So, In Summary, I Should Be in Charge of Everything

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are.

I hear James Earl Jones reading that.

This was meant to be short. I saw that Steve, Andrew and, most thoroughly, Mark had commented on Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and thought I’d leave the topic alone (I’m not having people say that if they jumped off a cliff, I would too. I’d probably blog it, though. I mean it’d be worth mentioning, surely, three british lit bloggers all jumping off a cliff together? Either some co-incidence, or a very strange event. I guess I’d be a suspect. But why would I do it? It’s not like there’s money or power or sex in this game. I’d feel pretty sad, even though I’ve only really exchanged emails with them.)

But then I looked at looked at the list, and a few things nagged at me, and I wrote them down, and it got out of hand. Here we go.

1)Why does the Swift look like a nineteenth century circus poster? Did the designer fall asleep on the design history train and wake up a hundred years north of his stop? And why are they including a defence of the Anglican Church and biblical authority in this series? Both of those are terrible ideas.

2)There’s the problem with some of these books. I’m second to none in my love for Swift: I believe there is no better prose writer; Gulliver’s Travels is my favourite book; and I am committed to keeping alive the Swiftian tradition of confused relationships with women. Regulars also know my passion for Hazlitt. However, I don’t really see that either of these really fit in a series dedicated to great ideas. Penguin put a chunk of ‘The Fight’ on the webpage for the Hazlitt collection. ‘The Fight’ is an essay that I like a lot, so I think I can give you a fair summary of the great idea which drives it: ‘bare knuckle boxing is a hoot and a half’. Now this, as Penguin’s Press release says, is truly one of those ideas that ‘have enriched lives – and destroyed them’; but I’m unconvinced reissuing the essay is going to make a huge difference in an age of ten-ounce gloves and eight counts.

To return to the topic in hand. This isn’t the place for Swift. It’d be better to represent the deftest thinker Britain’s given the world, David Hume. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion would be perfect for this series:

Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.

We should wonder that Hume wrote this without living to see a world where Hollyoaks is transmitted six days of the week.

They’re out of copyright, Penguin, out of copyright! And I know a man who’d edit them for seventy quid.

Call it fifty, cash in hand.

3)Why is the Montaigne called ‘On Friendship’? It’s taking its name from I.28, ‘De L’AmitÈ’; in the Penguin edition of the Essays, as translated by M.A. Screech, that’s ‘On Affectionate Relationships’. Unless there’s been a revision (possible – my edition’s a decade old), they’ve changed the title back to something a little catchier. Here’s a section of Screech’s introduction to the essay:

[I]n Renaissance French amitÈ includes many affectionate relationships, ranging from a father’s love for his child (or for his brain-child) to the friendly services of a doctor or lawyer, to that conjugal love felt by Montaigne for his wife, and to that rarest of lasting friendships which David shared with Jonathan, Roland with Oliver, or Montaigne with La BoÎtie[…]

He goes on to explain this definition of amitÈ at length. By refusing to take an easy, conventional option, he’s attempting to be scrupulous and accurate; he’s doing us a fine service by helping us to reach Montaigne. If you change the title back, you’re undoing that work. You’re taking great ideas and turning them into aromatherapy on paper.

(And a casual reservation: there’s a lot of Montaigne. Depending on how you select 128 pages of him you’ll either have a clear-sighted & honest analysis of man that shines down to the bottom of our follies and complexities; or you’ll screw it up and lay out a buffet of whimsy & empty Stoic nobility. I hope Penguin have gone for the former, but I’m skeptical).

(And look, I know Hazlitt’s isn’t just singing the praises of scrapping; that, besides being lord of all sports writing, fresh and excited, it’s an amazing buzz round the ideas of ‘fancy’, immediacy, and nature. Let me have my fun. We’re going to be here for a while, and if I can’t be stupid, I’ll get bored. You wouldn’t like me when I’m bored. In fact, I bet you don’t like me now. Forgive me. It’s the coffee talking.)

4)Augustine’s Confessions! Glad to see Penguin are doing something to counter the Manichaeans’ wicked attempts to corrupt our children. Again, wtf? Augustine does have all the ideas you could want; and those ideas are among the most important in Western history. However, if you want to dig in that deep dark hole, you really ought to be reading the City of God. That’s the problem with the list – a lot of worthwhile ideas resist this kind of commodified consumption. You can’t sit down for an hour or two, romp through his sinful days, and ‘get’ Augustine; not, at least, so as to say or know anything interesting about his work. It’s a virtue of books that they take time to read: it lets them grow into you.

