Put down that trashy romance novel. Stick a bookmark in that sci-fi page-turner. Take a break from your normal literature, and check out some of these books that have influenced our lives. There are plenty of books out there that make us think about life in a new way or feel something we haven’t felt before, but some books have the power to overhaul an entire industry. Industry practices in the U.S. would be very different were it not for the influence of these great reads.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
When Upton Sinclair started writing this novel in the early 1900s, he meant for it to expose the horrible working and living conditions of immigrants in the U.S. What most alarmed American readers, however, was the book’s description of corruption in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair, a journalist, went undercover for seven weeks in the meatpacking factories in Chicago where he discovered that everyone who had power in the stockyards expected bribes and blacklisting was just an everyday part of business. Readers were horrified by sections of the novel involving food safety, including descriptions of workers falling into tanks and being ground into lard. Public outcry led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, as well as the creation of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
There’s no denying that industry across America has or at least has attempted to become greener and greener for the past several decades. Now you can’t go a week without hearing some company brag about their environmentally friendly business improvements and green practices. You can thank Rachel Carson, at least in part, for this change in culture. Her novel Silent Spring, published in 1962, discusses the nasty environmental side effects of pesticides. The harmful effects on birds especially were at the center of the criticism of the chemical industry. Carson’s claims were investigated by President John F. Kennedy’s administration, and led to stricter regulations for chemical pesticides and possibly the environmental movement we know today.
Auto-makers in today’s society are constantly trying to one-up the competition when it comes to safety features, but not long ago, basic seatbelts weren’t even standard in cars. Ralph Nader helped change that. In 1965, he published Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he pointed out the deficiencies in safety standards in the automobile industry and auto-makers’ unwillingness to invest in safety equipment for their cars. The reaction to the book resulted in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, and has influenced recent debates over safety devices such as airbags and crash tests.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
If you’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, go pick up a copy right now. This book has shaped American life so greatly that you’re missing a chunk of our history if you haven’t read it. This novel by schoolteacher Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Its story revolves around Uncle Tom, a fictional slave based on truths Stowe had gathered from freed or escaped slaves in the North. The book was so widely read that it contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War, which ended the slave trade and forever affected the labor practices of the country’s agricultural and cotton industries.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
In 1963 when The Feminine Mystique was published, it was common for most women to grow up to be housewives and stay-at-home moms, even if they weren’t happy with that position. This book launched the feminist movement starting in the 1960s, which saw an unprecedented number of women break into the workplace in various industries during the following decades. Even women who don’t consider themselves feminists have likely benefited from Friedan’s writing, since it pushed women to get more education, better careers, and greater emotional and mental fulfillment. The Feminine Mystique has sold well over 3 million copies. After its publication, Friedan went on to found the National Organization for Women.
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
About 10 years ago, several books and films came out against the fast food industry. One of the first and most influential was Fast Food Nation, which was also made into a film. This book points out several unsavory practices, including where fast foods get their flavor and how animals are treated, and explores the connection between fast food as an American icon and obesity as an American epidemic. Though the fast food industry still has a long way to go, Fast Food Nation raised awareness of its problems and has led the push for healthier options on fast food menus.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
If you’ve ever taken an economics class, you’ve heard of this book written by renowned economist Adam Smith. Published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations lays out the idea that free trade and competition will work in everyone’s interest and benefit a nation’s economy. The principles in this book were influential in the way the U.S. government was formed and how our economy works, an important part of every industry today.
Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly
You have to be really committed to your cause if you are willing to get yourself committed to an insane asylum. Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist trying to prove herself in the late 1800s, perfected looking crazy and then got herself committed to a notoriously awful mad-house so she could report on the true conditions there. She witnessed brutality against the patients, many sane foreign women who had been committed simply because they couldn’t communicate, and unsanitary conditions. Bly’s newspaper came to get her out of the asylum after 10 days and her report and book led to an investigation and reform of the asylum’s practices. Her writing has had a lasting effect on the healthcare industry and how we treat those with psychological problems.