When we think of great events in the history of the world, we tend to think of war, revolution, political upheaval or natural catastrophe. But throughout history there have been moments of vital importance that have taken place not on the battlefield, or in the palaces of power, or even in the violence of nature, but between the pages of a book.
In our digitised age of instant information it is easy to underestimate the power of the printed word. In his fascinating new book accompanying the ITV series, Melvyn Bragg presents a vivid reminder of the book as agent of social, political and personal revolution. Twelve Books that Changed the World presents a rich variety of human endeavour and a great diversity of characters. There are also surprises. Here are famous books by Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare – but we also discover the stories behind some less well-known works, such as Marie Stopes’ Married Love, the original radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – and even the rules to an obscure ball game that became the most popular sport in the world . . .
Usually when there’s a long blurb, I tend to edit it a little, however this is one of the few I thought deserved to be copied verbatim, as it honours some of the most profound collections of words. Words that have gone beyond anything the boundaries that the author’s – imagineers if you will – could have conceived of.
Being the faithful bibliophile that I am, I ignored the accompanying TV series because reading is better. As Bragg notes with Charles Lamb’s point about reading Shakespeare (compared to watching his plays), ‘The argument is that there is so much in it which even the finest actor will have to speak without pause where a pause, perhaps a pause of an hour or so, is what is needed to think through how much the words mean’.
Anyway I enjoy watching Shakespeare as well so it’s all good and this introduction has gone on for far to long, So here we are looking at 12 books, not the 12 books – that is an important distinction – that changed the world. These are books that were gestated in and given as a gift to the world from the British Isles and for that reason can’t be a definitive list, indeed it is Lord Bragg’s own choice and a fine collection at that, the list being:
- Principia Mathematica – Isaac Newton
- Married Love – Marie Stopes
- Magna Carta – Members of the English ruling classes
- The Rule Book of Association Football – Group of former English public school men
- On the Origins of Species – Charles Darwin
- On the Abolition of the Slave Trade – William Wilberforce (speech in parliament immediately printed)
- A Vindication of the Rights of Women – Mary Wollstonecraft
- Experimental Researches on Electricity – Michael Faraday
- Patent Specifications for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine – Richard Arkwright
- The King James Bible – William Tyndale and fifty four scholars appointed by the king
- An enquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
- The First Folio – William Shakespeare
Page one of the introduction gives us the inalienable truth ‘for those of us who love to read, the idea that a book can have an influence is not news’ and it’s this concept of the power of words, that runs through the book. Create all the technology you want but it’s the humble book that has the power to tear apart ideas and societies and remake them into something remarkable – and sometimes not, to be fair.
Scattered throughout the tome are some nice recreations of the original frontispieces as well as illustrations that give you a glimpse into how the book’s content would have looked. Although some of these books deal with technical subjects that aren’t particularly reader friendly to the lay person, the histories behind them and the applications they have given to the human race are fascinating. I should belatedly point out that some of these books depending on your given value of the word book. Nonetheless the well researched narratives of the author and the times they lived in give a succinct overview for further reading.
Each part is separate allowing you to tackle the book over a long period with some well-timed delving if you wish. I read it straight through as is my way, I found each part focussed on a different time and/or aspect of society from leisure to faith and politics to morality. it wasn’t hard to read straight through this one with our knowledge of how the seismic changes are still turning out.
This acknowledgement of the huge historical significance of each book is never overplayed, although perhaps slightly romanticised. That’s not to take anything away from the message that these were some of the most effective driving catalysts for innovation the world over, that history has recorded. Each one had the capacity to become explosive and that detonation of an idea is still rippling through our daily lives today
I love books that celebrate books, it’s great to learn more about concepts and real people whom I have heard of but not necessarily fully explored to this point. Looking at the list, for some the odd chapter could sound a little dull but for someone like me I find that inconceivable and it is worth reading every chapter just to see how the simplest of things we take for granted can come from the writing of a now immortal book.