This is the first book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 27 in the list and part of series two (the blue series).
My first thought when reading this book was that it's not really an idea as such, it's a description. My second thought was that it would've been nice to have some background to give the book context. My third thought was 'Duh! You have the internet and google skillz. Go find the background for yourself!'
Which I did :-)
Marco Polo, a Venetian, traveled to China in 1271 and returned back to Venice in 1291. I have vague recollections of reading a book about him, which argued that he never actually got as far as China when I was traveling to China myself in 1999 (a long time ago now :-). This is a relatively recent argument, based on omissions in Polo's description and the fact that there are no records of him serving Kublai Khan. However, I can appreciate why even the first readers of the book describes it as being filled with 'a million lies'. Polo's descriptions are extraordinary. Kublai Khan, who is by now relatively old (60-ish) lives a life of hunting and feasts, wives and concubines. Khan has hundreds of thousands of soldiers, four wives, a rotating roster of concubines, ten thousand hounds and a palace that can be taken down and constructed at will. I found it hard to believe he got any work done! Despite claims of falsehood, Polo's book was still remarkably influential, and widely popular hundreds of years before the advent of modern printing.
This book does not tell the whole of Polo's travels in China (Cathay). As far as I can tell, it is in fact book two of four. Despite my skepticism of the veracity of the contents, I do love the way that it's written. It's a very chatty style with lots of 'Oh!! I must tell you about...' and 'I almost forgot to mention...', which perhaps ties in with the fact that Marco Polo didn't actually write the book himself, but instead dictated it to Rustichello da Pisa (while Polo was in prison). While I don't feel that this 'great idea' has particularly changed or influenced me, I can appreciate that much of it's impact is probably lost after 700-odd years. Still, it was a enjoyable read and an easy introduction to the series.