan livingston seagull, the art of war, these books and many more influenced me in a myriad of ways…they were written in a way it made my imagination bring the characters alive…

    delford twain louis

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