Review by C.J. Bunce
Lists, and by extension, books with lists, are the stuff that sprout conversation. Sometimes good conversation, sometimes knock-down-drag-outs, but always something to talk about. We saw that last month in our look at Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies that Are Out of This World, and it applies to Scott Christianson and Colin Salter’s new audacious work, 100 Books that Changed the World. This book is not merely a list of books, but an argument supporting why the authors think each book merits recognition. After all, with more than 2 million new books published each year (300,000 per year in the U.S. alone) and documented writings going back thousands of years, whittling them all down to 100 is a bit daunting at a minimum. Grade schoolers, college liberal arts and sciences majors, and everyone else has probably encountered a list like this before, usually styled the “greatest,” “most influential,” or “most significant” books ever written. Ultimately, readers may find the compilation of 100 books that “changed the world” results in a very similar set of books.
What would make your list? You can probably list 20 included without much work. The authors state in their preface that there are 50 books everyone would agree should be included. Think religion and myths (the Torah, the Bible, the Quran), math and science (Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), philosophy and politics (Plato’s The Republic, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man), works of fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), classic children’s books (Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales), works of the often-disputed literary greats (I’m looking at you, James Joyce), and works of long undisputed literary masters like Homer and Shakespeare. Yes, these are all “givens” for a list like this. But noteworthy great additions I don’t recall seeing on a list like this before include Louis Braille’s Procedure for Writing Words, Music and Plainsong in Dots, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And no author made the list more than once, except the writers of the Bible, which appears on the list twice: for the Gutenberg Bible and the King James version.
The authors hope their book “makes you question your own choices or ours, or introduces you to a book.” Criticisms of 100 Books that Changed the World aren’t going to be all that dire as much as simply topics for discussion. They’re the same critiques of any list or book like this. Thirty-seven books on the list were written by authors from England, removing the inclusion of any books from some countries. The list is heavily back loaded, with 26 books from the 19th century and 35 books from the 20th century–explainable in part since the authors didn’t have a lot to select from the first 3,000 years covered. The oldest book included is the I Ching, roughly 4,800 years old, and the most recent, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein, only four years old. The late history scholar Robert E. Schofield postulated that historians cannot accurately assess the influence of a historical period unless at least 50 years has transpired, and consistent with that theory, nine books shouldn’t have made the cut, removing books like Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Art Spiegleman’s graphic novel Maus, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
It’s a good mental challenge to compare and contrast what you think should make the list and why. How would the list change based on the impact of books on you personally? Based on your favorites or what you think rate as the best books? Another set of writers might look at “changing the world” from sheer book sales (the Bible, the Quran, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, and several Harry Potter books would top that list) or maybe a more scientific estimated metric of the volume of people personally changed by each book (would that add more books from the large, older republics like China, Russia, and India?)–Michael Hart took on a similar project nearly 20 years ago with his controversial book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. I’ve listed (in bold) only 24 of the 100 books here. What do you think make up the remaining 76? The BBC put out a list this year with only 38 in common and PBS did a similar list with only 13 in common (Christianson and Salter’s selections are much, much better than both of those lists).
You will find 100 Books that Changed the World is a great reading prompt. Can’t think of what to read next? Flip through this book for an idea. Feel like your brain is lacking in a certain area of history? This might help. Wondered what they were talking about when they mentioned the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle? Bingo–This book well definitely put you on the right track.
100 Books that Changed the World is available in a hardcover edition featuring rich, full-color reproductions of excerpt pages and covers from its selections, presented in chronological order with a page of text and a page of art devoted to each book.