Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book Review: 12 Books That Changed The World

I'm reading a really interesting book at the moment. Note the present participle: I haven't finished it yet, so regard this as an interim review -- I'll let you know if I change my mind once I've read to the end.

"12 Books That Changed The World" starts from the premise that words, writing, can be just as powerful as the bomb or the bullet when it comes to causing cataclysmic change -- perhaps even more so. Books may be less immediately dramatic, but their effects, like ripples in the pond of time, can spread far and wide.

Unlike some popular, or should I say populist, books, this is not a one trick pony. What do I mean by that? Well, despite all the hype and the idol-worship, I can think of at least three books that consists of basically one idea repeated 50 times: The World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman; Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell; and The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson.

Now, you could, of course, argue that "12 Books..." falls into the same trap, except that the single idea is repeated only 12 times. And you would be correct, looked at from one point of view. However, because the subject matter is so eclectic, the examples feel different -- very different.

So, what are the great works that are covered by the book? The selection -- and it is a selection: the author is at pains to tell us that he doesn't regard this as a list of the 12 books that changed the world -- may surprise you. In fact, the title would almost have been more accurate had it been "12 ideas that changed the world", but even that would not have been quite right. The books in question are:

  • Principia Mathematica -- Isaac Newton
  • Married Love -- Marie Stopes
  • Magna Carta -- English Ruling Classes
  • The Rule Book of Association Football -- ex-public schoolboys
  • On the Origin of Species -- Charles Darwin
  • On the Abolition of the Slave Trade -- William Wilberforce
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women -- Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Experimental Researches on Electricity -- Michael Faraday
  • Patnt Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine -- Richard Arkwright
  • The King James Bible -- William Tyndale et al
  • An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations -- Adam Smith
  • The First Folio -- William Shakespeare.

As you would expect from Melvyn Bragg, if you have ever watched his TV series, the book is intellectually stimulating, exciting even, yet curiously understated. To take just one example: I am not a football fan myself and, apart from accidentally watching exciting games now and again, can pretty much take or leave it. Yet it never occurred to me that before the rule book was written, there were no rules. Obvious, really, once someone has pointed it out. And who would have thought that failure to agree on the inclusion of one or two rules would lead to the resignation of one of the committee members, or that the basic set of rules was written down one evening in a pub? And were you aware, as I was not, that the term "soccer" derives from "Association", as in Football Association, or that Rugby was, originally, called football, but had a different set of rules?

So far, what I've gained from the book is not merely a collection of facts such as these, but yet more proof of the power of the human spirit, and the bravery of particular individuals when they dared to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day.

There is included in the book a quote from Sir Isaac Newton which I love, because it reflects the fascination I feel at the fact that all the stuff we use now and take for granted relies on laws and energies that were always present, but undiscovered. I often wonder to myself what natural "raw materials" people in 50, 200 or 1000 years' time will be using of which we presently have no knowledge. He said:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all unknown before me."

If you love good writing and great ideas, treat yourself: buy this book.

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