HODDER £20, £18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

12 Books That Changed the World by Melvyn Bragg

You've got to dribble to make progress

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz