Books That Changed History begins back in the mists of time with scrolls and fragments, is generous with The Book of Kells, and is bang up to date with modest acknowledgment of Harry Potter and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Coffee table books are often faintly ridiculous, bringing a joshing, faintly louche 'big production' approach to subjects that are only innocently going about their business until some publisher decided to big them up. Coffee table books can over-simplify, can seem po-faced with their air of profligate expense and needless luxury. (How many people would bring a coffee table book to a desert island?)
Not so, however, the beautiful production that is Books That Changed History, edited by James Naughtie, in which the usage `book’ is stretched like a seasoned vellum to encompass all manner of things. The book is indeed a broad church - and some of the books indeed would not have been allowed in a church.
What you get is a number of precious artefacts that have to do with words along with museum treasures and curiosities that have little to do with words, if at all. Photographs of British Algae is an album of early photographic genius rather than a book of words per se. The invention of Braille - which certainly has to do with words - is justly celebrated in this very fine book about books.
The bold chapter heading Scrolls and Codices sits in state at the auspicious beginnings of the 256-page, colour-coded compendium. Thus, The Dead Sea Scrolls and other such rare and torn fragments. Also prominent in proceedings is The Blue Qur’an, which was believed to have been compiled around 850-950 CE for the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia and whose gold letters are written in Kufic calligraphy.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead has a fascinating entry - there was one for everybody in the audience, it seems. Euclid’s Elementa Geometriae, compiled about 300 BCE, will bring those of us of a certain age back to shivery classrooms of yore and the strange magic that arose like a puff of smoke inside one’s head when a theorem suddenly made sense. How on earth did they teach it? Resolution had to come ineffably from the pupil’s innate ability - if you couldn't see the light, nobody could really make you see it.
In any case, the renowned English philosopher Bertrand Russell declared Elementa Geometriae to be "one of the most perfect monuments of the Greek intellect."
The King James Bible, Cervantes' Don Quixote and Aesop’s Fables are all allocated generous space, while there are four pages alone dedicated to the comic masterpiece Tristram Shandy, that boldly imaginative work from the Irish writer Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768). Six pages are devoted to the wealth of illustration that is contained in The Book of Kells, also known as The Book of Columba. The UNESCO Memory of the World Register citation on the sacred book’s importance is quoted, as follows: "It is widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest historical treasure... one of the most spectacular examples of medieval Christian art in the world."
Much, much later in the great colourful trawl, you get The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, for balance, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. There's a final, hurried round-up towards the end, with the flurry of small entries, like autumn leaves on DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Edward Said’s Orientalism, and, yes, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
In sum, Books That Changed History is unputdownable, and considering its great heft, offers a rigorous workout, literary and otherwise.