12 Books That Changed the World, by Melvyn Bragg

A list with too little gravity
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The Independent Culture

I haven't rushed to join the national debate prompted by Melvyn Bragg's list of 12 books that changed the world. It seems a clever way of drawing attention to otherwise neglected texts but I can't work up much interest in whether or not the Magna Carta, the rule-book of Association Football, and the patent for Arkwright's spinning machine are invalid because they are technically not books. Nor am I greatly exercised by the argument that Bragg's final list is too British or too scientific or too white or too male or too short. (And I certainly don't want to hear another word about his friendly quarrel with Howard Jacobson over the lack of novels in the list).

Much of this churlishness stems from a suspicion that most of the current arguments are only truly exciting executives in the marketing departments of ITV and Hodder. But I'm also put off by the assumption that anyone who doesn't wholeheartedly join Bragg in his latest popularising endeavour is something of a spoilsport or a dangerous elitist. In this respect I feel at one with Gerald Priestland's famous depiction of his fellow radio presenter, Russell Harty: "I am perfectly prepared to admire his populist spirit but there is no way in which I can be persuaded to go down on all fours and play with him".

No one can doubt Bragg's populist spirit. One of the chief pleasures of In Our Time on Radio 4 is the sound of him trying to persuade the assembled academics to speak more plainly about their specialist subject. Whether the topic of the day is quantum mechanics, Goethe, or the rise and fall of Charlemagne, there's nearly always a magic moment when Melvyn grumbles that a distinguished professorial guest is departing from the order of play or becoming too interested in matters that are not central to the main story.

Such episodes perfectly capture the dialectic between Melvyn's healthy and commendable populist belief that every topic can be successfully brought to heel and his guests' equally well-grounded insistence that matters are, on the whole, looking at it from both sides, taking everything into account, rather more complicated than their host would wish them to allow.

There is, sadly, no such battle of perspectives in the pages of 12 Books That Changed The World. Bragg does quote extensively from academics and generously acknowledges their considerable help in the preparation of each chapter, but they are never close enough at hand to moderate some of his less fortunate populist urges.

Consider the awkward matter of context. Academics do have this nasty habit of intellectually locating their topics when it is so much easier to popularise a subject if it can be stripped of its historical and cultural accretions. So, when a programme like Planet Earth wants to get to grips with a few zoological truths it finds it altogether simpler to do so when the landscape is populated entirely by the animals under consideration rather than being cluttered up with any of the messy quarrelling hungry human beings who live on the other side of the hill.

This airbrushing of the landscape - one critic has neatly referred to it as "natural pornography" - is typically matched in the arts and sciences by a fixation with individuals and their biographies. It is just so much easier to approach the study of the laws of motion and gravity through a consideration of Newton's biography than by following his own suggestion that his findings can only be properly understood by considering the philosophical tradition within which he thought and worked.

It is indeed Newton, the flesh-and-blood Newton, who provided Bragg with his initial inspiration for 12 Books That Changed The World: "I imagined this awkward, unhappy, driven young man sitting alone and in silence in his home, a farmhouse, forcing his mind to construct theories that eventually changed the world". How amazing, thought Bragg as he settled down to draw up his now famously controversial list, that the "mere" book which contained those theories, Principia Mathematica, "should have such power".

In the absence of any academic counterweight it's not surprising, therefore, to discover that a substantial portion of 12 Books is given over to the character and specific achievements of individual authors - Charles Darwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Michael Faraday, Adam Smith and Marie Stopes - rather than to any sensitive new exploration of the relevant intellectual tradition from which their ideas first sprang. We are told, for example, with regard to Adam Smith, that, "...as often, if not invariably happened with the other books that I have selected, his work appeared at precisely the time it could become a template of a new age of thought". But we never learn that Smith's work is already part of a new age of thought: it is an understandable, even logical, development of what occurred elsewhere within the Scottish Enlightenment.

Not that Bragg ever had much chance of getting away from mere people and events. His hands were tied as soon as he decided to collude with contemporary chart-based culture and produce yet another list. This inevitably meant that, rather like the artists chosen for The South Bank Show, all of his named selections had to stand up straight and prove they were worthy of the honour. They had to do great things and write great words.

If you forget your reservations about the dull science of list-making, it's still possible to enjoy most of these chapters as straightforward introductions to their subjects. Bragg writes with some passion about Marie Stopes and Married Love and, once again, shows his capacity to make science and technology both exciting and accessible, particularly in his chapters on Faraday and Arkwright. But elsewhere there is enough slack writing to suggest that his heart was more in the commercial concept of the book and in its capacity for popular elaboration on television than in its literary or its philosophical precision.

We may have to once again acknowledge his popularising instinct as thousands rush to bookshops and libraries for their own copies of Principia Mathematica and On the Origin of Species. Those, however, who feel disappointed by this strangely uneven volume will be left to reflect that while Bragg may get irritated on In Our Time by his hair-splitting academic companions, it is not always such a great idea for him to be allowed out on his own.

Laurie Taylor is the presenter of 'Thinking Allowed' on Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 4pm

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