Friday, 17 December 2010

Book List

The other day I mentioned an exhibition I'd seen at the State Library of Victoria. It wasn't just about encyclopedias but about the whole history of the development of the book. While I was there, I learnt that a codex is a book made of folded sheets sewn along one edge and bound between boards; that the word 'incunabula' is derived from a Latin word meaning 'cradle' and refers to books printed before 1500, ie during the birth of printing; and that the Gutenberg bible is sometimes called the 42-line bible because that is the number of lines in each column of the book.

As well as picking up facts for pub quizes, I also saw some beautiful things: an eleventh century copy of a text by Boethius on the relationship between maths and music; several fifteenth century books of hours, dense with exquisite illuminations showing scenes of medieval life; and some early printed works. After the handwritten manuscripts, the printed works seemed very dull, but, as the exhibition points out, quoting the French historian Lucien Febvre, 'The end of one epoch is the beginning of another. An elite society gave way to a mass society.'
Finally, the state library exhibition suggested a list of the most influential books of all time. This is it:

The Bible
The Koran (which apparently means 'to read' or ' to recite')
The Prince by Machiavelli
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
Das Kapital by Marx
Mein Kampf by Hitler
The Little Red Book by Mao tse Tung
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

They also put forward Wilberforce's Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Marie Stopes's Married Love, Freud's Collected Writings, Gandhi's Collected Writings, the Hindu texts called Vedas, the Torah (although it is a scroll, not a book, and on that subject I love this) and the Dharma texts of the Buddhists, as runners up.

I will have to think about what I would put in. I suppose it depends on what you mean by influential and I guess one has to distil it down to what has been influential on your own culture. On those grounds the Bible is, of course, in - without it, we wouldn't have all the works of religious art and architecture that we do, for a start. The Koran is in, partly because the September 11 attacks changed everything. Mein Kampf shouldn't be in, I don't think, because I am not aware that it was the book rather than clever politicking that brought Hitler to power (I'm probably wrong about that, as I know virtually nothing about the subject - it's just my impression.) Similarly, I wonder whether it was Mao's Little Red Book that led to his rise to power. I suppose The Origin of the Species did alter our consciousness, although there are plenty of quotations you could take from the works of Shakespeare, for example, that suggest that, without articulating the theory, the underlying ideas of much of Darwin's work existed already, if that makes any sense. Freud definitely is part of the list for me, as, despite a lot of what he posited being wrong, his ideas have permeated the way we think, to the point where we barely notice them. I've never read De Beauvoir or Greer. I guess they have been influential, although I am not sure how influential - and I don't think their influence has been particularly positive, for two reasons. The first is that neither of them successfully addressed the central conundrum facing women - how to manage child bearing and a career. As a result, many women and their children find themselves in a different but not necessarily a better situation than before.  The second is that their influence seems to have been pretty much entirely confined to the middle classes in the West -  in the Muslim world women continue to be oppressed and even occasionally stoned to death.

I would love to read anyone else's 10 most influential books of the world list. In this context, the ten most important books about the twentieth century, chosen by Tony Judt, are listed here


  1. I wonder if R. Dawkins' anti-God books will stand the test of time. Depressingly, I have colleagues who've read Mein Kampf, and enjoyed it.

  2. Perhaps the Romanian translation is particularly good.

  3. That list seems pretty good to me --- though I do take your point about De Beauvoir and Greer. Greer was in fact hugely influential for me but my thoughts run a bit like yours in relation to narrowness of her (their) sphere which is, as far as I can tell, essentially western. But, I'm not sure that I'd call them to task for not altering women's essential condition. Also, is managing children and a career women's central conundrum? I'm not sure that it is (albeit that it's a really important practical issue in women's lives)?

    (BTW, the Greer is the only one of these I've read in its entirety, though I've dipped into pretty well all of the others).

