The ten most significant books of the second millennium
Along with thoughts on some "also rans."
Notes on our selection criteria follow the list.
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.
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
King James Version,
New International Version,
Revised Standard Version.
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
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
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