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Tag Archive: The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History


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 TimeAnd 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.  

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Neil Armstrong passed away this weekend, just shy of his 82nd birthday, and the world marked the passing of a key figure in history, an icon for anyone who ever looked to the stars and tried to locate the craters on the moon with a telescope.

On July 16, 1989, I was living in Washington, DC, and working at the Smithsonian Institution and my friend showed me an announcement: “The first men to walk on the moon will participate in a public ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of their lunar landing at 10 a.m. Thursday outside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.  Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969.  They stepped down from the lunar module “Eagle,” while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the command module “Columbia.”  All three men are expected at the Smithsonian ceremony in their honor, which is being co-sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).”
Our friend who worked at the National Air and Space Museum volunteered to work at the Apollo exhibit the night of the anniversary, and we got to man the exhibit with him and received a great poster commemorating the anniversary when it was all done.  It was a great experience being there as we had both not witnessed the TV airing of the original moon landing.  One of the curators let us handle an actual moon boot and I remember ooing and ahhing over it as a TV reporter interviewed my friend at the booth.
 
The morning of the 20th anniversary of the moon landing, President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle (the acting president of the Smithsonian) spoke and introduced Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the first men to visit the moon.  It was the only time I saw Neil Armstrong in person.  Unlike the other moon men, Armstrong was a private man and kept out of the public spotlight.  Without his spacesuit he looked like any other guy you’d pass on the street.  Like many others I always wanted to know more about him.

When I think of Armstrong I think of his fame and status in the context of the history of mankind.  In Michael H. Hart’s book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Hart includes President John F. Kennedy on his list, along with the likes of Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Gutenberg, Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Muhammed, Edison, Michaelangelo and Beethoven.”   Why Kennedy?  Hart writes:

“A thousand years from now, neither the Peace Corps, nor the Alliance for Progress, nor the Bay of Pigs is likely to be remembered.  Nor will it seem very important what Kennedy’s policies were concerning taxes or civil rights legislation.  John F. Kennedy has been placed on this list for one reason only:  he was the person who was primarily responsible for instituting the Apollo Space Program.  Providing that the human race has not blown itself to smithereens in the intervening time, we can be fairly sure that even 5,000 years from now, our trip to the moon will still be regarded as a truly momentous event, one of the great landmarks of human history.”

Hart goes on to clarify his position:

“I will discuss the importance of the moon program a little further on.  First, however, let me deal with the question of whether John F. Kennedy is really the man who deserves the most credit for the trip.  Should we not instead credit Neil Armstrong or Edwin Aldrin, the first men who actually set foot on the moon?  If we were ranking people on the basis of enduring fame, that might be the correct thing to do, for I rather suspect that Neil Armstrong is more likely to be remembered 5,000 years from now than John F. Kennedy.”

Armstrong’s family issued a statement: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

On Armstrong’s passing, President Barack Obama stated:

“Neil was among the greatest of American heroes–not just of his time, but of all time.  When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation.  They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable–that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.  Today, Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown–including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure–sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.”

In the year 2000, Armstrong was quoted as saying,  “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

The barely noticeable press coverage of Mr. Armstrong’s death this weekend aside, I think the view of Armstrong’s fame enduring for thousands of years is spot on.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

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