Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
The 50 most influential books in human history? There is a definite place in my life for books about books and I’m fond of a good list too – except for the ones that end ‘before you die’ because is it just me or do they sound a bit threatening? Anyway this is both a book about books and a list of the fifty books Andrew Taylor argues have influenced us the most, though it’s perhaps more specific to say that they’re the books which have had the biggest influence on his world. It’s a point Taylor makes in the introduction – all lists are subjective – and when you’re narrowing down the most important texts from all of history to a mere fifty titles there’s going to be plenty of room for argument.
The first half of the list takes us up to Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, the book that Taylor argues gave the British Christmas (more or less). It starts with The Iliad, takes in Herodotus, Confucius, Plato, The Bible, some Horace, The Kama Sutra, The Qur’an, Chaucer, and obviously Shakespeare along with others. It’s definitely an English speakers’ list even with the inclusion of ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (I suspect that the Kama Sutra is there as much to provoke as for its contribution to world culture) but it’s a good list – it’s hard to argue with books that have been around this long.
The second half takes us from ‘The Communist Manifesto’ to J K Rowling by way of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, The Telephone Directory, Wilfred Owen, James Joyce, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ to pick but a few. Of all of them ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is the one I think least deserves a place on a list like this, but then I didn’t like it when I read it as a teenager and don’t think it spoke to or for me, so there’s a good deal of personal bias there. That ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ ends the list feels appropriate though. Taylor argues that Harry Potter revolutionised the book trade and changed the reading habits of a generation. They were certainly a phenomenon unlike anything from my bookish childhood and undoubtedly changed the way we regard children’s books generally, but that’s not all. Taylor also argues that Harry might be remembered in future as the book that signalled the end of the ‘teenager’, he suggests that young people increasingly emerge from childhood straight into quasi-adulthood and that ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ “is a disguised and elegiac farewell to childhood”. It’s an intriguing idea.
As a list it’s a pretty good list but that’s not what made me fall in love with this book. It’s a mark of something that of these 50 titles, 3 of them were basically unknown to me, and whilst I’ve actually read only 7 of the books, I own copies of 23 of them. I might never finish ‘Ulysses’ but I’m prepared to give it house room precisely because it is the sort of book that makes these lists. What lifts ’Books That Changed The World’ out of the novelty gift/book to keep by the loo category is the way that Taylor makes his arguments and makes me want to read more. Each entry has a brief plot synopsis or description and then an argument for inclusion. I’ve never read Horace’s ‘Odes’ but I want to now. I also want to go back to Chaucer, and I’m even looking at Shakespeare with a kindly eye. In the general slog of getting through a Shakespeare play with a reasonable understanding of what’s going on (especially if it’s a comedy involving twins) it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how much he contributed to the English language. Being reminded was quite exciting.
It’s ideas that change the world but books have been the way those ideas are preserved and communicated for thousands of years (they’re pretty wonderful like that). Books like these are our human history, or at least a good part of it. Herodotus was writing two and a half thousand years ago but he can still communicate with us. Less than a hundred years ago, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was deemed too obscene for publication and stayed that way until 1960 (which naturally only made people want to read it more). I find that level of censorship hard to imagine but there it is in recent history and well worth remembering about. I started this book expecting it to be mildly entertaining but have finished it feeling positively enriched and inspired.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Andrew Taylor Books That Changed The World (Quercus: London, 2014) 978-1-78206-942-3, 326pp, paperback.