& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Books that Changed the World & Civilization-2

I'm talking about Roberts Downs's The Books that changed the World (BCW) and Kenneth Clark's Civilization.

On Meghnad’s insistence I had also become a member of the libraries – the British Council (it was somewhere behind the LIC's Yogakshema headquarters in Mumbai), the American Centre and the House of Soviet Culture. Meghnad was already a member of the David Sassoon, and mostly, I used the card to borrow books from there, too (Read earlier entry on The World According to Garp).

I borrowed Downs’s book from the American Centre library, and the Civilization from the British Council.

When one is introduced to new ideas – and books are dangerous because they are particularly prone to doing such things – one grows impatient in searching the source of the new idea, learning all that one can, and acquiring information to build a foundation of knowledge normally ignored by formal education.

The late teens are an impressionable period in one’s life. It isn’t surprising, then, that these two books left a lasting impression on me when I read them. For me the introduction to study of history – not in an academic sense, but in a popular sense – was through these two books. They made me realize that history wasn’t only about dates, it was about ideas. I was so impressed with these books that I decided to buy them.

If one takes away the teenaged fervor, and looks at these books dispassionately today, one can easily find serious faults with them. Both the books are about Western Civilization. It is preposterous and insulting to assume that Western Civilization is the only civilization that matters, though both provide adequate riders that they are consciously doing so and do not have any obvious or hidden intention of belittling non-Western cultures and ideas.

Originally published in 1956, BCW lists 27 books that Downs considers changed the world. These include:

The Bible
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Works of Plato
Works of Aristotle
Greek Playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander)
Greek & Roman Historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus)
Greek & Roman Scientists (Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Archimedes, Lucretius, Pliny the Elder)
St. Augustine: Confessions, City of God
St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica
Nicolaus Copernicus: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
Andreas Vesalius: De Humani Corporis Fabrica
William Harvey: De Motu Cordis
Niccolò Machiavelli:The Prince
Sir Issac Newton: Principia Mathematicia
Thomas Paine: Common Sense
Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations
Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Edward Jenner: An Inquiry into the cause and effects of Variolae Vaccinae
Thomas Malthus: Essay on the Principle of Population
Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Karl Marx: Das Kapital
Alfred T Mahan: Influence of Sea Power upon History
Sir Halford J Mackinder: The Geographical Pivot of History
Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

This is definitely a controversial list, as, I suppose, all such list are meant to be. Also, it ignores several seminal works that contributed to the shaping of the Western mind.

But for a brief introduction to the ideas that have shaped the Western Civilization, I can’t think of a better book than this. Of course, this is an “abridged” approach to knowledge and learning. I doubt if anyone who reads this book – which is essentially meant to introduce these great works – would actually get down to reading any of them. I have read only a few.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilization is actually a television serial that was made for the BBC, and aired across the world in 1969-70. The Museum of Broadcast Communications provides an excellent background to the serial that is all too relevant in our time right now.

It states: “Following the social and political upheavals that marked 1968 in both Europe and the United States, Civilisation teaches that hard times do not inevitably crush the humane tradition so central to Clark's view of Western civilization. Indeed, when David Attenborough suggested the title for the series, Clark's typically self-deprecating response was, "I had no clear idea what [civilization] meant, but I thought it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that this was the moment to say so." That the program offers a personal (and in some ways idiosyncratic) look at nine centuries of European intellectual life is thus a crucial part of its appeal, inasmuch as it argues that to follow cultural matters--and care about them--is within the reach of television viewers."

If I remember correctly (though I’m not sure), the serial was also telecast on Doordarshan in the mid-1980s.

Given the fact that the Western Civilization and its ideas have dominated the world for the last five centuries, and will do in the foreseeable future, these are two excellent books to read to get a brilliantly studied and structured introduction to the ideas that have shaped the most dominant civilization. Both these books are available on Amazon.

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