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The ten most significant books of the second millennium

Along with thoughts on some "also rans."

Notes on our selection criteria follow the list.

Our choices:

1. Canterbury Tales -- Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece, written mostly after 1387 and unfinished at the time of his death in 1400. Still being read for pleasure and in schools, even performed from time to time on stage. This is considered to be one of the most brilliant works in all literature. Alternatives considered for this position were Beowulf, but that was the wrong millennium and Song of Roland written about 1100, and a close contender. English tipped the scales.

2. Henry VI, Part 2 -- William Shakespeare's first published play (1590). Considered to be the greatest playwright that ever lived, there was no question that something from Shakespeare had to be on this list. It is difficult (no - impossible) to pick one play as the best. Hamlet and Macbeth got the most votes and started some some good discussions. As a result, we selected what is generally considered to be the first play he wrote. Although again there is some discussion as to whether Part 1 or Part 2 was written first, but Part 2 seems to be the general consensus.

3. Principia Mathematica -- Sir Isaac Newton, published in 1687 but based on research done primarily between 1664-1666. This may be the greatest milestone in the history of science.

4. The Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies -- Nicholas Copernicus, published in 1543. The foundation of modern astronomy. The work of Copernicus began a series of discoveries in the fundamentals of science that continued through Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Johannes Kepler and finally Newton which changed the entire perception of our place in the universe. Before Copernicus every thought was that we were the center of the universe. Newton said, "If I have accomplished anything, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants," Copernicus was the first of these giants.

5. Gutenberg Bible -- Published by Johann Gutenberg in 1455. The Gutenberg Bible was the first time that a book was printed using movable type. The Bible that he printed was in the traditional Latin, using a type face that replicated the best hand writing of the time. The original Bible was written before the millennium so can't be included in this list. But with Gutenberg, for the first time the Bible could be made available to a large audience as it did not need to be hand copied. Other Bibles that became available during the millennium include:
Searchable Version,
Douay-Rheims-Challoner Version,
King James Version,
New International Version,
Revised Standard Version.

Likewise, the Koran or Qur'an (originally compiled 651/2) was translated into English during this millennium. While this is also an extremely important book, it did not have the distinction of being the first book printed using movable type.

6. Germ Theory and Its Applications to Medicine and Surgery and Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery -- These two books by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister form the foundation of modern medicine. Before these books, a hospital was a very unhealthy place. These books led to pasteurization of liquids such as milk, wine and beer, and to the development of antibiotics.

7. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory -- Albert Einstein's masterpieces that everyone knows about, probably can even quote the famous e=mc2 equation. But which few have really read. And perhaps even fewer can understand. This was the first major change to Sir Isaac Newton's view of the universe (see the Principia Mathematica) and occurred more than two hundred years later. In 1999 a sensitive measurement proved for the first time yet another tenet of Einstein's theory: that gravitational energy has mass and is accelerated by gravity, just as are the other types of energy.

8. Interpretation of Dreams -- Sigmund Freud, published in 1900, translated into English 1913. Trained as a doctor, Freud soon began investigating the use of hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria. This marked the beginnings of psychoanalysis as we know it today. With further refinement into free association which allows emotionally charged material that the individual had repressed in his unconscious to emerge to conscious recognition.

9. The Origin of Species -- Charles Darwin, published in 1859. The seminal book that started the science of evolution as we know it. Independently, A. R. Wallace worked out a theory similar to Darwin's. Both men were exceptionally modest; they first published summaries of their ideas simultaneously. Wallace's work described on Wallace Home Page presented further observations based on studies made in Brazil. In The Descent of Man Darwin further carried his theories into how the human race evolved.

10. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- Edward Gibbon, 1776-88 Easily the best known history book of the millennium. This monumental work is still one of the most-read historical works of modern times.

The selection criteria we tried to follow:

1. Age counts. Regardless of its value, the fact that the ideas are still being followed or that the book is still available several hundred years later counts. Also, to fit our sense of fairness, we don't want to select just the most significant books of the 1900's, we want to cover as many of the years of the millennium as possible.

2. Multiple Fields. This is not intended to be a list of the most significant books in literature or on science, so multiple fields of study made us eliminate some otherwise significant titles.

3. English Centric. This site is in English as are the books selected -- except where noted. We are not fit to select the most significant books in Chinese, Arabic or other languages.

4. Availability. For many of the books listed, everyone knows about it, but no one has read it. Here is an ideal illustration of power of the web. Here are the original sources and they are available free on the web. Simply clicking on the title will take you to the book display page, and from there you can download the book. We also considered whether the books were still available in printed form. If something this old is still popular enough to keep it in print, it is important.

© Books-On-Line, January 9, 2000