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.

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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform