Melvyn Bragg’s 12 Books that Changed the World is a book about books. Specifically, it is a book about British books that the author feels leave a lasting legacy. The works he includes are:
- Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton
- Married Love by Marie Stopes
- Magna Carta by Members of the English Ruling Classes
- The Rule Book of Association Football by A Group of Former English Public School Men
- On the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
- On the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in Parliament
- A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
- Experimental Researches on Electricity by Michael Faraday
- Patent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine by Richard Arkwright
- The King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the King
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
- The First Folio by William Shakespeare
At first blush, Bragg’s book tells the story of the impact of the written word. To be sure, each of these book has left a legacy, some more recognizable than others. But as I was reading, I noticed him weaving a subtler narrative. Bragg’s commentary on these books speaks to his secular humanist convictions. The books he picked are important because of what they say about humankind’s ability to order and prosper itself.
Bragg doesn’t avoid the role of religion in the lives of these authors altogether. But he does seem to downplay the influence of any faith convictions, or else mitigate them with other influential philosophies and ideas. In describing the role of Wilberforce’s faith in his campaign to end the British slave trade Bragg writes, ‘He believed in the essential goodness of humanity, fed by Christianity and by the new creed of Natural Innocence in the works of Rosseau and others. He was also carried forward by the Enlightenment mission to obliterate ancient superstitions of guilt-saturated mankind and replace them with all the possibilities of reasoned optimism’ (166).
His exploration of the King James Bible focuses more on the power of King James, the poetic beauty of the translation, and its function as the authority at the ‘centre of the Christian state’ (283) than it does to the content of the book itself. Is that really why it changed the world? Perhaps. But I can’t help but wonder if Bragg doesn’t downplay the convictions the book engenders in its devotees in order to fit it with the rest of the books on his list, which describe the triumph of secular humanism and the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals.
Regardless, Bragg has taken on an interesting project. Books have the power to reverberate the ideas they contain in a way that is unmatched. Not all books are great. But those that are great last for ages. What might your list look like? What books do you think changed the world?