The 20 Most Influential Academic Books of All Time: No Spoilers

kant critique

Image by Let Ideas Com­pete, via Flickr Com­mons

Some­times I’ll meet some­one who men­tions hav­ing writ­ten a book, and who then adds, “… well, an aca­d­e­m­ic book, any­way,” as if that did­n’t real­ly count. True, aca­d­e­m­ic books don’t tend to debut at the heights of the best­seller lists amid all the eat­ing, pray­ing, and lov­ing, but some­times light­ning strikes; some­times the sub­ject of the author’s research hap­pens to align with what the pub­lic believes they need to know. Oth­er times, aca­d­e­m­ic books suc­ceed at a slow­er burn, and it takes read­ers gen­er­a­tions to come around to the insights con­tained in them — a less favor­able roy­al­ty sit­u­a­tion for the long-dead writer, but at least they can take some sat­is­fac­tion in the pos­si­bil­i­ty.

His­to­ry has shown, in any case, that aca­d­e­m­ic books can become influ­en­tial. “After a list of the top 20 aca­d­e­m­ic books was pulled togeth­er by expert aca­d­e­m­ic book­sellers, librar­i­ans and pub­lish­ers to mark the inau­gur­al Aca­d­e­m­ic Book Week,” writes The Guardian’s Ali­son Flood, “the pub­lic was asked to vote on what they believed to be the most influ­en­tial.” The short­list of these most impor­tant aca­d­e­m­ic books of all time runs as fol­lows (and you can read many of them free by fol­low­ing the links from our meta list of Free eBooks):

The top spot went to Dar­win’s On the Ori­gin of Species, which Flood quotes the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow’s Andrew Prescott as call­ing “the supreme demon­stra­tion of why aca­d­e­m­ic books mat­ter,” one that “changed the way we think about every­thing – not only the nat­ur­al world, but reli­gion, his­to­ry and soci­ety. Every researcher, no mat­ter whether they are writ­ing books, cre­at­ing dig­i­tal prod­ucts or pro­duc­ing art­works, aspires to pro­duce some­thing as sig­nif­i­cant in the his­to­ry of thought as Ori­gin of Species.”

Kan­t’s Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son placed a still impres­sive fifth, giv­en its sta­tus, in the words of philoso­pher Roger Scru­ton, as “one of the most dif­fi­cult works of phi­los­o­phy ever writ­ten,” — but one which aims to “show the lim­its of human rea­son­ing, and at the same time to jus­ti­fy the use of our intel­lec­tu­al pow­ers with­in those lim­its. The result­ing vision, of self-con­scious beings enfold­ed with­in a one-sided bound­ary, but always press­ing against it, hun­gry for the inac­ces­si­ble beyond, has haunt­ed me, as it has haunt­ed many oth­ers since Kant first expressed it.”

So you want to write an aca­d­e­m­ic book this influ­en­tial? You may have a tough time doing it delib­er­ate­ly, but it could­n’t hurt to steep your­self in the mate­ri­als we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured relat­ed to the cre­ation of this top twen­ty, includ­ing 16,000 pages of Dar­win’s writ­ing on evo­lu­tion (as well as the man’s per­son­al library), Orwell’s let­ter reveal­ing why he would write 1984, as well as Marx and Kan­t’s rig­or­ous work habits — and Kan­t’s even more rig­or­ous cof­fee habit, though if there exists any 21st-cen­tu­ry aca­d­e­m­ic in need of encour­age­ment to drink more cof­fee, I have yet to meet them.

via The Guardian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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28 Impor­tant Philoso­phers List the Books That Influ­enced Them Most Dur­ing Their Col­lege Days

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Dar­win: A 1993 Film by Peter Green­away

Darwin’s Per­son­al Library Goes Dig­i­tal: 330 Books Online

16,000 Pages of Charles Darwin’s Writ­ing on Evo­lu­tion Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • Stranger in the day says:

    Just curi­ous… What do you define to be an aca­d­e­m­ic book?

  • photue says:

    Một vài cuốn sách tôi muốn đọc lại. Một số cần tìm hiểu. Một số nghe lần đầu qua giới thiệu của các bạn. Thank you Open­cul­ture!

  • Edwin Smeets says:

    Where are all the non-Euro­pean writ­ers ? Or does only the West­ern Hemi­sphere have brains and the rest of the world not ?

  • Alissa Clough says:

    In terms of favorite aca­d­e­m­ic books, I like “Fin de Siecle Vien­na”.

  • Craig Pugh says:

    Col­in, you advance an inter­est­ing the­sis when you grant acad­e­mia pow­ers to col­late, cat­e­go­rize and sup­port supe­ri­or lit­er­ary works, as if acad­e­mia were inter­est­ed in going out on a limb like that! Which it is not. I remem­ber once in grad school a pro­fes­sor said “I like my writ­ers dead.” How con­ve­nient for him: no chance-tak­ing, no zig­gy-zag­ging away from the main col­umn: just wait for time itself to say “So-and-so was good.” Then pro­fes­sors par­rot that lan­guage. Safe­ly. Aca­d­e­mics are not chance-tak­ers — they are plod­ders. To ascribe such men­tal activ­i­ty to them as you did is to give them too much cred­it. An influ­en­tial aca­d­e­m­ic book? No such thing.

  • André Quadros says:

    No, that is not a list of aca­d­e­m­ic books. The “Brief sto­ry of time” is a sci­ence dis­clo­sure or sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal­ism book. 1984, noth­ing to say, it is not an aca­d­e­m­ic book. The Comu­nist Man­i­festo is not a book, and is not close to being an aca­d­e­m­ic work. Shake­speare, nope. Machi­avel­li, nope.

    I think there might be a con­fu­sion here. A book that is aca­d­e­m­ic is not a book that aca­d­e­mics study a lot…

  • Robin says:

    Giv­en Aris­totle’s influ­ence on the church and on sub­se­quent his­to­ry, you’d think his works would be includ­ed. Although his work com­pris­es many “books,” if it works for Shake­speare…

  • Drew Walker says:

    What a strange attempt at some­thing, what­ev­er this is.

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