My eye was, unsurpisingly, drawn to an article in the Guardian last week which was about a poll commissioned by the Folio Society for people to indicate the books they considered to be most influential to 'humanity'. I put that last word in quotation marks because the list appeared to bypass entire sections of humanity. The reason the list initially caught my eye was that the Bible came out top, closely followed by The Origin of the Species. I suspect this pairing reflects current Western preoccupations (indeed, current anglophone Western preoccupations) with a particular binary view of the interaction of science and religion. The writer asked whether the positions of these books would be reversed in a few years' time, further compounding my suspicion that the article is simply rehashing a tired progressivist understanding of some of the processes of secularisation, ie. old superstitious religion being replaced by new rational science until we all become enlightened and throw off the shackles of religious fantasy. Anyone with any idea of the complexities of history and the complexities of belief would shy away from such simplistic nonsense and the disservice it does to science, religion and humanity.
But the real issue for me behind the article - and, ok, I do accept that this is just one little poll which does not pretend to claim any universality - is that the list of works presented is completely Western in its bias. In the top ten, only the Qu'ran is not by someone writing in English. I suppose it is not surprising that a poll of people in the UK would have such a bias, but one can still at least hope for a more global view! And I might have hoped that those who put the poll together might have helped them along a bit by recognising that, at the very least, works in Chinese and Indian languages should be there. Surely the Analects of Confucius have had more impact on humanity than George Orwell. And even in the particular sphere in which 1984 is rightly acclaimed as a signficant work, would The Gulag Archipelago not have as strong a claim to influence?
Those of us who read English as our primary language are fortunate in having access to translations of most of the world's most significant books. It would be wonderful if our worldview shifted enough to let us see their value and begin to let go of the notion that we are at the centre of the planet. I recognise that this is not as easy as it seems and that it takes a significant effort to enter another system of thought (I'm tangling with Buddhist Sutras and Zen koan collections at the moment so I know just how demanding that can be!) but it's an effort worth making so that we get to know a little better just how the world really works.