Which books have helped to create the modern world? Darwin's The Origin of Species, absolutely; Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, surely; Marx's Das Kapital, obviously. You might also chuck in a few key works by Nietzsche, Keynes, Einstein or Wittgenstein. But there is another book that belongs in this élite company. Plenty of otherwise well-informed citizens have never heard of it, yet just about everyone in this country (and quite a few others) has been touched by its long-term effects. The author of that book was the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin; he published his work in 1860, and he gave it the haunting title Unto This Last.
When, in 1906, a bright journalist asked the first generation of Labour MPs which book had most inspired them, Unto This Last emerged as the undisputed chart-topper, with a whopping 17 votes - as opposed to a mere two for poor old Marx's greatest hit. William Beveridge and Clement Attlee, two of the main architects of our Welfare State, both grew from Ruskinian soil: their reforms were a modest echo of Ruskin's recipe for an ideal commonwealth. Nor was Ruskin's influence purely local - he was worshipped from Tokyo to Moscow (Tolstoy was a fan, and so was Proust). And a young Indian lawyer once spent a sleepless night travelling across South Africa by train, entranced and exhilarated by Ruskin's words, which set his life on an entirely new course. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.
Some of Ruskin's arguments are complex: he wasn't a trained economist, but he knew how to think in a straight line when he needed to, and though some of his attacks on the likes of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill can be unfair at the personal level, he lands some pretty hefty blows on what Thomas Carlyle called "the dismal science" of political economy.
Some of his other arguments are as simple as can be - simple-minded, his enemies said at the time. Among other things, Ruskin proposed that corporate bodies should no more be exempt from moral strictures than any man or woman. Companies might, and should, behave wisely and responsibly, or they might behave like criminals, in which case they should be disciplined and punished.
Ruskin was also one of the first thinkers to ponder systematically, and at due length, the issue of how our everyday acts of getting and spending may be good or evil. As far as Ruskin could see, British capitalists were giving themselves enormous airs for making the nation rich. Well and good, said Ruskin - remember, he was not a socialist as we would understand the term; certain types of material abundance he considered to be a very good thing.
But, he went on, consider the larger picture: the nation's shareholders may be growing nice and fat, but how about its factory workers, its orphans, its old and infirm? Even putting aside the harshness of industrial working conditions for those capable of finding employment, he asked, what about the foul air they breathe, the adulterated muck they eat, the microbe-ridden water they drink, the hideous slums in which they live, the violence and the sleaze and the crime? Is all this the condition of a wealthy nation, or a rotten, ethically and materially impoverished one? And so Ruskin coined the word "illth", to designate those riches that appear to be desirable but are actually fool's gold, or worse.
In response, Ruskin was called a ninny, a whining sentimentalist, a footling daydreamer and a pampered idiot - and those were the kinder reviews. Others regarded him as a dangerous lunatic, whose ideas would bring the nation to ruin if he was allowed to propagate them. Ruskin's publisher dropped the essays in understandable alarm, and Unto This Last drifted into relative obscurity.
Fast forward to 2000. Ruskin's reputation, having sunk to its very lowest ebb in the 1950s and 1960s, is bouncing back - but, for the most part, only among academics. Enter an outfit called the Ruskin Foundation, and its director Howard Hull. Some of Hull's duties are concerned with the upkeep of Ruskin's material and intellectual legacy - for example, he runs Brantwood, once Ruskin's home on the shores of Coniston in the Lake District, and now one of the most charming and stimulating of our smaller museums. Another part of his brief, however, is to take Ruskin's message into the places where it would otherwise never reach: not just to the non-academic world of intelligent general readers, but to schoolrooms, institutes for young offenders and prisons, to places where the inmates are not up to reading High Victorian prose, and in some cases might not be able to read at all.
This is where I came in. Hull and his education officer, Emma Bartlett, had been playing around for five or six years with the wild idea of turning Unto This Last into a comic. Bartlett had already produced a very interesting prototype, but somehow it wasn't quite there. So Hull asked me if I would take a crack at it, and - after pointing out that this was a bit like trying to turn Kant's Critique of Pure Reason into a musical - I agreed to have a go if we could hire the right artist.
Finally, enter Hunt Emerson, the Geordie genius often referred to as "the dean of British underground comics". I knew Emerson's work mainly in the form of his beautifully zany reworkings of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Lady Chatterley's Lover: he was my number-one choice and, to my delight, he said yes. About six months later, after at least one radical overhaul, we had our baby - a bouncing, shiny, 24-page comic entitled How to be Rich. Fifteen thousand copies have been printed to start with, and some 10,000 are now on their way to schools across the north-west of England.
What we did was to turn Ruskin's abstract intellectual surgery into a story. Believing that, if you're going to steal, you should steal from the best, I swiped the idea of a spiritual journey from Dante's The Divine Comedy. My Dante figure is a downtrodden every-geezer figure called Darren Bloke, who dreams of being rich. One day he wins a fortune on the Lottery, and for a while enjoys his loot to the full, but then he starts to notice that every problem solved by riches allows space for a new one. Before long, he is a lonely, newly impoverished drunk - at which point, Ruskin's spirit whizzes down from the heavens to take Darren on a visionary quest through wealth and "illth". Each episode is a little parable, derived from Ruskin's own parables but updated to the world of fast food, drug-dealing and the global economy.
If the results are favourable, we hope to produce at least two more Ruskin comics, provisionally entitled How to See, which will revisit some of Ruskin's views on the natural world, and How to Build, which will reanimate his views on architecture. Meanwhile, How to be Rich has already been translated into Spanish, and there have been enquiries from across the Atlantic.
I should add that none of this will do anything for my bank balance: as a practising neo-Ruskinian, I did the work for nothing but the sheer pleasure of doing it. The experience was hugely satisfying, and proved to me once again the power of the slogan with which Unto This Last reaches its climax: "There is no wealth but life."
Copies of 'How to be Rich' are free to teachers in the North-west; otherwise, £1.75 per copy, including postage, or £35 for 50 (01524 592450; www.ruskinforall.org.uk)Reuse content