A dip into the abbreviated histories of a selection of landmark texts leaves Alex Danchev a little short on insight about the books' inner lives.
These titles launch an enterprising new series, highbrow and low fat: "Books that Shook the World". According to the publisher, "in this highly accessible series of short biographies of world-changing books, some of today's most illuminating and authoritative writers address works that have resonated throughout history. Each volume describes the conception, gestation, creation, public reception and long-term influence of the work."
A second tranche is announced for spring 2007: Karen Armstrong on The Bible , Philip Bobbitt on Machiavelli's The Prince , Alberto Manguel on Homer's the Iliad and The Odyssey , P. J. O'Rourke on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations , and Hew Strachan on Karl von Clausewitz's On War . All together, an eclectic list - writers and readers, professional sceptics and non-specialist enthusiasts, polemicists and controversialists - that points to some imaginative commissioning. Brief lives have always exercised a certain fascination in English letters, and are now all the rage. Books that Shook the World seems to rhyme with "Lives that Never Grow Old", the tag line for the classic biographies series recently reissued under the appropriate imprint of Harper Perennial. Is brief life-writing a transferable skill?
In the age of the taster, the fragment, the particle - the blink, in the word of Walter Benjamin, perhaps another candidate for the canon - the introduction, short, very short, and exiguous in the extreme, comes into its own. Books that Shook the World (Shakers for short, or shorter) are a posh form of Oxford-style Very Short Introduction: bigger, harder, whiter, but not necessarily better or, for that matter, longer. In fact, there is considerable overlap between this new series and Oxford's. Simon Blackburn, for example, writes here about Plato and there about ethics. Plato is done there by Julia Annas, Blackburn's friend and inspirator, whom he lavishly acknowledges. Clausewitz, Darwin, Machiavelli and Marx appear in both guises, as Movers and Shakers, though not (yet) Homer, Thomas Paine or Adam Smith. And if it is objected that Movers are authors while Shakers are books, the Bible and the Koran (or the Qur'an) appear in both lists, distinguishable only by the orthography.
Can a book shake the world, asks Blackburn sceptically. He takes leave to doubt it, while offering the face-saving suggestion that Plato's Republic has as good a claim as any. Blackburn is the only one of these authors explicitly (philosophically) to address the nature of his task and the way in which he has set about it. Not being a devout Platonist, he confesses, his preference is "to home in on the ideas themselves, rather than on Plato's own context as he writes them down, and still less on whatever Cicero or Augustine or King Alfred or John Stuart Mill made of them". Unlike most of the others, he refuses the cradle-to-grave, conception-to-reception approach proposed in the publicity - brutally truncated by Francis Wheen on Das Kapital to gestation, birth and afterlife - and instead mingles what he calls the plot of the book, the historical residues and responses, and something of the cultural worlds that Plato helped to shape. "Perhaps this means that I am not writing a biography of the book, and certainly I am not writing a history of the life of the Republic , so much as a case study of it," he muses, "but I suppose that too is a kind of biography."
His fellow biographers wrestle in silence with the same issues. On the face of it a simple and appealing proposal, the biography of a book turns out to be a surprisingly difficult remit, at once elastic and elusive. Part of the problem may be that the inner life of the book is nested ineluctably in the inner life of the author. Great books beg the question of great men. (This mini-canon, like so many other canons, seems to be men-only.) A brief life or potted biography of a more conventional kind is a persistent temptation. And yet that may or may not be illuminating. The inner life of the book, even the outer life of the book, can go a-begging.
There is a tension here that is most satisfactorily resolved by Janet Browne, on Darwin's On the Origin of Species . She manages to weave man and work into one seamless narrative so that Darwin emerges as truly the artist of his own life, authentic and intelligible. How does she do it? Browne has already written an acclaimed biography of Darwin; she knows him intimately. Presumably, this helps.
