Sunday, August 8, 2010

The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written

The Most Influential Books Ever Written: the History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today
© 1998 Martin Seymour-Smith
498 pages

In retrospect, the introduction should have served as a warning to me.  Author Martin Seymour-Smith opened his The 100 Most Influential Books by elaborating on the subjectivity of terms like "best" and "greatest", maintaining that he preferred to evaluate books from a more quantifiable or objective basis, that of influence. After this promising start, he chose to spend six paragraphs berating Richard Dawkins and making it dead clear that The Selfish Gene would not appear in his book.  The bewildering viciousness of the seemingly random assault left me a mite puzzled. My facial expression resembled that of an anime-inspired emoticon, "o_O".  Yet for my love of the subject -- for I consider myself a generalist, and enjoy the full buffet of human experience  -- I pressed on.

The subject itself kept me reading the book, for it spans most human endeavors: philosophy, religion, history, science, literature, sociology, and psychology for starters. There were a few names on the list I'd never heard of, leading me onward -- but after two hundred pages in, the book simply ceased to be a pleasant experience.  Seymour-Smith wrote interestingly enough, but tended to ramble on to the detriment of his essays. In one six-page essay, he devoted four pages to biography of his subject and two slim paragraphs to the actual book, and those paragraphs told me nothing. Too many of the essays simply gave a dictionary-type definition of the concept for which a given author might be best known for, although there are a few -- mostly those concerning post-Enlightenment philosophy -- where he treats the subjects properly.  They are unfortunate exceptions: his essay on the Hebrew scriptures consists of a formulaic definition of the Torah followed by his grievances with modern Christianity. While I might share his grievances, I wondered why I was reading them instead of about the influence of the Hebrew scriptures.   It's not as if I'm keen on them, but I thought he might have some insight I had not heard. He didn't even broach the subject.

Seymour-Smith's unprofessionalism turned the already difficult process of reading his disorganized essays into an outright chore. Caustic tirades tended to erupt from his ramblings, confronting the reader with violent paragraphs with little to no connection to their source essays. For instance, while writing on Euclidean geometry Seymour-Smith decided to return to his rant against Dawkins.Christianity, atheism, clerks, and political correctness -- an altogether nebulous term he used so broadly that it lost all cohesion -- were favorite subjects of repeated scorn. The endless barrage of temper tantrums and petulant whining embedded inside paragraphs soured the experience for me, and became dull with repetition besides: how many times can a man refer to political correctness as "neo-Stalinist, tyrannical mediocrity" in one book? Where is his editor? .

One of the reasons I kept reading the book -- especially after he bellowed about both organized religion and atheism --  was to figure out what he did like. Although Seymour-Smith liked to employ scientific methodology as a means of seeming objective, he is no fan of rationalism or materialism. He refers to Epicureanism as an anti-superstitious philosophy and does not mean it as a compliment.  He reveres Jesus, refers to the Kabbalah often and fondly, and seems to enjoy natural philosophers with a background in mysticism (Newton, and to a lesser degree Kepler).  I believe he conflates science and meaning. Like Carl Sagan's fictional Joss Palmer, he rebukes science for failing to do something it was not designed explicitly to do: make people feel good. Science, Karl Popper be praised, isn't bronze-age cosmology.

Enjoyable subject, miserable book. This is one of the few books I regret having read. There's far too much childish kvetching and far too little thoughtful reflection.



  1. I suspect the reason the book seems disorganized may be that the author died early in the editing process and the publisher thought it best to publish the text as he provided it.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Ah -- that might also explain the lack of editing overall. Thanks.


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