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Old 7th Sep 2004, 15:14   #1
John Self
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Default Penguin's Great Ideas series

I am much tempted by this new series of short classic books (or extracts) with a philosophical flavour, which are reported on in today's Guardian:

Quote:
Penguin pack big ideas into tiny tomes

Steven Morris
Tuesday September 7, 2004

Sitting in a sticky Italian railway station last summer, the publisher Simon Winder was surprised and impressed when he noticed a book rack crammed not with blockbusting bestsellers but philosophical texts. "It was odd that in this hardscrabble part of Italy you could still turn up at a railway station and pick up a copy of Nietzsche," he said, "We do not really have that tradition in the UK."
Back at the headquarters of Penguin Books, Mr Winder decided to try to inspire readers to discover or revisit some of the great philosophical and revolutionary writers.

The result is a series of 20 titles thin enough to slip into a commuter's pocket featuring thinkers and revolutionaries from Seneca to George Orwell, from Machiavelli to Ruskin, St Augustine to Marx and Engels.

Penguin hopes that the "Great Ideas" series, which is published this week, will tap into the sort of popular thirst for knowledge that the BBC campaign The Big Read highlighted.

Inevitably it also provoked scepticism from some critics and writers who believe Penguin may have been too conservative in its choices and focused too much on well-known western thinkers.

John Sutherland, professor of modern English literature at University College London, yesterday led the assault, suggesting there was an "inherent timidity of textual choice".

He said: "What the editors have done is to choose the short and easy option every time ... bite-sized snippets from Hazlitt, Orwell, Woolf, Freud etc. Hanging over the project is the sense that this curriculum is all you need and one senses a disinclination to raise the hurdle too high for the paying customer. This list shrinks down great ideas to smarty-sized sweety size."

Other commentators point out the lack of Chinese, Indian and Islamic thinkers in Penguin's choice. There has also been cynicism from some quarters that the series is nothing more than a "marketing tool" designed to find new buyers for Penguin's back catalogue.

AC Grayling, reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, disagreed. He claimed the majority of the "great ideas" which had changed the world had originated from western thinkers rather from the east.

Dr Grayling also rejected the idea that the series was nothing but a cynical marketing tool, saying: "If we show people that there are interesting and accessible ideas in these works it may draw them into the great treasure trove of ideas. It is a good thing."

The publisher, Mr Winder, accepted there were bound to be "huge disagreements" about his choices but found the idea that a selection of writings which inspired revolutions across the globe could be regarded as conservative or safe "ridiculous".

He was irritated, too, at the charge that the series was too western in its outlook, arguing he would have been seen as "tokenism" if he had picked one Indian and one Chinese philosopher.

Mr Winder said: "Each of the books selected has transformed the way we see ourselves and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution."

It is expected that 1 million of the volumes will be in print by the end of the year. If they prove successful, Mr Winder said it would help disprove the theory that the Britain's cultural life is on the decline.

He said: "I do not hold with the idea that society is dumbing down. I can enjoy watching a film in the afternoon in which Ninja turtles fight with dinosaurs and then settle down with Gibbon's The Christians and the Fall of Rome in the evening."

Pocket philosophy

Seneca On the Shortness of Life
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
St Augustine Confessions of a Sinner
À Kempis The Inner Life
Machiavelli The Prince
Montaigne Of Friendship
Swift A Tale of a Tub
Rousseau The Social Contract
Gibbon The Christians and the Fall of Rome
Paine Common Sense
Ruskin On Art and Life
Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Hazlitt On the Pleasure of Hating
Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto
Schopenhauer On the Suffering of the World
Darwin On Natural Selection
Nietzsche Why I am So Wise
Woolf A Room of One's Own
Freud Civilisation and Its Discontents
Orwell Why I Write
I think the criticisms utterly miss the point. Great ideas being "shrunk down to a smarty-sized sweety size"? Yes please! Frankly I am doubtful of my ability to read even these 128-page editions. Nothing more than a "marketing tool" to find new buyers for their back catalogue? Well, duh... I'll be taking a few of them certainly, not least because of their extraordinarily beautiful production: the covers are thick white card deeply embossed with the lettering, and brilliantly designed. These images give only a glancing impression:









