July 2024
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Review: 12 Books that Changed the World, Melvyn Bragg

The written word is a powerful thing, and every once in a while, a book comes along that hits the mood of the times perfectly and influences history.  Because there are very many of these books, Bragg limits his selection to books published by British authors, and includes a single fiction title in his list.  His aim is to present the measurable affects of these books – and while fiction touches us deeply, it’s nearly impossible to gauge reactions to fiction titles in the same way.  His list consists of:

  • Principia Mathematica (1687) by Isaac Newton
  • Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes
  • Magna Carta (1215) by members of the English ruling classes
  • Book of Rules of Association Football (1863) by a group of former English public-school men
  • On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin
  • On the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1789) by William Wilberforce in Parliament, immediately printed in several versions
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Experimental Researches in Electricity (three volumes, 1839, 1844, 1855) by Michael Faraday
  • Patent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine (1769) by Richard Arkwright
  • The King James Bible (1611) by William Tyndale and 54 scholars appointed by the king
  • An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) by Adam Smith
  • The First Folio (1623) by William Shakespeare

While I thought this book was very interesting for what it covered, there was a lot it didn’t cover, and sometimes I didn’t agree with his choices.  For one thing, a couple of the choices aren’t actually books.  One is a patent and one is a speech later made into a pamphlet.  Bragg argues that because they were so influential, they should still count, but I wasn’t sure I agreed with him.  The book is also quite Anglo-focused, but he explains that clearly in the introduction so it’s not really a fault – it’s just something I didn’t consider when initially browsing in the library and picking up the book.

The books are described in much the way they’re ordered and I thought Bragg did a great job of explaining the period of the times and how, in many cases, the book more or less guided public consciousness along the way it was prepared to go.  The same book wouldn’t have had such an effect 50 years earlier or 50 years after – the world might in fact have been an entirely different place by that point.  He doesn’t dig deeply into any of the books, but when he has so many books to get through in so few pages, what’s there is still very interesting and, I thought, makes a good cause for it being there.

The exception, for me, was football.  Personally, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of football.  I have a difficult time understanding why anyone really cares and particularly why fans get so militant about their teams.  My philosophy is, generally, you go ahead and watch it as long as you don’t make me watch it, too, so I was never going to really like that section.  Plus, Bragg explains that football is a game that had been played in some form or another for centuries, and which has continued to evolve since then.  Even if football has an effect on nations, for once I wasn’t convinced that the book itself had actually influenced anything besides rules.  The game would have continued.

Again unsurprisingly, my favorite chapter was the final one on Shakespeare.  It’s pretty clear that Bragg loves literature himself, and I felt Shakespeare was the perfect person to end the book with.  It may be difficult to pinpoint what effect other novels have had on the public consciousness, but it’s easy enough with Shakespeare, and this is one section Bragg excels in.

So, if you’re interested in a very Anglo-centred vision of world-changing books, 12 Books That Changed the World might be a good choice.  But it’s not quite what it says on the cover and I wouldn’t have minded the inclusion of more fiction and a more solid definition of “book”.  It was interesting, but had quite a bit of missed potential.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


6 comments to Review: 12 Books that Changed the World, Melvyn Bragg

  • I think if you’re talking about books you should stick to books. Magna Carta is a cop-out. And nothing by Karl Marx? Didn’t he do all of his major work while living in England?

    Nor the Doomsday Book? Probably as influencial on English history as the Magna Carta was, and it’s an actual book, too.
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  • I am not sure I would like this book, and just from looking at Bragg’s choices, I can’t say I would be really all that thrilled with this one. It does sound as though it has some interesting ideas in it, but a few of the choices you highlight don’t do anything to stir me at all. Great review on this one. I am glad I got the chance to see what this book had to offer through your review!
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  • I love lists like this, so I had to crawl out of my hole and check it out. I’m with you on the football book. Bleh. How exactly does a sports book change anything other than the sports world? I’d be particularly interested in the Wealth of Nations book, though. And, of course, I’m with you on Shakespeare ;-) Everyone knows a little Shakespeare, even if they don’t know to whom the credit goes, and Skakespeare drew a LOT from the Bible, so he hits two of the twelve with Willie :-)

  • What I find “interesting” is that there’s twelve books and only one of them is by a woman. And I also take issue with many of his other choices. The magna carta and the Rules of Football, really? Utterly ridiculous.
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    • Meghan

      Ashamed to say that one didn’t even occur to me! As I’m thinking about it, the list dissatisfies me more and more.

  • No, I don’t think I like his choices and definitely not my type of book.
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