About nine years ago, the books-page editor of a Wellington newspaper asked me to do one of those dreadful “round-ups” of a new series of books that were being published. The series was called “Books That Shook the World” [also published as “Books That Changed the World”] and each was intended to be a simple, non-technical account of major books in world history, which had exerted a huge influence on people. Each was written either by a well-known controversialist or (in the case of slightly more unfamiliar titles) by a respected academic. Some of the authors combined both roles.Share
I was sent the first five titles in the series.
Given that - as is the way with silly “round-ups” - I was allocated all of about 50 words to cover each book, I was sorely tempted to cheat (as most writers of “round-ups” habitually do), read the blurbs, briefly squizz the text, and file my verdict. Instead, I became absorbed in each book and read them all conscientiously from beginning to end. I noticed that most came in at somewhere between 150 and 200 pages of text, and the tone was pitched at the non-specialist average intelligent layperson.
They were a mixed bag. Simon Blackburn’s introduction to Plato’s Republic was highly uncritical and rather soft on Plato’s more exclusivist ideas, but it did the business in setting the book’s cultural and historical context. Bruce Lawrence’s take on The Qur’an inevitably had to explain much arcane material that would be unfamiliar to any non-Muslim. The late weary loudmouth Christopher Hitchens turned his account of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man into a polemic on his favourite themes of secularism and free speech. The worst of the bunch was the journalist Francis Wheen’s glib introduction to Marx’s Das Kapital. Not only was it very brief (about 120 pages) but it fudged much of what could have been said about Marx’s economic theories and (as was the case with Wheen’s earlier biography of Marx) was rather too anxious to separate Marx from the Marxist-Leninism that later develop. (Read more.)