In previous posts, I've provided the business books that every manager should read, the business books that every person should read before turning 30, and the books that billionaires don't want you to read.
This post contains the ten business books that literally changed the world:
The Wealth of Nations (1776)
By creating the modern discipline of economics, Adam Smith redefined business (or commerce as it was more commonly called at the time) and the subsequent accumulation of wealth as subject to natural laws rather than a reflection of divine will. By reframing economic activity as essentially amoral, Smith thus broke with over 1,700 years of Christian tradition.
Fun factoid: Contrary to popular belief, Adam Smith was not a proponent of free trade. Instead, he saw government regulation as a check upon the ability of businesses to form cartels and monopolies.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (1841)
While Smith postulated that economic activity was theoretically subject to reason, Charles MacKay proved that in practice it's just as frequently driven by emotion and illogic. Mackay's description of the crash in stock in the South Seas company coined the term "bubble" and his description of Tulip Mania remains the archetypal example of unsustainable economic growth.
Fun Factiod: one of the fads MacKay describes in his book is the term "flare up" a buzzword still used today to describe an unexpected but possibly dangerous event.
12 Years a Slave (1853)
In addition to being a fascinating memoir, this was an expose of the business of slavery, an industry that at the time comprised about half of the US economy. Just as people today pretend that sweatshops in Walmart's supply chain consist of happy workers glad to have a job, people back then pretended that slaves were well-treated and happy to be enslaved. Solomon Northup's bestseller put the lie to the myth.
Sad Factoid: The author, who disappeared suddenly after a book tour, may have been kidnapped a second time and again sold into slavery.
On the Origin of Species (1859)
While not typically seen as a business book, after its publication Darwin's theory of natural selection and evolution migrated immediately from biology into economic theory. The concept of Social Darwinism was quickly applied to business and management theory in order to justify the horrors of child labor and (later) to provide a legal framework for anti-monopoly legislation.
Fun Factoid: Aware that his ideas were a direct assault on religious fundamentalism, Darwin shied away from including human beings in his theory of evolution.
How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
Dale Carnegie's perennial bestseller created both a code of behavior for businesspeople and provided step-by-step recipes for forging strong business relationships. The book also launched the self-help publishing industry, which today consists of well over a million books, not to mention hundreds of millions articles, tapes, videos, podcasts and courses.
Fun Factoid: The original edition of HtWFaIP contained advice for wives that included "don't nag" and "read a good book on the sexual side of marriage."
The Power of Positive Thinking (1952)
Where Carnegie's approach to self-help focused on how to behave outwardly towards others, Norman Vincent Peale's book presented an alternative approach--that your success in business depends upon the quality of your internal thought processes. It's fair to say every self-help book ever published is essentially a rewrite of either Carnegie, Peale or both.
Fun Factoid: Norman Vincent Peale lived to be 95, a fact that he attributed to positive thinking.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
In this groundbreaking book, Marshall McLuhan redefined media not as a carrier of information but as its own agent of change. His thinking about the relationships between content and its delivery quickly permeated the worlds of marketing and business, influencing and leading to the creation of the Mad Men-style of advertising agencies. Today no article is written about the impact of the Internet that does not draw heavily upon MuLuhan.
Fun Factoid: In a "meta" commentary on his own ideas about the impact of the media on culture, MuLuhan made a cameo appearance in the Oscar-winning film, Annie Hall:
Future Shock (1970)
Prior to Future Shock, Americans saw technology as ushering in an era of pleasurable leisure. Alvin Toffler pointed out that the rapid advance of technology was actually creating stress, disorientation and "information overload" (a term that he coined.) Toffler's book has influenced three generations of critics of the business world's over-reliance on technology.
Fun Factoid: Future Shock launched a new job category "Futurist" that for a couple of decades held a certain cache among management consultant types. Today, futurists are few and far between.
Solution Selling (1983)
Prior to Bosworth's classic, every sales book and sales course treated selling as a form of persuasion and manipulation. Back then, selling was considered something that a salesperson did TO a customer. Solution Selling redefined selling as something that a salesperson did FOR a customer. The book redefined selling as a process of asking the customer questions and satisfying customer needs based on those answers. Every sales book published since then is a riff on this basic idea.
Fun factoid (and Full Disclosure): When I did some ghostwriting for Mike Bosworth a few years back, he admitted that "solution selling doesn't really work all that well." This was not because the ideas weren't valid but because few salespeople had the skill to correctly implement them.
Reengineering the Corporation (1993)
Prior to the publication of this book, corporations were expected to show loyalty to their employees. Layoffs were an admission of management failure and many firms, notably IBM, promised lifetime employment. This book explained that, no, firing people and eliminating jobs is a wise and noble act, and that CEOs who decimate their companies deserve great rewards for their "bravery." Sad to say, the business world has glommed onto this load of self-serving codswallop, to nobody's benefit (except the .1%, of course).
Fun factoid: The majority of the firms this book held up as exemplars were bankrupt or out of business within 20 years of its publication.