12 (British) Books that Changed the (Secular Humanist) World

April 18, 2012 — 4 Comments


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?


Anderson Campbell


  • MIchael Hearn

    Andy, the vast majority of these books, I must admit I have not read. It is interesting the reasons he pick these books as you pointed out in your post. Perhaps the only one, in my ignorance, that I would agree with is the Bible. Regardless, one of the books that changed my life was a fiction book written by a lady named Hannah Hubbard. the book was entitled, Hinds Feet in High Place. Although no one would consider this book the top 1000 much less the top 12 books that changed the world. I read this book at the exact right time in my life. It prepared me for a trial I would soon face, that actually changed my world forever. #dminlgp

  • Rodger McEachern

    Andy – sorry maybe I am feeling grumpy but I don’t see it…that is, ‘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.’ While, okay the latter you’re right…the former I’m not so certain…the reality is regardless of Bragg’s own philosophical orientation few of the books he wrote about were authored by Christians and of those that were their value is not in the promotion of faith or some religious idea [other than the KJV, yet even it has a broader impact upon western culture than its Christian sphere…it wasn’t the first nor necessarily best translation of the Scriptures], but in a much broader sphere of human flourishing…#dminlgp

  • Michael Ratliff

    .Andy, I always struggle with the sacred/secular dichotomy. It is a human construction, and as such, seems to fit the definition of secularism as well as much of what gets lumped in the categories. I was actually surprised that a work obviously not intentionally religious in focus did include religious references where they were apropos to the literature or author. I especially appreciated a quote from Darwin I had never seen/heard before: :”‘There is a grandeur in this view of life,’ he writes, ‘with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.'”Irregardless of your view of creation or your thinking concerning Darwin’s work, this is an elegant statement about “the Creator” being the source of all creation. It is also an example of Bragg’s inclusion of a perspective that could easily have (and has been) left out. #dminlgp

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks for all your comments. I think I failed at what I was attempting to do with this post. I found the book to be pretty bland and was looking for a ‘hook’ upon which to hang this post. I thought that, perhaps, looking at how these books have shaped a particular worldview might be that hook. Looks like I was unsuccessful! I just get so tired of the “look at how important this idea is… it changed the world forever!” kind of reasoning. Rodger, as always, your criticism is well-placed.