20 Moments that Changed History: A Reading List

Posted by Jessica on June 26, 2014
Sometimes a single event can alter the fate of millions. One hundred years ago this week, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, incited a diplomatic catastrophe in Europe. Just one month later, tensions would escalate into the First World War. To commemorate, we've chosen 20 pivotal moments from the last century, some inspiring and some disturbing, and paired each with a top-reviewed novel. If you're eager for more, also check out the links to Goodreads Listopias—book lists compiled by our members—beside each event.

What other moments have changed history? And what are the best books for further reading? Tell us in the comments!

World War I begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
"Hailed as the best war novel ever, and it's easy to see why. World War I is described in such vivid non-glory that you are sucked into the story straight away and stay there for the next 200 pages." —Martine

More reading: 20 Riveting World War I Reads & Books on the Great War

American women get the right to vote, joining the worldwide women's suffrage movement
Sex Wars
by Marge Piercy
"How women lived and tried to fight for their rights in New York City. Some of the fascinating characters include: Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony." —Lauren

More reading: Early Feminists & Women's Suffrage

Penicillin discovered
A Fierce Radiance
by Lauren Belfer
"During World War II the need for this miracle drug became as important as any weapon...this is historical fiction at its best." —Zohar

More reading: Medicine and Literature

Mahatma Gandhi leads the Salt March in India in nonviolent protest of British rule
Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie
"If any novel could even come close to portraying India's vast cultural identity; that novel would be Midnight's Children...Rushdie can definitely conjure magic with his words." —Shayantani

More reading: Books About Gandhi: A Great Soul & Books About the Indian Subcontinental Partition

Russian forces liberate the first Nazi concentration camp at Majdanek in Poland
by Art Spiegelman
"An incredible, transcendent comic story. You can feel the life in each page. All it took to create the most human Holocaust story ever told was to remove the humans altogether." —Aaron

More reading: Holocaust Books & World War II Fiction

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Black Rain
by Masuji Ibuse
"A stunning novel about the aftereffects—physical, social, emotional—of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the lives of those who lived there. Unsentimental and profoundly moving." —Leslie

More reading: Remember Hiroshima & Books About Nuclear Apocalypse

During the "Year of Africa," 17 African nations declare independence from colonial rule
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"It is a story of war, love, ideals, compromise, loyalty, betrayal, and the culture of Africa...dramatic and haunting, a book you will not soon forget." —JoAnn

More reading: African Fiction & Books About Colonialism

FDA approves birth control pills and kicks off the sexual revolution
Diary of a Mad Housewife
by Sue Kaufman
"A book about a woman who has begun to go stir crazy, has anxiety, and wants to explore her sexuality...if you're a woman this is the kind of book that will make you think about your life." —Virginia

More reading: Counter-Culture of the 1960s & Best Feminist Fiction

Martin Luther King, Jr. declares "I have a dream" during the March on Washington
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
by Ernest J. Gaines
"A modern masterpiece on the topics of race and social justice in America, an overarching story of black experience from the Civil War to Civil Rights, seen primarily through the experience of one woman." —Sean

More reading: Civil Rights Reading List & Best Black Historical Fiction

American president John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas
American Tabloid
by James Ellroy
"Playing loose and free with near-historical events and breathing twisted life into near-mythic figures—the Kennedys, Jimmy Hoffa, Castro, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, the Mob, et al—Ellroy takes off on a joy ride of a novel." —Jeff

More reading: Best Books About the Kennedy Family

Apollo 11 lands the first humans on the moon
The Martian
by Andy Weir
"Mark Watney is left behind on Mars when his crew mates believe he is dead...this was an edge of your seat, nail biting, hand wringing, can't turn the pages fast enough book." —Susan

More reading: Astronauts and Space Travelers

"Fathers of the Internet" Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn propose TCP/IP technology, making the Internet we know today possible
by William Gibson
"A mind-bender of a read...it was ahead of its time. It coined the term 'cyberspace,' long before the Internet and other virtual technologies were integrated into everyday life...[and] inspired a generation of technophiles." —K.D.

More reading: Best of Cyberpunk & Essential Computer History

The death of Mao Zedong ushers in a new period in Chinese politics
by Bei Dao
"Bei Dao shows you how living in China during the Cultural Revolution suppressed everyone: intellectuals, artists, thieves...all are bound together by fear, love, and pain." —Fazal

More reading: China's Best Banned Books & China's Cultural Revolution

The Iranian Revolution makes Ayatollah Khomeini the country's Supreme Leader
Censoring an Iranian Love Story
by Shahriar Mandanipour
"A darkly comic and profoundly touching story that weaves an intricate tale of love between the constraints of contemporary Iranian government and the cultural relationships between men and women." —Candice

More reading: Books About Iran

Fall of the Berlin Wall
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
by John le Carré
"There may be good guys and bad guys in the Cold War, but everyone is gray in the dark...read le Carré for a more literary thriller where spies actually act like spies, and believable human beings, and everyone is a little bit dirty." —David

More reading: Books About Berlin & The Former East Germany

Nelson Mandela elected president of South Africa in the first post-Apartheid democratic election
The Heart of Redness
by Zakes Mda
"The parallel story of colonized South Africa of 150 years ago and post-apartheid South Africa...this is a book that you will devour because it's so well written, and yet it will stay with you." —Steph

More reading: Best South African Reads & Nelson Mandela Reading List

The Netherlands passes the world's first bill legalizing same-sex marriage
Between Mom and Jo
by Julie Anne Peters
"[Teen] Nick is the product of Erin and Jo, a lesbian couple...Peters crafts strong characters and creates universal messages of love and family in this beautiful novel." —Reyn

More reading: Best LGBTQIA Literature & Books for Teens with LGBT Parents

9/11 terrorist attacks
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer
"This is a book for anyone who has lost a loved one. This is a book for anyone who has survived a disaster. This is a book for optimists and pessimists and those in-between; in short, for everyone." —Eileen

More reading: 9/11 Related Books

Completion of the Human Genome Project
Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
"Set in a future where genetic engineering rules the world...a deeply philosophical book that raises numerous questions: Is there such a thing as a 'perfect human'?" —Tatiana

More reading: Genetics in Science Fiction & Genetics for Non-Scientists

Beginning of the Arab Spring
The Yacoubian Building
by Alaa Al Aswany
"A tale that is as much about loss of innocence and coming of age in a world marred by corruption and poverty as it is about the forces that fuel the fires of revolution." —Amina

More reading: Best Middle East Fiction & Arab Spring

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Katie (new)

Katie Boyer adding lots of these to my to-read list!

message 2: by Bernadette (new)

Bernadette Really great list! Quickly added several of these to my "To Read" list. Well done :)

message 3: by Ming (new)

Ming finally.... something international/global and diverse

Kiki Rizky Agustina Interesting list, but I think some of them are more about changes in the US' history than the world's in general. :3

message 5: by Annie (new)

Annie Obviously the list can't contain ALL the key points in history (many of these are relative/subjective anyway). I do, however, feel the urge to read many of these. Yet more additions to my ever increasing to-read list! So many books, so little time.......

message 6: by Laurie (new)

Laurie I've only read two of the books on this list. Adding the rest to my to-read list!

message 7: by Zainab (new)

Zainab Rose Great post!

message 8: by Lyndi (new)

Lyndi Lamont Excellent list. So glad you included the pill!

message 9: by Saurabh (new)

Saurabh Hooda Great recommendations, Jessica. Thanks :)

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Thanks for the list, Goodreads. Always enjoy the blog posts, especially one such as this.

message 11: by Golam (last edited Jul 22, 2014 03:36PM) (new)

Golam Àpü You can also visit this website.This is awesome
The Monster Eye

message 12: by Adam (new)

Adam Cherson I suggest also 2008: To The End of the Land by David Grossman

message 13: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Schultz I think we need to include one more milestone or relevant event - the introduction in flight by the Wright Brothers. Gaining acceptance by the public took aviation a considerable amount of time. Airplanes and pilots were considered sideshow acts until the reliability of airlines gained momentum. There are so many books out there that document aviation history but one of the best to gain a perspective on the development of flightis The Winged Gospel America's Romance with Aviation 1900 to 1950 by Joseph J. Corn. I will follow up this comment by reviewing the book.

message 14: by Adam (new)

Adam Cherson Good point. Without the Wright Bros and many others who worked on this invention we may not have had Hiroshima, 9/11, or drones! However, with technologies, especially complex ones like the aeroplane, I always have trouble pinpointing one moment when it all happened. I mean without the wheel or the engine or jet fuel, and on and on.... the flight machines we have today wouldn't have been possible either. Usually these things boil down to one culture trying to prove its superiority to another by saying: hey we invented that!

message 15: by Barbara (last edited Aug 16, 2014 08:54AM) (new)

Barbara Schultz Thanks for your response. I'm not sure that cultures were competing for superiority or a 'first' in the early days of flight development. I believe it was on an individual basis. It began with Lillienthal, then Langely, Curtis, Wrights, and so on all competing to be the first to fly a heavier than air vehicle. Taking it even further, flying faster than the speed of sound is credited to Yeager, not Bell. It seems this might be subject for a social/philosophical discussion. I do think the last fifty years of aerodynamic development has more than a hint of a country's goal of world superiority. It's a shame that America's place in the game has fallen near the bottom. Barbara Schultz

message 16: by Payel (new)

Payel kolpona Coaching Scotland, Leadership Consulting, Coaching Edinburgh, Leadership Training Scotland Leadership and Coaching Consulting for UK.http://www.firsteclipse.co.uk/

message 17: by Dora (new)

Dora Superb recommendations

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