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It took a total of 159 years before slavery was universally abolished...
on 15 August 2012
I'm not sure that these are the twelve books I would have chosen, but starting with those that I agree most profoundly with (and we are all entitled to an opinion on this so I'm sure your choices would be different from mine), Newton's 'Principia Mathematica' stands out as unarguably the most astonishing and wonderful creation from one man's mind that there has ever been. 'Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in night:/ God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.' Alexander Pope's brilliant couplet summed up the awe and profundity with which Newton's work came to be held as a unique body of genius. Without his work, life would be unimaginably poorer in so many fields, medicine, physics, biology, astronomy, to name just a few.
'Married Love' by Marie Stopes set out to demystify and give practical advice to women and men about sex. In her own life she admitted in her preface to the book, that she "paid a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity." Amen to that.
'The Magna Carta', though strictly not a book, was the basis for an abiding sense of just government, society, liberties and rights. For the first time a piece of writing was recognised as a law above the King, which he had no right to disregard or break. It embodied a respect for law which has endured for almost eight hundred years and led to the foundation of democracy in America, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and in other countries wanting to shake off tyranny and found their state on a basis of laws and liberties equally available to all.
'The Origin of the Species' by Charles Darwin, began the great debate that is still alive today about our origins. Rather than belief in Bible stories, Darwin set out, with scientific proofs, and dealing almost exclusively with the genealogy of plants and animals, a comprehensive system for the basis of life on earth. The arguments still rage, of course, but now the arguments have to take place in the light of two beliefs, one based on science and one on faith.
The abolition of the slave trade was, as the historian G M Trevelyan wrote, `one of the turning circumstances in the history of the world.' The man who was responsible was William Wilberforce, a quietly unassuming MP who worked towards abolition tirelessly after delivering a four hour speech in the house of Commons on 12 May 1789. This was rapidly printed and disseminated throughout the country, although it took a good deal longer for the entrepreneurs and plantation owners to take any notice. It was not until 1833 that the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed, bringing into effect the gradual abolition of slavery in all British Colonies. It took a total of 159 years before slavery was universally abolished, and for more than a generation of slaves, it came too late.
'The First Folio' of Shakespeare's plays contains all his major works - the Comedies, the Histories and the Tragedies. His plays and his poetry are acknowledged throughout the world, in every country which has scholars competent to translate, he has been translated. His work is often misogynistic, racist and sometimes, more brutal and bloodthirsty than one may feel happy with. But it is undoubtable, surely, that his plays are unparalled. The beauty of the language, the intelligence of it, the splendour and the glory of it - there is nothing better in the creative canon.
Of the books I hesitate over, chosen by Melvyn Bragg, I haven't considered replacements for all of them. Bragg's choices continue with the 'Rule Book of Association Football'; Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?' (I felt this was too obviously politically correct and to be honest it isn't that inspirational. 'The Female Eunuch' would be more timely - it is from the publication of Germaine Greer's book that I remember an upsurge of activism amongst women). 'Experimental Researches in Electricity'; 'Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine'; The King James Bible. Rather than the Bible, for instance, I would prefer a recent Biographical Dictionary - I'd prefer my history of the world to feature more than religious figures. What about, in place of Michael Faraday's researches in electricity, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking? - a book that makes physics at least fathomable in a way no other book does.
No novels are included in Bragg's list either. Should there be one? What about 'Middlemarch', 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles', 'Vanity Fair', 'Bleak House', or 'Persuasion'? Or something further off the wall such as 'A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole. I'm sure you will all have your own preferences.