Non-fiction books can enrich our lives in many ways. They can be very important to society just as many fiction books are. There have been many great non-fiction books throughout history that have been a huge influence on how we think about and understand society, the world, and even the universe.
Certain books have had an unprecedented effect on culture and society. These are books that we should all read or at least be aware of. This article will explore a number of these books and explain why they are of such significance to society.
They are all very well-known, so you probably will have heard about or even read some of them. Nevertheless, hopefully after reading this article, you will want to pick up and read some of these yourself.
10 Great Non-Fiction Books That Everyone Should Read
So what are these must-read books that are so significant? These books span across history, countries, and cultures and have contributed to society in different but no less considerable ways. Here are 10 great and important non-fiction books and their significance in society:
1. The Republic – Plato (c. 375 BC)
Plato’s The Republic is one of the most famous and influential works on philosophy and political theory in history. The ideas discussed in this book are still relevant and resonate today over 2000 years after their original conception.
It is in the form of a Socratic dialogue like all of Plato’s works and revolves around one central question: is it always better to be just than unjust?
Socrates engages in discussion with several Athenians to discuss what makes a just city-state and a just man. Key ideas and analogies by Plato are also discussed such as the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the philosopher-king.
Many of the core concepts that are delved into in this work address fundamental aspects of society that have been of importance throughout history. It shows us that we should continue to have these crucial discussions about justice. We should always strive towards and never lose sight of what a just society should be.
2. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius would write personal notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy during his time on military campaigns in the 2nd century AD. These notes have been collated together to form Meditations. It is difficult to recognise whether or not these writings were intended to be published, however, we should be grateful for the piece of work that Marcus Aurelius left to us – intended or not.
The book provides a fascinating insight into the thoughts and musings of the Roman emperor. He is an advocate of stoicism and the work clearly echoes teachings from preceding stoic philosophers.
Marcus talks of accepting one’s place in the universe by living in accordance with the natural world. He talks of the importance of accepting the current situation and maintaining control of emotions in an unpredictable world and doing so whilst maintaining strong ethical principles.
The crux of Marcus Aurelius’ beliefs is to understand one’s life through a cosmic perspective. There is much we cannot change, but learning to live through difficult times using the tenets of stoicism is something that Marcus believed in. Difficult and unpredictable times will never cease, so the words in this book will always be of value to us.
3. The Prince – Nico Machiavelli (1532)
In 1532, an Italian diplomat, philosopher, and writer wrote a radical political treatise that would have lasting effects on political theory and society. Nico Machiavelli gave a new perspective on what power is, how to attain and maintain it, and how an effective political leader should be to bring prosperity and honour to the state.
For centuries, it was believed that a leader had the right to exercise political power through being truly virtuous and maintaining an unflinching moral character. Rulers were effective when they did good, and earned their right to continue to be a leader if they continued to do good.
However, Machiavelli disagreed. He fundamentally believed that it wasn’t possible to be a good politician and a wholly good person at the same time. Political leaders’ main goal is to ensure the acquisition and maintenance of power and to preserve the safety and security of the state.
This isn’t to say leaders should abandon moral principles altogether. Rather, politicians should be prepared to act ruthlessly and make ruthless decisions where appropriate to maintain the safety and security of the state – for the good of its people.
Of course, 16th Century Italy is an entirely different time. Society is very different now than it was then. However, the essence of what Machiavelli is saying can be carried over to today.
We should not accept or be on the side of callous people in power, rather, we should recognise that politicians sometimes have to be ruthless (maybe to our distaste) to bring about the safety and prosperity of the state.
4. Essays – Michel De Montaigne (1580)
Great works of philosophy can seem intimidating. Writings are often complex, wordy, and dense. It can understandably be seen as inaccessible and even aloof. However, one philosopher that took a refreshingly different approach was the French humanist Michel De Montaigne.
He didn’t set out grand arguments to orchestrate how to live an ethical life, what a just society is, or the metaphysical nature of the world. He simply writes about himself, his likes and dislikes, his habits, his ailments, and everything in between.
Montaigne was a sceptic and wrote what he did to attack the principles of academia at the time. He believed too much knowledge could prove a hardship upon us. Instead, he wrote about the ordinary aspects of his own life to demonstrate that moral philosophy can be attached to something much more commonplace.
We are offered an insight into human nature through Montaigne’s Essays that is never seen in academia. These writings were an important contribution to scepticism and provide an alternate way of thinking about our existence.
An ordinary life that doesn’t stray into depravity is a good life to lead – Montaigne would urge us to remember this in one of the most influential non-fiction books in history.
5. On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin (1859)
On the 24th of November 1859, a piece of scientific literature was published that would change the landscape of scientific thought. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species lays the foundations of evolutionary biology and presents the theory that species evolve over generations through a process of natural selection.