And only £3.99 a pop! Go fetch!
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Old 7th Sep 2004, 15:58   #2
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I wonder how the selection was done. If it was on the basis of "impact" on world events then alongside "The Communist Manifesto" perhaps we should also have had a chapter of "Mein Kampf".
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Old 7th Sep 2004, 16:13   #3
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That's what Prof. John Sutherland said too:

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If stimulus is desired I would add to the list such works as Hitler's Mein Kampf, Mao's Little Red Book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - odious as they are, [it is] these books which, it seems to me, liberal intellectuals must combat.
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Old 7th Sep 2004, 18:48   #4
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Well, I'm not sure I like agreeing with a "liberal intellectual".
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Old 7th Sep 2004, 21:15   #5
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You consider yourself illiberal, Notty??
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Old 8th Sep 2004, 9:38   #6
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Oh, decidedly so. But perhaps not in the sense of which you were asking. :wink:

I note you didn't ask if I consider myself an intellectual. :D
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Old 8th Sep 2004, 10:33   #7
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Looking at the list, there's only two of them I've read - or, rather, tried to read, and that's Darwin and Machiavelli. I'm enthusiastic about Darwin, but the book is very indigestible and long-winded. Machiavelli was fascinating, but also rather hard to read. I suspect all the others (with the possible exception of Orwell) are pretty yawnworthy.

I'd tend to add a volume of Homer or Virgil's Aeneid to their list.

However, I applaud Penguin's commercial initiative here. They'll sell this series to lots of people who want to bring their bookshelves up-market.

But if they really wanted to educate the masses, they'd have done better to get a good ghost writer to do big, readable essays, delivering the substance of the philosophy, rather than the originals. (vide Sophie's World, though I think that went too far)

Why? Well, compare this to scientific thought. No serious scientist reads Principia Mathematica or The Origin of Species or Michelson & Morley's papers on the speed of light unless they're interested in the history or development of science.

What we scientists get instead are well-written text books which may go into great detail of theory and calculation, but only mention in passing the blind alleys that form a great part of most of scientific endeavour.

What the non-professional intelligent public gets are well-written digests of the subject, written in an appealing fashion by Kip Thorne, Asimov, Sagan, Martin Gardner, John Gribben, Simon Singh et al. There are also occasional successes from real scientists like Hoyle, Penrose, Dawkins and Hawking.

So, it's nice to know these original books are around and available, and they'll sell for the wrong reasons, mostly, but they'll not be read very much, in my opinion.
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Old 19th Sep 2004, 13:38   #8
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Anyone desperately seduced by these little books may be interested to know that you can get all 20 in a nice box on bol.com for £25 (I can't do a direct link but search for "Penguin"), which is not bad as the cover price is £3.99 each.
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Old 31st Oct 2004, 13:28   #9
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...Which I did, and now have the set atop my bureau in the living room to make me look all intellectual and stuff. Then I realised that these old geezers might actually have something to teach me from across the millennia and decided to start reading them. So I have just finished Seneca's On The Shortness of Life:



In which Seneca - the Stoic philosopher - tells us that life is only short because we waste most of it:

Quote:
We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.
By "managing it properly" Seneca seems to mean being more or less completely selfish:

Quote:
Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another's control...
So much for wage-slaves, carers or the compromises of a long-term relationship. However it's never quite clear how Seneca expects people to fill this new-found time, now that they've no friends, job or money to occupy it. The closest we get is his injunction that we should spend our time studying the philosophers - like him, presumably. So it was a scam to get more people to buy his letters! Still, if shortness of life is such a great concern, you'd think Seneca would have given more consideration to shortness of book. He doesn't half repeat himself, and never gives one example when six will do.

The shortness-of-life stuff takes up 30-odd pages and the rest is made up of two parts, a consolation to his mother for some grief or other which I didn't bother reading enough to identify, and a piece "On Tranquillity of Mind", which urges low expectations at all times so that one is always prepared for the worst to happen and can deal with it when it does. And he has a neat line in correcting what Alain de Botton would call Status Anxiety:

Quote:
And let us not envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.
I feel wiser already.
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Old 31st Oct 2004, 14:05   #10
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Or, as Kevin Costner put it, "The wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain". I wondered and still do how he could have come by that insight.

I don't know to whom to attribute this, but it strikes me as being absolutely right: It's not that life is too short, it's that death is so long.
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