Great books often come wrapped in great trepidation. We know that Plato's Republic, or Darwin's Origin of Species, are known as "Books that Shook the World", as the title of Atlantic's new series argues. But how many have actually read, say, Marx's Das Kapital from cover to cover? "Great" is often translated as difficult, indeed impossible, to read. That perception induces a terror of these texts, a dread that few overcome. This series of relatively short "biographies" are designed to allay our fears, gently persuade us to pick up these grand tomes with steady hands, and discover the joys and bounties concealed in their pages.
But can a book actually shake the world? Simon Blackburn raises the question in his "biography" of Republic (181pp). Things change, he says, and the world changes with them. We tend to think that agents of change, what shakes the world, are time and circumstances, guns and money, religions and technology, and economic and social forces. But none of this is possible without ideas - "the staging post to action". And where do we find ideas in their most pristine form? In seminal, earth-shattering texts. So to understand how the world has changed, and is changing, and how it yet may change, we need to wrestle with the ideas contained in these books.
To get a more holistic picture we need not just to engage with the text but also to appreciate its context: the social forces it unleashed, the influence it had on history, and the world-views it shaped. This is where this series comes into its own. Each volume explores not just the ideas behind the great book but also its public reception, the debates and controversies it generated, and the impact it has on our ideas today.
Plato's Republic, for example, which Blackburn rightly suggests is the first book to shake the world, is loaded with perennial questions that every generation must struggle with. How are we to live our lives? What is virtue and can it be taught? Are pleasure and good the same?
Through powerful as well as fanciful arguments, entertaining as well as distracting myths, comparisons helpful and not so helpful, Plato takes us back, again and again, to these questions. He is concerned not so much with our answers but how we get to possible solutions. Even if we learn little from Plato, Blackburn suggests, we will at least learn to love knowledge better.
There is another reason for repeatedly returning to the great texts. Each generation brings a fresh pair of eyes, its own cultural and intellectual baggage. Where one age may have seen a chaotic and incoherent text, the later may discover meaning and beauty. Marx, an obsessive perfectionist, toiled for decades on Das Kapital, seen in the Cold War era as an impenetrable text. In our postmodern age, Francis Wheen suggests in his book (130pp), the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Marx's masterpiece is often seen in terms of formlessness and incomprehensibility. Yet it has high literary merit, Wheen argues.
Marx's juxtaposition of voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspector's reports to fairy tales, is reminiscent of Ezra Pound's Cantos and TS Eliot's The Waste Land. Seen from the perspective of a poet and a novelist, as artistically whole, Das Kapital becomes a more manageable read.
However, problems remain. Marx will, despite Wheen's heroic efforts, never be a riveting read. All those silly equations are just that - silly. Marx may be lucid, poetic even, when analysing the world, but his obsession with describing everything in scientific - often mathematical - terms is quite obscurantist.
The problem with contributors to this series is that they love their chosen text a little too much, so criticism is often muted. Plato, for example, has a great deal to answer for. It's not just the American neo-conservatives who quote him with glee; Republic is also the favourite book of the mullahs in Iran, and the founding text - although none of the Founding Fathers read it - of the security state that is America. Blackburn acknowledges that Republic can be seen as the direct ancestor of terrorism, the worship of a free market and the ethics of business schools, but hardly deals with these issues.
Janet Browne's biography of Origin of Species (174pp) is the least satisfying. One reason is that so much has been recently written about Darwin and his book, including by his biographer Browne herself, that it is almost impossible to say anything new. It looks all too familiar. But the situation is made worse by her clever skirting of the criticism thrown at one-dimensional notions of evolution from biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Rose.
The darker sides of the Darwin debate - in Social Darwinism and sociobiology - are mentioned only tangentially. So while we do get a sense of why the book is important, we don't get the full context, including the scientific aspects, of controversy surrounding evolution. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens's adoring look at Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (157pp) gives the impression that no one ever raised any questions, or had any criticism, of this pamphlet.
Thankfully, Bruce Lawrence's biography of the Qur'an (231pp), the best and most substantial book in the series, is much more critical. The Qur'an is totally unlike any other book: it doesn't have a linear text, it has no conventional beginning or end, and it is structured not so much as a written text as a symphony. The verses repeat themselves just like notes in an opus. All of which makes it a text that can be easily memorised and recited.
But the Qur'an is different for another important reason: it claims to be a divine text. Muhammad, Lawrence tells us, was a merchant with a message. The message, however, "was not his own nor did he seek it. The message sought him." And that message was revealed over a span of 23 years.
Lawrence takes us on a guided tour of how, when and where the Qur'an was revealed, how it was interpreted by different kinds of Muslims (Sunni, Shia, Sufis, traditionalists, modernists) in different histories, how it has been perverted by Islamists, and the different visions of society that it has shaped in the past and present.
Simon Blackburn asserts, rather uncritically, that religion is just philosophy with its questioning spirit suppressed. In an exceptionally illuminating and balanced narrative, Lawrence shows that religion can be more questioning than even Socrates could possibly imagine.
In the end, reading a biography of a book is not the same thing as reading the book itself. These well-written stories of great books serve as finger-licking, appetite-whetting, hors d'oeuvre. But the real delight is the main course.
'How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations' is published by Pluto PressReuse content