You’re either brave or happy to court controversy if you choose to write a book with this kind of title unless you mean it to be taken with a pinch of salt. You lay yourself open to be shot down in flames, ridiculed for your ignorance and put right by every Tom, Dick and Henrietta who knows a thing or two about books. Andrew Taylor has valiantly stuck his head above the parapet and while some of his choices are predictable, some are not.
Before I opened it I tried to think of three titles that I felt may have gone some way to change the world in one way or another but which might have been omitted. The first was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because I remember selling the second instalment to children who the minute it was theirs sat on the shop’s stairs and got stuck in, oblivious to anyone else. It doesn’t matter what you think about the Potter series’ literary merits it introduced reading to children all over the world who may not have found their way to the habit otherwise and continues to do so. My second was Pamela because it’s often claimed as first English novel and the third was Diderot’s Encyclopédie because it’s emblematic of the French Enlightenment which has shaped modern Europe. The first was in, the second wasn’t but Taylor claims The Canterbury Tales as ‘the first masterpiece of creative literature in the vernacular English of its time’ so that’ll do but no sign of Diderot which does seem quite a big omission.
Readers better educated than me are bound to come up with missing books they feel passionately about and argue that others should not be there. That said it’s an interesting list, ranging from The Iliad to Quotations from Chairman Mao by way of The Prince, The Wealth of Nations, Madame Bovary, The Telephone Directory, On the Origin of Species, The Interpretation of Dreams, If This is a Man and Silent Spring to name but a few. I was somewhat taken aback to find that the first feminist text was The Second Sex – what about A Vindication of the Rights of Women? And you might roll your eyes at the inclusion of the telephone directory but Taylor’s persuasive on that one. The entries are brief, offering a context for the book and reasons for its presence on Taylor’s list – it’s a useful starting point but no substitute for the real thing, obviously. I’m sure you have your own ideas for such a list. Do let me know what they are.