12 Books That Changed The World – Melvyn Bragg

02 Feb

6a00d83451bcff69e200e54f516f1b8833-640wiWhen 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.


Posted by on 02/02/2014 in History, Lists/Ephemera


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31 responses to “12 Books That Changed The World – Melvyn Bragg

  1. victormiguelvelasquez

    02/02/2014 at 17:09

    Reblogged this on victormiguelvelasquez.


  2. Alastair Savage

    02/02/2014 at 20:39

    Didn’t “The Origin of the Crabs” make the final list?


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 18:00

      Darwin was a less controversial choice for origins sadly…maybe next time…


  3. gargoylebruce

    03/02/2014 at 04:07

    Surely we have to add in Fifty Shades of Grey – marking the moment when the Western world collectively mistook crappy internet fan fiction for publish-worthy writing….


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 18:08

      I believe this book came out before that book, I am assured talking to the voices in my head that had the book come out later it would have been in there and a reviewer would predictably refer to it as ‘a spanking good read’.


  4. Cody McCullough

    03/02/2014 at 08:21

    Fantastic list! More books to add to my list.


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 18:20

      Wahey…keep ’em piling up!


  5. readinpleasure

    03/02/2014 at 15:49

    Good list, Ste J. Never read any though (minus the Bible) I know of bullets 1, 3, 5 and 10. 🙂


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 18:22

      Even though some of the books sound a bit dull…and I am amusing some probably are a little on the wearisome side, this book makes them seem exciting. I may give the Principia Mathematica a miss though.


  6. Tom Gething

    03/02/2014 at 17:07

    That’s a fascinating list, and probably a pretty accurate one. I had not heard of this book before and will now look for it. Thanks.


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 17:56

      It’s light enough and doesn’t go to much into the minutiae of the books, so that pace is kept up and that makes each subject pacy, which is what the book needed to be like to succeed one would imagine.


  7. Christina ~

    04/02/2014 at 03:59

    You do always intrigue me with your thought provoking analysis of each book you share with us! A book that celebrates books indeed! You had some truly amazing gems (sentences) scattered throughout this entire review…my favorite was…

    “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.”

    As always, you have enticed me to check this one out as well…such a problem to have…an ever growing TBR list!! hehe xxxxxx


    • Ste J

      05/02/2014 at 17:59

      I’ll keep piling the book pressure on, have no fear…there are hundreds of good books out there, I haven’t got around to…maybe one day I will do ’em all.

      My writing has in my humble opinion benefited from lots of factors, mostly my transatlantic jaunts but also really getting involved with the reading of other blogs…last year was a huge eye opener. xxxxxx


  8. angela

    06/02/2014 at 04:02

    Books like these come in handy if one never actually reads said books…i.e. bits stick in the memory enough that it almost seems one has read which may help in future bookish convos. Your reading diversity is impressive. ~ a


    • Ste J

      06/02/2014 at 18:02

      I have a lot more diversity than I have shown so far, mainly because i get through books faster than I can review them…so many amazing authors, that I haven’t lavished the time on, still the year is young. I may try and convince myself that I have read Arkwright’s Patents just to save me the trouble of attempting it.


  9. thejerseygal®™

    08/02/2014 at 03:20

    Great review. What caught my attention was this “This acknowledgement of the huge historical significance of each book is never overplayed, although perhaps slightly romanticised.” Romanticized as in nostalgic? Being books that changed the world, is that forgivable of the writer?


    • Ste J

      08/02/2014 at 11:42

      It is forgiveable, I do take your point. I just wonder if – although the impact of the books can’t really be overstated – the aura around them is perhaps a little dramatised now. I wonder how many books or documents of import have passed us by which won’t really be understood in terms of impact until much later. The romanticism comes more from how the effects would have come been understood by society as a whole. Perhaps I am being overly picky though…I do that a lot.


      • thejerseygal®™

        08/02/2014 at 17:42

        No, I get you point and agree with you. I do think as time passes, more books and documents could rise to the ranks of importance.


        • Ste J

          09/02/2014 at 17:36

          Time always tells, I wonder if anything within the past say 20 years will come to be seen as defining…


  10. LuAnn

    09/02/2014 at 13:21

    Well, it seems I have some tomes to tackle. Except for the bible and one other “On the Origin of Species”, I have read no others. Must rectify that soon. Thanks SteJ. 🙂


    • Ste J

      09/02/2014 at 17:34

      However many books you read, I will always make sure that you have more to read hehe. I’m either nice or mean like that, depending on your point of view.


  11. renxkyoko

    14/07/2017 at 14:53

    One thing I’m very sure of….. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Dr. Jose Rizal changed the Philippines, literally.


    • Ste J

      14/07/2017 at 15:02

      I’m really looking forward to El Filibusterismo, I can just imagine how incendiary Noli Me Tangere was back in the day. Which reminds me, a review up soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      • renxkyoko

        14/07/2017 at 15:07

        The fact is, El Filibusterismo is more incendiary. The hero in Noli is mild-mannered and forgiving, but injustice changes him……… no spoiler.


        • Ste J

          14/07/2017 at 15:18

          If memory serves, it set 13 years later, I really am looking forward to reading it, although I feel the urge to be back in The Philippines in order to read it.



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