25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years

If you don't know the nerdy culture magazine Mental Floss, buy a copy of their March/April issue. The lead story, by Rosemary Ahern, is called "The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years." It's everything you want in a list of books: quirky, daring, provocative and sometimes outrageous. Mental Floss.jpeg

Paulo Coelho's New Agey novel "The Alchemist"? Really? But hang on: Ahern points out that "The Alchemist" has sold more than 65 million copies because this Brazilian author, with "his ingenious skill for marketing, invented a new way to sell books." In 1999, Coelho had the then-radical idea of posting his book for free on-line. The rest is publishing history.

Her other choices include "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking," by Allen Carr, which motivated 25 million people to kick the deadly habit; Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," which helped convince Congress to raise the minimum wage in 2008; and Temple Grandin's "Thinking in Pictures," which inspired people with autism, clued the rest of us in, and, as a side note, transformed the beef industry.

Some of these choices seem wholly unpersuasive: I can't see how Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is one of the 25 -- or even 250 -- most influential books of the last 25 years. Nor Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life."

But everybody will enjoy arguing with this list, which is really a nicely illustrated 17-page collection of mini-essays. Although Ahern's choices are subjective, they're based on two months of full-time research: lives saved, laws altered, abuses exposed.

Speaking with me from her home in New York, Ahern said with a laugh that the Mental Floss editors balked at her first draft of the list. "They said, 'Your choices are not influential in the real world.' I was thinking best books, more than which books were influential on the culture." As they continued working together, their criteria gradually became more refined. They didn't just want "bestsellers or a recap of trends in publishing history."

Inevitably, there were books Ahern couldn't include no matter how hard she tried. "We all loved Philip Roth and wanted to put 'The Plot Against America' on the list, and I had worked up a description, but somehow it just didn't come to together." Janet Malcolm ("The Journalist and the Murderer"), Mary McCarthy and Raymond Carver came close too, but no cigar. (Particularly after Allen Carr's book....)

What titles did they miss? Which ones did they overrate? Sound off.

By Ron Charles |  March 5, 2009; 5:00 AM ET Ron Charles
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To be pedantic right out of the gate, the cover says "powerful" which results in a different list than "influential"; the actual article is about "influential" books. I would say "The Road" is powerful, but not necessarily influential.

"Influential books" of the last 25 years... hmmm

The Audacity of Hope and/or Dreams of my Father
The Harry Potter series
Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II
The God Delusion and/or God is not Great
Woodward's books on Bush
9/11 Commission Report
Fast Food Nation

Posted by: engelmann | March 5, 2009 11:54 AM

Thanks so much for the magazine recommendation. I will definitely check out their list.

Posted by: sharon17 | March 5, 2009 3:22 PM

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