5)Ditto Gibbon. I’ve been back with the Funky Monkey recently, enjoying The Amazing Adventures of Genseric, King of the Vandals (his working title for Volume IV) and I was thinking yesterday how he doesn’t quite work in selection: the enormity of the thing, and the potential for immersion can’t, by definition, be compressed. Even beyond the prose and the flow of the narrative, the variety of it is necessary: to get the feel of the whole you need the portraits, cultural surveys, and theological excursus (‘Persian Theology, Two Principles’). Though he’s never dull (I wouldn’t be dull if I had that prose style), there’s a special excitement that comes when he’s been laying out the later stages of a reign for a while, and you just know that he’s about to do a big, elegant summation that offers a poised ethical critique and deadly political analysis. God I love Gibbon. Anyway, as I was saying, it only works questionably in extraction.

I got through that a description of a long work of history without using ‘sweep’. Gold Star from the anti-clichÈ squad.

6)If you’re going to extract, then Schopenhauer does make more sense. I don’t know what Penguin have chosen, but as he’s an aphorist of genius, it’s likely that someone picking up this book will take a crack at the longer works; it’s a progression that makes sense. I don’t think that’s the case with the many of the other authors, Nietzsche excepted.

I can’t resist. Let’s get the Schopen’ in!

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another animal with those of the animal being eaten.

One more:

If you want to discover your true opinion of anybody, observe the impression made on you by the first sight of a letter from him.

I think that one might seem shallow, or facile: but it’s oddly, usefully true.

7)The Classical (or rather Latin) choices are shocking. You can fit Heraclitus into one of these £3.99 editions, and have space left for plenty more Pre-Socratics; or you can grab some Plato; or go for something Epicurean. We, though, get Seneca and Marcus Fucking Aurelius. Why such conservative choices? Are they looking to catch some crumbs from the table of The fucking Prophet? Isn’t it a little late for a Gladiator tie-in? Would letting the wild boys off the leash cut into Penguin’s (I’m guessing) £8.99 editions of the Pre-Socratics?

8)Thomas a Kempis. I’m honestly seeing fucking red with this one. You have the history of thought to deal with – all of it, from all over the world, and all of time, and you choose a mystic shill for the religion of slaves and children. Again, if you’ve got to pick Christians, pick the good ones: Penguin have Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard. However, the point is that the list has too much of that shit already: you could put the Tao Te Ching in here, or Chuang Tzu. Would that be bad? Slightly less conservative decision, and a useful attempt to reclaim them from the new age scum. You could put in the Analects, or, as John Sutherland suggests, Mao’s Red Book, a real world-changer. No. Penguin instead go for Thomas A fucking Kempis.

The website for the series mentions twice that this is the book that Bill Clinton turned to during the Lewinsky scandal (or ‘Monicagate’ as they believe it’s called). Why are they telling me this? Are they suggesting that if I read The Imitation of Christ I’ll learn how to pacify a weakened left through liberal rhetoric while, with savage pragmatism, implenting policies designed to sate the blood-lust of the Christian right?

It’s a bad sign, that reference to Clinton. Andrew at 3am suggests the list gives ‘fifty quid bloke’ a way to impress girls; I think it’s even worse – some chunk of the selection is meant to give Captains of Industry something to mull over while they’re munching on babies.

(Not that I’m sure ‘Captains of Industry’ still exist. I think of Captains of Industry as getting married to Ballet Dancers. Maybe it’s just businessmen marrying models now.)

I have not time to explain why my objections to TAK are different to to my problem with the Confessions when both are christian. Make something up.

9)I’m frankly sick of myself at this point. So just quickly, without fact-checking, I think Penguin publish a bit of Foucault, Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts. some Arendt – really a pretty okay list for the Twentieth Century. What do we get? Darling of the sell-outs and dullards, Orwell. Orwell! The very name is like a bell-end.

10)Everyone’s already pointed to the Continuum Impacts series. It’s frustrating that there’s no complete list of titles up, but it does look good. The world’s needed cheap theory for a while: the fact that a slim Derrida can hurt you for seventeen pounds is an important and infrequently discussed fact. Once you’re cut off from a university library that money barrier essentially acts as a class wall: only the clerics have access to the sacred texts.

Enough! Or too much!

On reflection, the latter.