  4. Whispering - I never took to feminism as it was practised in my youth, because it always seemed to me that it was about being allowed to live the life men are expected to live. A feminism that did not aim to join men in corporate pursuits, which seemed to me what the movement was doing, would have interested me more. As it is, women are supposed to dump children in child care and leap back into their suits and rush off to chair meetings again et cetera, despite what their instincts may be telling them. That doesn't seem a huge advance to me. I remember seeing a departmental flier go around after the death of someone I knew who had several young children. The flier talked about how much her service on the this that and the other committee was appreciated and the long hours she had put in getting through some policy or other (subsequently dumped by the government). Maybe she was fine with all that but I couldn't help wondering whether towards the end she didn't wish those long afternoons in meeting rooms hadn't been spent sitting on the floor with some Lego and the kids.

  5. They're ethnic Hungarian colleagues.

    What's the ecologists' equivalent of a holy book? I'd like to think that that has a chance of being in the list.

  6. a) I should have known.
    b) I am pathetically ignorant of ecology and ostrich like in my attitude to climate change, (although I refuse plastic bags at every available opportunity and bicycle a lot [she said in a desperate attempt to appease]), so cannot help you on publications of that ilk.

  7. zmkc, I do take your point about how feminism may have come across but we don't (and didn't have to buy into it). I call(ed) myself a feminist but I did it my way. I reached a middle management level in my career before I had children, and from the moment I had children (early 30s) until I retired I worked part-time and refused all suggestions of promotion. I knew what I wanted in my life and what I could comfortably manage. For me feminism is, and always has been, about equality (not same-ness) and choice (for both genders). We need(ed) more feminists who believe and act upon this. As you can see I am somewhat passionate about this ...

  8. Excuse the misplaced parenthesis in the first sentence. Hate it when I do that but I think you know what I mean?

  9. I do know what you mean and I do love a few brackets, misplaced or otherwise.

  10. I'm with whisperinggums on feminism. I didn't return to work until my kids were at school, and then only part-time for years. But I devoured the 'feminist bibles' and eventually did a masters in womens studies. I certainly called myself a feminist, and continue to do so.

    My daughter's daughters are ten and twelve and she is studying part-time and has no plans to return to full-time work - she does huge amounts of work at home and in her garden to ensure they can afford this choice they have made.

    I do get terribly frustrated at the young women who seem to feel that 'feminism failed' because it didn't solved the problems of 'the working mother. I have seen articles in which young women claim they were told (by whom?) they could 'have it all.' As if anyone could!

  11. I never understood what exactly the goals of feminism were. Clearly, women needed to obtain the right to sign a mortgage or hire purchase agreement without the help of a supportive man and also the right to work after they married. Achieving those legislative changes were not enough to sustain a whole global movement though.

  12. But, zmkc, the way I see it is that it's more than these legal rights, and more than the work-mother stuff. It's about equality in its very fundamental meaning - it's about deserving equal rights and equal respect, it's about have equal power. These are abstract concepts as much as anything, and they get translated into specifics, such as the legislation you mention. The trouble begins when people start to define it by these specifics rather than by the fundamental principle. And I am a principle kinda gal - I always try to go back to the principles and not get distracted by the details. (The details are important, of course, but they are not what it's about).

    Does this make sense?

  13. But who are you aiming to be equal with? Once you have the legislative changes in place, are you still framing everything within how you want to be viewed by men and whether men see you as equal? That is their problem, it seems to me. Provided there are no legislative obstacles placed in front of me by men, they can think what they like about me, just as I think what I like about them. Nothing will change the fact that men and women are different.

    There is, of course, the whole question of the pervasive push to look beautiful, but, having worked in glossy magazines, I know that a lot of the images we are hit with are created by women - and, of course, it is women who buy magazines and swallow the rubbish, and it tends to be women who look at each other's appearances most critically (and I do know that there are theories that argue that this kind of rivalry is only a by-product of our subjugation by men, our lack of power leading us to turn against each other et cetera et cetera, but I don't buy that, I'm afraid and I resent the implication that we are that stupid and helpless.)