However, Wheen has already written an acclaimed biography of Marx; he is hardly less intimate with his subject, yet his treatment of Das Kapital is nowhere near as compelling. Perhaps the formula is an essentially individual one. Perhaps it has something to do with the contents: the nature of the ideas, or possibly their number. All great books contain multitudes; but it might be argued that the motor of Darwin's world-shaker is one big idea - evolution - whereas Das Kapital , like On War , is a behemoth of a book (indeed, several books in one), a yearning to say everything, unfinished, unreconciled and irreducible to any single proposition, unless it is, in Clausewitz's case, a dictum on politics and war. Marx for his part could certainly turn a phrase, and make a statement; it is a crying shame for the series that his best efforts in that line are located elsewhere. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
Another part of the biographical problem may be that the afterlife is a tricky thing either to substantiate or to encapsulate; and, in making the case for Shakers, the afterlife is probably the heart of the matter. All of the contributors thus far have recourse to much the same argument, in much the same tone, with more or less moralising. The point is put most succinctly by Christopher Hitchens in his paean to Paine and the Rights of Man : "In a time when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend." It is echoed and amplified by Blackburn, who indulges himself in a rare burst of rhetoric:
"At a time when the world's energy resources are disappearing, when many of our cultural resources as they were fashioned in the Enlightenment are similarly felt to be running out, when basing thought on reality is one lifestyle option among others and is seen by our own statesmen as such, when religious frenzy is counted as virtue, when democracy is sold to plutocracy across the Western world, when politicians openly deride the idea of a public service ethos in the Civil Service or the other professions, supplanting their higher ranks with placemen and spin-doctors, then our future may well depend on how profoundly we manage to respond to Republic ."
Shakers are among other things works of art. Their authors were in their fashion creative artists. (Wheen makes this the focus of his interpretation of Marx. It is a brilliant insight, for which he is indebted to the social theorist Marshall Berman, who was indebted to the art critic Meyer Schapiro, Marxists both.) Like all great art, books continue to mutate. "Old texts are frequently remade by new forms of attention," as Browne says, "and it appears that Darwin's Origin was both resilient in the survival of its main proposals and malleable in the hands of its devotees."
In other words, these texts are at the same time flexible and foundational. It is as if they fulfil a need, defined and redefined over time and place and station. "The message endures, as do its critics and its carriers," writes Bruce Lawrence, in a rather different register, as he contemplates the Noble Qur'an and Book of Signs. "The ocean will not be exhausted; its waves will sustain generation after generation." Lawrence is a subtle and sympathetic guide. This book must be heard , he notes (the name Qur'an means recitation). He proceeds by a series of historical "vignettes", tracing episodes in the Muslim experience and interpretation of the work. One of these vignettes in particular repays careful study in present circumstances. It concerns Osama bin Laden, the cave-dweller. Bin Laden deploys the Qur'an like a weapon. "He is not interested in interpretive niceties. He defines jihad as second in importance only to belief. He wants to take Qur'anic passages as proof texts rather than moral directives. He wants to create a rigid polarity between Muslim youth, who alone are righteous, and enemy occupiers, who along with native collaborators become legitimate targets of attack 'by any means possible'. His Qur'an is not a signpost but a grave marker."
Hitchens on Paine, a marriage made in heaven, is something of a disappointment. The organisation is confusing; the argument at times too dense, at times too allusive. Hitchens is as erudite as ever, but something is missing. Perhaps the dedication is a clue. "Dedicated by permission to President Jalal Talabani," it reads, "first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people's army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful and will inspire emulation." Leaving aside everything else (the promiscuous use of "fascism", the first president's serpentine past), "by permission" would surely have provoked the Hitchens of yesteryear - the one who savaged Isaiah Berlin as a tame eulogist, a lackey of the great and the good, and a feeble fellow-traveller of the Cold Warriors of Washington. That Hitchens had a certain magnificence and a mordant wit. Whatever happened to him?
Books that Shook the World is a brave notion. The first tranche is a mixed bag. They succeed as sprats. All of them will send readers off to sniff out the originals - some in delight, some in frustration. The more the merrier.
As Keynes knew, the word in the world is a slippery affair and a wonderful subject. "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." Scribblers of the world, unite!
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.
Author - Simon Blackburn
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 181
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84354 350 8