Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ten Books that Shaped the World

A couple of weeks ago the Guardian published a list of books that shaped the world.  It's a list of ten, each selection was chosen by a different person.  There is no description for what they actually asked for but it does say that they are 'not of an age but for all time'.  The list:
  • The Second Sex by de Beauvoir - I haven't read this before but I've put it on my list to read soon.  If you were writing a cultural history of the 20th century, you'd certainly say that one of the key elements is that women gained more equality than at any previous time in history.  It sounds like it was one of the foundational books of feminism.  I honestly don't know how much any particular book influenced women's movements worldwide.  It seems that other mediums, especially film, may have done more.  But the movement as a whole deserves recognition and if this book fits that bill, then it wholly deserves to be on a list such as this.
  • The Analects by Confucius - I read this nearly fifteen years ago.  What struck me the most was just how much attention was given to the idea of noble bureaucrat.  The Analects is a guidebook for honest and trustworthy government administration.  It isn't hard at all to understand how a very statist idea like communism would be popular in China.  Which isn't to say that it doesn't have value even in capitalist societies like ours.  We want our officials to be honest and work for the good too.  It's just that we have a healthy skepticism about state actions.  A very worthy inclusion.
  • The Origin of the Species by Darwin - An obvious conclusion and I won't argue with it.  It's in the Great Books series but we haven't gotten to it yet.  I wonder if the amount of praise that Darwin gets is more in line with the social upheaval that he caused by questioning religion and how much because of the importance of the science involved.  But it very obviously did change the world.
  • Elements by Euclid - This is the work that set the foundations for all mathematics that followed it.  That's a big deal.  Euclid not only laid the ground rules for math but he helped engineers and architects for all time.  Another good inclusion.
  • Interpretation of Dreams by Freud - I don't think I would have chosen this.  The science is iffy and widely disrespected.  On the other hand, I guess it did 'change the world'.  For many years, psychologists had to work with within the terms that Freud had created.  Those terms and ideas still dominate art and literature.  So...maybe?
  • A Sand County by Leopold - This was completely unknown to me.  The book catalogs differences in a Wisconsin county over time.  It was chosen because 'It helped to transform what had been an essentially conservative, utilitarian conservation movement into the first stirrings of an ecologically centred green movement in the west'.  I don't know how true that is.  There has been a romantic edge to environmentalism since at least the early 19th century.  It goes to far to suggest that without this book, the movement wouldn't be in roughly the same place it is now.
  •  The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels - Well yeah, this book had a huge impact, that we're still working through today.  That isn't to say that the impact has been positive but it has very much 'changed the world'.  Of course, 'Mein Kampf' fits this exact bill too...
  • Beloved by Morrison - I haven't read this so maybe I shouldn't comment too much but I have trouble seeing how this should be included.  It has a serious anti-slavery message but it was written long after slavery was outlawed in the Western world.  The impact of 'Beloved' can't really be compared with 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', even if the quality is higher.  Having just read some Frederick Douglas, I have trouble believing that Morrison is a more important writer.  Frankly, this selection is a bit embarrassing.  
  • Comedies, Histories and Tragedies of William Shakespeare - No argument here.  No other playwright has come close to Shakespeare's global reach.  
  • Scripture - The last selection is perhaps so obvious that it was widely overlooked.  No other books in history have had as much influence on the world than the Bible, the Koran and other religious writings.  
I would have included some of the enlightenment writings on government.  The movement from monarchy to democracy was accomplished in large part because of some serious philosophical heavy lifting from Locke, Rousseau and others. 
When making a list like this, it's hard not to just keep going earlier and earlier.  It's hard to say that any book from the past fifty years or so has really changed the world.  You could argue that the most impactful book written since 1950 is something like 'Dianetics' even if history won't judge it well.  Short term trends are so chaotic that it's probably impossible to forsee just what will come out favorably. 
But this is a fun and useful exercise and I'm glad that the Guardian tried it out.

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