Ten Books that Changed Our World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

Ten Books that Changed Our World

Julie, or the New Eloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his own lifetime, Rousseau was best known not for his philosophical tracts but for this lusty 1761 novel-set in the wilds of the Alps-that helped to alter Western notions about the outdoors. As he wrote, "it is on the summits of mountains, in the depths of forests, on deserted islands that nature displays its most affecting charms." Penn State University Press, $15.95.

The Natural History of Selborne, by Gilbert White. An obscure rural cleric's observations on "natural curiosities"-such as the sex drive of his garden tortoise, Timothy--hardly seem like the stuff of a scientific masterpiece. But this quirky and whimsical 1789 book went on to become one of the best-loved works in the English language, influencing everyone from Charles Darwin to John Muir. Century Press, $19.98.

Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau. By all indications, the guy was a lifelong virgin--yet he is still teaching the rest of us about real sensuality. Thoreau's marvelous 1854 account of a lone, lush life on Walden Pond remains the standard text for those wanting to establish a day-to-day intimacy with nature. Signet Classic, $4.95.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin. Published in 1859, Origin set off such a huge controversy that its first edition reportedly sold out in one day. The furor has been raging ever since. But despite the resurgence of the religious right, Darwin's thinking remains more influential than ever. Grammercy Press, $12.98.

Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, by George Perkins Marsh. In 1864, when most of America viewed nature as a big all-you-can-eat buffet, this prophetic work warned of the dangers of clear-cutting, soil erosion, and water pollution. Now largely forgotten, Man and Nature has had a large impact, helping to establish New York's Adirondack Park and other protected public lands. Harvard University Press, $17.50.

Scouting for Boys, by Robert Baden-Powell. Published in 1908, the same year in which its author founded the Boy Scouts, this strange little book may have sold more copies than any book but the Bible. Along with Ernest Thompson Seton's Boy Scout Handbook, published in 1910, Scouting for Boys taught generations of youngsters to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly...and, in context, green. Stevens Publishing, $24.95.

A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. This 1934 classic-which, in its various versions, has now sold more than 7.5 million copies-helped convince both professional ornithologists and amateur birders that it was possible to identify and study birds without shooting them first. Simple as it sounds, it gave a huge boost to the cause of conservation. Houghton Mifflin, $15.95.

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. Leopold's impassioned call for "love, respect and admiration for land" was not widely read in the years immediately after its publication in 1949. But it became a bible for ecologists of the sixties, and its influence grows every time environmentalists need a regrounding in basic eco-ethics. Oxford University Press, $9.95.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Carson's 1962 broadside against chemical insecticides led directly to the banning of DDT and indirectly to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and a bevy of grassroots environmental organizations. Houghton Mifflin, $10.95.

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. The publication of Abbey's first book of essays in 1968 gave environmentalists a new and potent means of expression: rage. To this day, its uppity, uncompromising agenda--"I'd rather kill a man than a snake"--remains a key inspiration to the wilderness-preservation struggle. Simon & Schuster, $11.

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