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Who’d have thought it

Penguin’s Great Ideas series is too Eurocentric, too male – but at least it’s made it cool to pull a

Just over a year ago, the Bookseller announced the third and final series of Penguin Great Ideas. According to Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Classics, "Sixty [three batches of 20] feels like a lot of great ideas, and if you went beyond that, you would begin to be scraping the barrel." But here we are, a year on, with yet more Great Ideas coming out and plans in hand for a fifth series; and, it has to be said, there is little sense of any barrels having been scraped.

The series, which began in 2004, has been one of the conspicuous publishing triumphs of the new millennium. Penguin took a mixed bag of out-of-copyright texts - a bit of philosophy, a bit of political polemic, some belles-lettres - some of them obscure, none of them an obvious crowd-pleaser, and, with clever repackaging, turned them into a highly commercial proposition. Almost two and a half million books have been shifted so far. Simon Winder, publisher of Penguin Press, offers John Ruskin as an example of the series' success. The standard Penguin Classics selection of his writings, with an introduction and explanatory notes, sells a steady hundred or so copies every year; Ruskin's On Art and Life, the first of two selections published in Great Ideas, stripped of apparatus and given an attractive floral design, has sold 35,000 in five years.

The original great idea was Winder's, though he is careful not to hog the credit, much of which he insists on passing on to the Italian series the Piccola Biblioteca Adelphi. Winder first encountered these slim, elegant editions through a volume of Schopenhauer at a railway bookstall in Italy. What struck him was where the books were being sold, their weight, and their cheapness. At the time he was, he says, uneasy about the extent to which Penguin Classics, conceived by Allen Lane and E V Rieu as a way of getting great literature into the hands of the general public, had been "encased in ownership material".

It is not hard to identify the sort of thing he means: M A Screech's much-praised complete edition of Montaigne's essays springs to mind - some of the most transparent writing in western literature, so armoured with explanation and context that it becomes practically unreadable. The Great Ideas were a way of giving the reader "a direct line to the author". Publishers have regularly made efforts to pre-digest great thinkers of the past on behalf of the reader - Oxford's Past Masters, say - but there has been a surprising reticence about inflicting the actual writers, in their own words, on an unprepared public. Plunging unaided into The Social Contract, you may not grasp everything Rousseau is saying, but what you are getting is Rousseau, undiluted, unmitigated.

The Great Ideas are cheaper and less forbiddingly bulky than Penguin Classics, but what really sets them apart is their beauty. Design has always been one of Penguin's strengths, but David Pearson's treatment for Great Ideas takes paperbacks into a new league: strong single colours (red, then blue, then green) on debossed card. Pearson's background is in typography, and the first series relied on words alone, re-creating the look of a title page from the appropriate period - 18th century for Swift's Tale of a Tub, modernist severity for Freud's Civilisation and Its Discontents; the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius looked like an inscription on a Roman tomb. For the first time it was cool to pull a volume of Edmund Burke from your pocket. Winder recalls standing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, watching people snapping the books up "like candy".

Not everybody loves Great Ideas without qualification. The series has been criticised for being too Eurocentric, too male. It's true that of the first 60 books only four were by women - Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, Christine de Pizan and Hannah Arendt; the latest batch of 20 adds only another selection of Woolf's essays. It's also true that an overwhelming number of the writers are white. But I think Winder is right to meet these complaints with a shrug. Great Ideas represent the view from here, not from some imaginary, neutral mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific territory. The series has, on the whole, resisted tokenism in favour of continuities of debate: what was satisfying about Frantz Fanon's appearance in last year's third series, in the shape of an extract from The Wretched of the Earth, was that he stood alongside Burke, Trotsky and Ruskin - that he was treated not just as a post-colonial thinker, but as a philosopher arguing on equal terms about the nature of politics, violence and freedom. And the problem with female writers is that they have been marginalised, and too many of the significant ones are still in copyright: Simone de Beauvoir's publishers refused Winder permission to republish her work.

Harder to counter is the criticism that too many of the works are extracts from longer books. Winder himself agrees that this can be a problem - last year's batch included a chunk of Foucault, "which, even as I was reading it, struck me as a waste of time". But, he says, "If you really want to read Schopenhauer, you're better off getting a proper edition. But if you want to know why you should read Schopenhauer . . ." This is reasonable but ignores the real problem: not that the books contain extracts only, but that they are not clearly marked as such. It would be easy to buy a copy of the John Locke in the latest batch and not realise that you were getting sample chapters from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke is one of several gaping holes plugged by this new batch, along with William James, on behalf of American pragmatism, and Immanuel Kant, whose brief essay on the meaning of Enlightenment (in summary, it is freedom through the use of reason) could be taken as an apologia for this entire series. The English tradition of essay-writing is beefed up by the presence of Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey and Robert Louis Stevenson (somewhat out of fashion as an essayist). Some writers get a second outing: Woolf, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Marx (even though mystifyingly we get a selection of his newspaper journalism, when such great polemics as The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon are begging for a popular reprint); Orwell makes a third appearance.

For the first time, the series tries fiction - the Grand Inquisitor episode from The Brothers Karamazov, which stands comfortably on its own; and a selection of soliloquies and short scenes from Shakespeare on the themes of "Power in government", "Power in the family", "Power in war and violence" and "Power in love". In justification, Winder cites someone who told him that although Shakespeare is one of the great Renaissancethinkers on power, we have to sit through those tedious plays to get to the good bits. Yet Shakespeare is a dramatist, displaying thought through plot, action and character; stripped of context, his ideas look dull and unsubtle.

The biggest revelation is Joseph de Maistre, the arch-critic of the Enlightenment, usually encountered through the filter of Isaiah Berlin. He is a strikingly old-fashioned, conservative thinker, but his anticipation of strands of American conservatism is patent, and it is a smart riposte to Kant (although Kant wins, naturally). The outstanding volume in this batch, though, is Why Look at Animals? by John Berger - thanks to the intervention of Geoff Dyer, the first living writer to be featured in Great Ideas. Berger's writings on man's place in nature can be annoyingly gnomic, but the theme could hardly be more timely; and he has delivered a batch of drawings of mice and a new short story on a mouse theme. This book is also notable for its cover, a homage to Fifties Pelicans by Pearson and Joe McLaren.

Elsewhere, it must be said, Pearson et al seem to be running out of steam. For the first time, with W E B Du Bois and Abraham Lincoln (The Gettysburg Address), he resorts to drawings of the author, and neither is successful (Du Bois ends up looking like Lenin). Some of the covers feel like rehashes: the Johnson, Consolation in the Face of Death, is printed on a black background, as was Burke's The Evils of Revolution last time round. William James has a picture of an abattoir - marvellous, but little to do with the book's theme.

Still, the overall standard is very high. Stevenson's An Apology for Idlers gets an amusing half-drawn cover. The title of Orwell's Decline of the English Murder becomes a headline in a postwar newspaper. An anthology of Zen fables - paradoxes and enigmas irritating beyond words, to my mind - gets a simple "O" painted with a brush, but underneath is the zinger, a tiny violet pictogram of a penguin.

There are still gaps to be filled, and the fifth series will include Heidegger, Descartes, Mill and Dickens's journalism. Winder now says a hundred volumes feels "about right". But as long as there are writers yet unpublished (Aristotle? Coleridge? Bentham? A Huxley or two?), or with more to say (Hume? Hobbes? Adam Smith? Darwin?), that barrel looks awfully deep.

The Great Ideas series titles are published by Penguin (priced £4.99 each)

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood