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12 Books That Changed the World by Melvyn Bragg
You've got to dribble to make progress
Sunday 16 April 2006
The problem with Melvyn Bragg's 12 books is that many of them are not books at all. There's a speech, a patent, a legal agreement and, most surprisingly of all, the rules for a sport. There are a number of reasons why this sleight of hand may have proved necessary. While many books change individuals' lives, books that change the world are rarer, and Bragg has made things more difficult for himself by restricting his choices to books by British authors.
Secondly, there's a strong suspicion that what really interests Bragg are ideas, inventions and social change, as part of his continuing, and laudable, mission to broaden our sense of cultural heritage. Bragg's unifying zeal is quite explicit, as he makes clear in his chapter on Newton's Principia Mathematica (a book, though not one you'd want to read on the beach). "I can see no distinction between Newton thinking on the consequences of the fall of an apple and Homer thinking on the consequences of the taking of Helen or Shakespeare thinking out the consequences of the witches prophesying to Macbeth... Newton's theories came every bit as much out of thin air as any of Goethe's lines."
Science, politics and sport have not always advanced through books: so the definition of a "book" must give way. But there's another explanation for Bragg's bending of his own rules. This book is a companion to a television series. While TV loves list shows - see Channel 4 for details - ideas are always a hard sell; and ideas without moving pictures are radio. By broadening his scope to include The Laws of Association Football and Arkwright's patent for his spinning machine he has opened the way for all manner of appealing footage to illustrate the consequences of those short pieces of technical prose.
Bragg's selection is well thought-out and argued. One book of theoretical science and mathematics (Newton), one of practical physics (Maxwell on electricity), one of biology (Darwin's Origin of Species; two works of vast political consequence (Magna Carta and Wilberforce's speech against the slave trade); two books of social import, with a feminist slant (Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women and, less predictably, Marie Stopes's Married Love); one each of economics (The Wealth of Nations) and industry (Arkwright); and - as on Desert Island Discs - the Bible (King James Version) and Shakespeare (First Folio). Oh, and the rules of football.
It is hard to make a case for the Laws, in their original 1863 version, as world-changing in themselves. To anyone who only knows the modern game, they are baffling, a witness to the shared heritage of the two British football codes. Most bizarrely, there is a prohibition on passing the ball forward; progress towards the opposition's goal was permitted only by dribbling. Route One it was not.
What changed the world was the idea of a common set of sporting laws, unifying a game that existed in countless variants and enabling it to begin its conquest of the world. This chapter illustrates Bragg's approach throughout: a brief, contextualising pre-history, the circumstances of the book's creation, and a summary of its innovations. There are a couple of interesting thoughts along the way, not always his own; he notes that "there is a theory" that the allocation of roles within teams derived from the division of labour, introduced by the first working-class players. But then, as happens rather too often, we end up with a perfunctory list of what happened next. "So it went on, so it goes on," he says at one point, somewhere between the founding of the first club in Italy and the invention of football pools. Treading water works better when the pictures are flowing past.
But while the general pattern is the same, the chapters are oddly uneven. Some, but not all, include lengthy quotes that appear to have been taken directly from his television research. Others are mostly Melvyn. That's not always a good thing. While he deserves praise for his summaries of the key ideas, and for setting them in their historical and intellectual context, he cannot resist cliché. A lot of people here have "unique flair"; others are "iconic figures"; the British abolition of the slave trade led to a "domino effect"; and so on.
Some of his observations are banal and there are quite a number of baggy and shapeless sentences. Here he is on Mary Wollstonecraft: "The divorce rate in itself questions marriage in a way which may prove that one of Wollstonecraft's more contentious notions (which she herself alas found it difficult to follow), that passion ought to play no more than an initiating and temporary role in marriage, is working its way through even though there are commentators who see this as harmful to future generations."
We all know Lord Bragg is a busy man, and we should be glad that he has found time to produce this Little Book of Big Ideas, but he might usefully have found a few minutes to polish his prose.
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