Book review – Speeches that changed the World (Murdoch Books Pty Ltd Aust., ISBN 1 74045 663 7)
If I was going to write a book with that title, who would I include? How would I define a great speech? How would I determine those which “changed the world”? They are all questions that I had when I picked up this book in a secular bookstore recently, but I bought it anyway! It has taken a few months to get through, but I have now finished it, and in the process of trying to make sense of it, this report evolved.
Each speech has an introduction by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who very ably describes the history of the speaker and how this particular speech fits into history. The speeches are arranged chronologically, starting with Moses (The Ten Commandments), followed by Jesus (the sermon on the Mount) and Mohammed (early section of the Koran). As evident from the first three, the speakers come from a wide range of backgrounds, men as well as women, from all corners of the globe and all religious and political persuasions.
Simon Montefiore in his introduction admits that “a great speech does not just capture the truth of its era; it can also capture the big lie.” He has included some of the latter as well as the former. Some were obvious, and expected, like the Gettysburg Address, and Winston Churchill speaking to House of Commons in 1940, yet many more caught me by surprise, and challenged me to think deeply. I have never before read any of the speeches of Napoleon Bonaparte, or Mohandas Gandhi, or Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin and the impact was undeniable. There were some quotes that I knew, and had used many times but had never read in context like the famous “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. or the oft quoted lines from John F. Kennedy. Good scholarship demands that we deal with scripture in context yet when it comes to other sources we get a bit slack.
I found this book unsettling and challenging, whether it was Franklin Roosevelt’s historic response to the bombing of Pearl Harbour, or George W. Bush’s response to 9/11. Who could ignore the call of Mother Teresa who on receiving her Nobel Peace Prize affirmed “the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion” and “love begins at home”, or the courage of F.W. de Klerk announcing the end of Aparteid in South Africa.
For those of us who are often called upon to speak publicly, it is a great reminder of the power of the spoken word, and the awesome responsibility it brings. It may not be an enjoyable book to read but it will impact you if you let it.
Chaplain Ian Whitley