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20 August 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

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

By Robert Hanks

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.

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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)

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