Darwin wrote the book for non-specialist readers and so it garnered extensive attention upon release. What followed was widely held discussion across society about this piece of scientific literature – not just in scientific circles, but also in religious and philosophical circles as well. The extent of Darwin’s influence was beginning to manifest.
Soon enough there was general agreement amongst scientists that evolution had taken place. Development and advancement of the theory then followed through the decades.
It is not difficult to see the effect that On the Origin of Species has had on society. It changed the way we look at the natural world and is now a consolidated theory within biology. It is for sure one of those non-fiction books that are a must-read for everyone.
6. The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell (1937)
George Orwell is perhaps most well-known for the famous stories Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). However, as well as an author, Orwell was also a prolific journalist. A brilliant demonstration of his keen literary journalism is the political treatise The Road to Wigan Pier.
The book is split into two parts. The first documents his experiences of living and visiting various industrial towns and cities in the north of England. Orwell integrated with mining communities, stayed with families, and observed how they lived.
Orwell includes statistics about aspects of these communities but also an eloquent and moving series of descriptions about how these people actually lived, and his thoughts on this thereafter.
The second part of the book is a political essay outlining his views with a number of stinging criticisms of British socialism. Orwell was fundamentally a political writer. The Road to Wigan Pier is a demonstration of his political perspective, which he lays out in an informative and evocative way.
Orwell exposed the horrendous living conditions of the working class and the depression that was prevalent in the north of England in these coal mining communities. His analysis of this and his commentaries upon socialism have had a lasting impact on political thought. That influence is still here and it isn’t going away.
7. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)
Man’s Search for Meaning, or, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (its full English title) is a book by the Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl.
Split into two parts, Frankl first details his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In the second part, he writes about his theory of logotherapy and how to find meaning in life.
This is a remarkable book as it combines the first-hand ordeal of life in a Nazi-concentration camp and using that to form a psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in life.
Life in concentration camps was humanity at its lowest ebb, but Frankl believed life could still be given meaning. The book goes into detail about how to find this meaning even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
The book has been incredibly influential in modern culture and has sold millions of copies in multiple languages. Frankl’s own experience in such a painful, senseless, and harrowing situation but still with the capacity to uncover meaning in life is fundamentally a hopeful message. There is reason to carry on even in the darkest of times.
8. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank (1947)
A Dutch Jewish family hid in a secret annex between 1942-1944 to avoid capture in the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands in WW2.
Anne, a teenager at the time, chronicled her and her family’s experience during this period. The Diary of a Young Girl, also know as The Diary of Anne Frank, was published in 1947 – two years after Anne’s death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The book is a classic piece of war literature and is unique in its personalised account of the holocaust from someone so young. We get an insight into the day to day life within the annex, the tensions between family members in the close quarters that they were confined in, and Anne’s honest perspective on her own life and thoughts.
Anne details in the book that she believed people are fundamentally good even in spite of the current circumstances. This moving diary is an inspirational account that provided hope in a world recovering from devastating conflict.
An innocent, youthful, and hopeful perspective on such a disturbing period of human history has made The Diary of a Young Girl an enduring and lasting piece of literature.
9. The Gulag Archipelago – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian philosopher, historian, and novelist. He was an outspoken force against the Soviet Union and helped to expose the atrocities of the forced labour camp systems of the Soviet regime through his writings. The Gulag Archipelago is a book about Solzhenitsyn’s eight years in these enforced prison camps.
The book is a personal account of Solzhenitsyn’s experience in the gulags, other prisoners’ lives in the camps, and historical documentation of the system through various sources.
The combination of a literary and historical account gave the book formidable strength in criticising the Soviet Union’s methods across the country.
The significance of this work is immense. It is a carefully crafted and devastating exposition of the regime’s violent and lethal subjugation of its citizens. It brought awareness of this to people all over the world as the true nature of totalitarian regimes began to manifest in common knowledge.
The Gulag Archipelago is widely considered to be a contributing factor to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union towards the end of the 20th century – its power is plain to see.
10. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking (1988)
The last of our list of must-read non-fiction books comes from one of the most well-known scientists of the last generation: Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of Time was extremely popular upon release and sold more than 10 million copies.
The book covers many areas of physics, including the Big Bang, black holes, particle physics, astrophysics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. So, how does such a book, which on the surface would seem to have such dense subject matter, become so popular?
The precise goal of Hawking and his publisher was to put together an informative, engaging, and accurate scientific book that was accessible to the general readership. Clearly, this was a success as the book became a bestseller.
Hawking also talks of scientists’ search for a unifying theory that would explain the nature of the universe and everything in it in an understandable and comprehensible manner.
The great achievement of this book is its accessibility and the continued capacity to make readers aware of the scientific pursuit to find an encompassing, unifying theory of the universe.
We have been trying to answer the big questions of the nature of our world, our existence, and why we are here throughout human history. Stephen Hawking involves us in this quest like never before.
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