12 Books that Changed the World

By Melvyn Bragg

Over the years there have been many lists made of Very Important Books that Everyone Really Ought to Read. Melvyn Bragg’s 12 Books that Changed the World is different from most of these, and different in significant ways. First and foremost, his dozen selections are not all “books” (and he admits to “elasticating the strict meaning of the word ‘book'”) that he actually expects anyone will read. In addition to the complexity of its ideas, Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin. Magna Carta, which stretches the elastic definition of book to its limit, is a text Bragg can’t even bring himself to quote from. The Rule Book of Association Football is a reference guide. Arkwright’s three-page patent specification for a spinning machine is . . . well, just what it is.

If most of these books are not now, if they ever were, books to be read (even Shakespeare was meant to be performed), then just what are they? What they have in common, in Bragg’s estimation, is “that they changed the world to that in which we now live”:

these British voices began, all of them, with the quiet strokes of a quill or a pen and were formed in seclusion to be sent out into the world, where a fuse was lit. There then followed a conceptual chain reaction, sometimes of awesome proportions, which changed the way all of lead and experience our lives.

Yes, these voices are all British. That is one of Bragg’s self-imposed limitations. As for the forming in seclusion, we may have our doubts. Did Shakespeare write in seclusion? We don’t know. But we do know The Rule Book of Association Football wasn’t. As befits a popular overview of the subject (this book is actually the companion to a television series), Bragg throws in a fair bit of stuff like this because, I suspect, it sounds good.

Then there is the lighting of the fuse. Bragg sees these books as standing at the beginning of a “conceptual chain reaction,” the intellectual sparks that started the fire.

Only that’s not really true either. While including much that is undeniably the contribution of individual genius, there is more here that the world shaped than shaped the world. One suspects that 12 Representative Monuments in the History of Ideas just wouldn’t have been as catchy a title.

Indeed, in some cases there is no individual author, much less individual genius behind the words. Magna Carta and the football rule book were both committee work. The spinning machine patent was something more prepared than written. But more than this, the ideas themselves – and remember these twelve books have been selected more for the ideas they contain than the expression of those ideas – were not spontaneously generated “in seclusion,” out of nothing. They were all in the air, ideas whose time had come. Came the time, came the book. William Wilberforce was a great champion of abolition, but he was hardly its inventor. Nor did Darwin entirely discover evolution, Newton the calculus, Wollstonecraft feminism, or Smith market capitalism. The books these people wrote did help to light the fuse of change, but that fuse had already been set in most cases, and eventually it was going to be lit by someone.

This isn’t too disparage these books as seminal, or at least representative, works. But it does help to make clear a distinction between the importance of ideas and the importance of their expression. Of the twelve books discussed here only two, I believe, have any continuing importance as books. The others have either been surpassed in terms of their knowledge or fully absorbed into the culture’s intellectual bloodstream to the extent that their origin is of little interest to anyone. As I began by pointing out, no one (outside of a university class) could be expected to read any of these texts today. With the two exceptions being the King James Bible and Shakespeare.

The reason these two books are still read today is that they don’t stand for a set of propositions or ideas that, once understood, makes their expression irrelevant. This isn’t to say that Bragg was wrong to substitute old textbooks on electricity for classic works of literature. By his own criteria his choices were correct. And, in any event, if you want a list of Very Important Novels there are already plenty of guides on hand, like the dismally-titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (a book published at the same time as Bragg’s, and limited exclusively to fiction). What I do object to about Bragg’s list is the way he throws everything into the same pot, a tactic which does damage to any reasonable concept of artistic, or expressive, genius. In defending the inclusion of scientists and inventors he takes the view that their work is every bit as creative and original as that of any artist. Fair enough. But their genius is not the same. The language of mathematics, of “proofs” is different than that of art. But Bragg is forced to argue against such a common-sense observation:

Are “proofs” below the salt? It smacks a little of intellectual snobbery. It smacks even more of a mistaken understanding of an act of creativity. Cézanne could have explained his intentions and methods in discovering Mont St-Victoire during the course of his making seventy paintings of it. Shakespeare could have given reasons for the order and selection of words he used, the juxtaposition of phrases. To explain how you arrive at your conclusions is not a bar to being called a genius: if anything it is cause for additional admiration.

So much for inspiration. So much for the unconscious. So much for the sense so many artists have testified to of a force working through them. A work of artistic genius, on this reading, is as much an intellectual machine as the calculus. Of course this is nonsense. There are different languages at work, and different methods of employing them. Even Bragg’s examples are doubtful. Could Cézanne or Shakespeare really have explained or given reasons for their work? And would such explanations have been worth anything? Poe’s analysis of how he scientifically constructed his poems, or Eisenstein’s after-the-fact explanation of the theory of montage, are only interesting fictions. No one believes either artist had any such thing in mind during the act of creation. An artist has been defined as someone who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. If they did, they’d be a craftsman, which is something different. That’s not snobbery, but an acknowledgement that there’s a difference between writing a poem or making a painting and trying to come up with an explanation for how the world works, or establishing the rules for soccer.

This is, of course, a coffee-table book that isn’t interested in arguing points like these. Even as a television companion it seems a little glib and superficial. Most of the critical analysis is borrowed. Stock images of merry-go-rounds (“Newton’s Laws of Motion revealed that to any action there is always an opposite and equal motion”) and the Manhattan skyline at night (“To light Manhattan at night power stations still use the same principles employed by Faraday’s first electric generator in 1831”) are a waste of colour plates. The text never comes to life with the same intellectual verve and strength of insight that you get from masters of the companion genre (a genealogy we might date back to Kenneth Clark, leading up to names like Simon Schama and Robert Hughes).

12 Books that Changed the World does provide an easy introduction to the history of some important ideas, but it is also an unnecessary book, about a number of books that are themselves no longer essential.

Review first published online May 31, 2006.


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