Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Notes: 12 Books that Changed the World - How Words and Widsom have Shaped our Lives, by Melvyn Bragg

Some notes and quotes from "12 Books That Changed The World" by Melvyn Bragg:

Magna Carta by Members of the English Ruling Classes (1215)

Given that my daily commute runs through Runnymede, birthplace of the Magna Carta, I thought it was about time I learned a little about this "great charter".

The document was signed in Runnymede by the church, the ruling-class barons (headquartered in Staines) and was sealed by the King John who resided at Windsor Castle. King John was one of our "less useful" kings, and the barons, who felt he was reaching well beyond his rightful powers, demanded agreement to the agreement under which all people of the land would be beholden, even the king. The many clauses included in the Magna Carta covered a variety of matters, including feudal rights, liberties of commerce for trading towns such as London, standard weights for trade and principals for debt collection. There was even a clause allowing the barons to seize royal property if the king broke the agreement. While most of the clauses are long extinct, this important one remains law:

- "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."

Although the Magna Carta may have been born out of the self-interest of the ruling classes, the laws which developed from its base the and influence it has had on constitutions around the world make it a cornerstone symbol of democracy. More useful background on the Magna Carta can be found on the British Library web-site.

The Rule Book of Association Football by a Group of Former English Public School Men (1863)

The game of football started off as a violent game using human heads and animal bladders as the ball. However, it migrated away from the lower classes when the Industrial Revolution and land enclosures squeezed it off the agenda for many. The English public schools, however, still had the time and resource to keep it alive.The game was sanitised by the public schools, with the introduction of greater discipline and a more fixed set of rules. In Rugby in the 1820 and 40s the game involved catching and running with the ball. In Uppingham School, the headmaster introduced rules requiring an equal number of players on either side and other schools introduced different rules. Then, in a pub in Lincoln Inn Fields in 1863, the Football Association was born (Assoc = "Soccer"), formed by a group of gentleman amateurs. A standard set of rules was written to enable everyone to play with each other. By the early 1900s the game had truly filtered down from the public schools to all classes.

Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (1687)

- Newton made the most telling remark on the process of thought that I have ever encountered. It is also the simplest. When asked how he had come upon his theory of gravity, he said, "By thinking upon it continuously".

Married Love by Marie Stopes (1918)

- To those that point out that we have no right to interfere with the course of Nature, one must point out that the whole of civilisation, everything that separates man from the animals, is an interference with what people commonly call "Nature".

On the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in Parliament (1789)

- The sums of money involved in the slave trade were staggeringly large. In present-day terms it generated the equivalent of the entire housing market or the IT industry. In one year alone, £17 million came into Liverpool - a massive sum for those times. Fine houses were built in the slave-trading cities, fine churches erected, along with public buildings and monuments which still remain. It is one measure of the strength of the arguments, the tenacity and the political skills of Wilberforce that he managed to persuade those who benefited so royally to give up the source of their wealth. It is difficult to beleive that one man, a man of no political office, could effect such a change for the better today.

Experimental Researches in Electricity by Michael Faraday (3 volumes, 1839, 1844, 1855)

- Soon after this (the theory of electromagnetism) the first electrical generator was made, and exactly the same principle is still used in every power station in the world today, whether it is fuelled by coal, gas or plutonium. Enormous quantities of coils of wire are set in motion between massive magnets, generating millions of volts. Beneath the elegance of Albermarle Street, like a sorcerer working under the skin of the earth, Faraday brought to an end the age of steam and the age of electricity was born. Within fifty years of what now seem like Neanderthal experiments under the privileged and wealthy canopy of Mayfair, London, entrepreneurs such as Marconi, Edison, Ferranti and Swan had electrically driven cookers, cleaners, heaters and light bulbs in the shops.

- Faraday never patented anything....Faraday saw his role as reading "the book of Nature .... written by the finger of God".

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)

- Of the rich investor he writes, "by pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done the those who affected trade for the public good."

- "The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with most unnecessary attention but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of man who have folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it."

- The Wealth of Nations greatness has never been disputed. Timing, though, played a part in its impact. It was read by men, especially Pitt the Younger, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in his early twenties and prime-minister at twenty-five, who were intellectual, widely educated and about to be at the helm of a country lifted high on the oceans of prosperity by wave after wave of commerce .... They saw in Smith an explanation, a solution, and a philosophy. Set to become the workshop of the world, the first great capitalist state, Smith gave it its laws. Perhaps a book such as this needs only two or three readers in the beginning. Provided they are sufficiently potent, rather like disciples, the words will be turned into deeds. Pitt was Smith's St Peter.

- "Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things."

The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)

- It is by his words and his characters that we know him. His vocabulary, four centuries ago, since when the English dictionary has grown in size almost incredibly, is still regarded as the fullest of any writer. He had a vocabulary of twenty-one thousand different words.... Most people who speak English today rub along on about two thousand words for their daily use.

- ...he paired "ill" with "tuned", "baby" with "eyes", "smooth" with "faced", "puppy" with "dog" and hundred more - well over two thousand of our words are first recorded in his plays, and these are very often words which have joined the bedrock.

No comments: