Great Ideas - Series Five

The idealistic view of Great Ideas - slim paperback volumes of philosophy, polemic, essays, belles-lettres - is that the existence of the series demonstrates that Penguin has not abandoned Allen Lane's notion, now 75 years old, of making excellent literature attractive through good design and reasonable pricing. The idealist can also point out that gratifyingly healthy sales, now well into the millions, show that even though publishers are quailing before the onslaught of the digital media, the public appetite for thoughtful writing and beautiful books is still sharp. A cynic might retort that, as most of the titles in the series are abridged or excerpted from works already in the public domain, what Penguin demonstrates is that even Kierkegaard and Proust can turn a profit so long as you pander to the modern consumer's preference for pleasure delivered in bite-sized packages with cool and desirable wrappings.

The cynic has a point. The latest batch of 20 Great Ideas - bringing the whole series to a century - includes only four complete and self-contained works: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Freud's case history The "Wolfman", Lenin's Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Theodor Herzl's manifesto for Zionism, The Jewish State. The remainder are abridgements and selections, some more coherent than others. The inclusion of one woman only (George Eliot on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists) smacks of thoughtless tokenism.

Several of the titles - the British authors are particularly prone to this - are light on ideas: Night Walks is a selection of Dickens's reportage, descriptively brilliant but short of any sense of unseen economic or social pressures. Some Extraordinary Popular Delusions, taken from Charles Mackay's 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, is excellent popular history with an edge of (somewhat orotund) freakish humour, but Mackay's anecdotes of catchphrases and financial bubbles don't seem to have pointed him towards any deep thoughts about society and desire. Winston Churchill's wartime speeches, under the title We Will All Go Down Fighting to the End, are essential texts for students of rhetoric and pluck, but designed to bypass intellectual responses and aim for the gut. The cynic might wonder, too, how pressing is the need for yet another collection of Orwell's essays. Does Penguin have a department dedicated solely to repackaging the great man's work?

But cynicism seems like the wrong response, for reasons both superficial and profound. The superficial reason is that the books are so darned gorgeous - slim and pocket-sized, bound in debossed card (which makes them vulnerable to ink blots, but gives them a lovely, soft texture), and with artful covers, overseen by David Pearson, that do more than complement the contents: they remind the reader that the business of printing and design has been central to the western intellectual tradition. Each batch of Great Ideas has had a characteristic colour - red, blue, green, purple, and this time an attractive orangey brown, which on some covers fades into a creamy background, but on others stands out from pure white.
There are one or two failures here. A selection from the Greek stoic Epictetus, entitled Of Human Freedom, is presented as a mosaic, the dullest way imaginable of evoking the classical world. For On Conspiracies, excerpted from Machiavelli's Discourses, Pearson sets the title in heavy Gothic type, the author's name in a version of that decorated with peculiar porcupine bristles. The effect is contrived. But other covers, on examination, offer more than meets the eye. There is no immediately obvious reason why Rabindranath Tagore, writing on nationalism, gets a version of a 1930s Canadian Pacific poster by Charles J Greenwood advertising Lake Louise in the Rockies, with an ocean liner superimposed. But the image speaks clearly of period, of sense of place, of commerce between nations, of empire (and just think of the Indian clichés escaped).

An Image of Africa, which couples Chinua Achebe's celebrated assault on Conrad's Heart of Darkness with his 1983 essay "The Trouble with Nigeria", is oddly tacky and melodramatic - the title in brash, torn lettering over a shadowy picture of trees and water. But this is an image of Africa as it might be seen on a film poster from the 1950s, a nondescript place of interest only as a setting for the conflicts of white folk.

Bibliophiles can also wallow in Pearson's allusions to designers of the past: Churchill and Lenin both get covers inspired by the Swiss modernist Richard Paul Lohse (the Lenin, with its alternating bars or brown and black, is es­pecially beautiful); Orwell's Thoughts on the Common Toad has row upon row of amiable amphibians, parodying or paying homage to the tiers of penguins on Gwen White's King Penguin from 1946, A Book of Toys.

The deeper reasons for dismissing cynicism about the Great Ideas are, first, the occasional startling discoveries. Last year it was the anti-Enlightenment thinker Joseph de Maistre; this year it is the Italian romantic Giacomo Leopardi, with Dialogue Between Fashion and Death (Fashion claims Death as her sister - both are bent on renovating the world). Alongside the one-offs are the broader coherences: Tagore on nationalism sits tidily with Herzl on the Jewish state (and isn't it worth being reminded that Zionism was once a utopian, left-leaning ideology?); Machiavelli is a useful accompaniment to Burckhardt on the Renaissance state (The State As a Work of Art).

Even more impressive is the way that arguments on vast themes extend across the 100 books - the absurdity of existence, from the Stoics to Albert Camus; the violence that underpins empire; our deluded notions of the conditions for happiness; the nature of freedom; the flaws in capitalism; art and modernity. The whole series has included some petty ideas and non-ideas, but greatness has certainly been evident. Penguin insists that the project has now reached a terminus; I hope that the company changes its mind. There are still plenty of good ideas out there.

Great Ideas - Series Five
Various authors
Penguin, £4.99 each

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right