Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species (1859) has been voted the most influential academic book of all time in a recent poll of university professors, librarians, journalists, and just about anybody else they could find to vote.
It’s a good choice, but if you look at the full list, you’ll see that several of the top twenty (The Female Eunuch, 1984, The Republic, The Prince) are not academic books at all, but rather are books that academics took into the university to teach. As they stand, these are the nominees for an intellectual Hugo Award honoring lifetime survival on college campuses.
If your main criterion is that a book be written by an academic (and published by a university press), then other influential books might pop up, like Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades, Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, Basil Wiley’s The Seventeenth-Century Background, or Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.
[Postscript: My original post seems too short, too slight, although I do stand behind its brevity. It’s a commonplace that “academics can’t write,” and there are many examples of such a truism that we can find in the journal articles that get published in every field, every quarter. Most academics are aiming for precision of thought, but they get caught up instead in the jargon of the day, seeking the “deconstructive turn” of Joyce’s Ulysses, or a “nuanced” reading of Dickinson’s poetry. The vocabulary of the college professor can thus become a hindrance to precision and may become instead an esoteric verbal code that the authors will use to seek admission to whatever “Inner Ring” of university life they’d like to break into.
The authors I’ve mentioned in my final paragraph above are authors who were interested in communicating the excitement of their insights to as wide an audience as they could find, and they wrote so well that their books have stood the tests of time and usefulness. Other books and authors I could mention in this regard are Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks (a clear, superb study of the development of Proto-Indo-European languages, a study that has been surpassed by later, better work, work graciously acknowledged by Drews himself); Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy; Robert Nozick, Philosophical Notations; and Guido Majno, M.D., The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World.
As most of you know, C.S. Lewis published many academic books. Two of his best were A Preface to Paradise Lost and The Allegory of Love (mostly about medieval and early Renaissance poetry). There’s not a line in either book that couldn’t be read, understood, or enjoyed by anyone curious about his subjects. The same observation might be made–and here I’m cheating–about Jacob Brownowski’s dazzling book on Western civilization, The Ascent of Man, published not by an academic press but by Little, Brown in Boston.]