A one-night stand with Marcus Aurelius

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I have been reading Marcus Aurelius. I would like to have written "I have been re-reading Marcus Aurelius", which has a much grander air, but it wouldn't be true and besides, we all have to start somewhere. The unusual pandar for this recent intercourse between a Roman emperor from the second century after Christ and a late 20th-century Briton was a penguin, a bird which it is doubtful Marcus Aurelius ever saw. (Perhaps one made its way along the trade routes, another piece of exotica to be slaughtered at conspicuous expense in the Colosseum, but it seems unlikely.)

On the second page of the little book I have been reading, Marcus Aurelius urges his readers to "Forget your thirst for books", which is presumably an in-joke on the part of the editors of Penguin 60s, a series of very small, very cheap books issued in celebration of the publisher's 60th anniversary. There are 60 titles in all, each costing 60 pence - a little more than most newspapers but considerably cheaper than any magazine. And, in flagrant disregard of Marcus Aurelius (a selection from whose Meditations fills one of the little volumes) they are clearly designed to increase your bookish appetites rather than diminish them.

Lodged in their neat display units, like butterflies in a gridded cabinet, they look intensely collectable - exciting the organ of acquisition in a way that must delight booksellers.They are strangely pleasing to the touch too, even though the paper is fairly cheap. The neat square format offers the pleasures of miniaturisation, the precious tidiness of compact discs - they appear to have been designed to fit into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. They wouldn't exactly be uncomfortable to sit on either - a few essays from Freud, Montaigne or Stephen Jay Gould, a couple of short stories by Updike, Narayan or Ambrose Bierce, or a single short novella - Bartleby by Herman Melville, for example.

But more importantly they allow for a permissive type of reading; they're so short that you can easily snatch a quickie on the train with Camus before a one-night stand with Eudora Welty. This feels like a guilty pleasure somehow, a promiscuity of attention, but Penguin 60s ease the guilt - they combine the dutiful satisfaction of sticking by a book with the lazy pleasure of running away. The result is a singularly amenable form of erudition. In fact, if you feel the need for it, there's always been a sanction for such intellectual Don Juanism - Dr Johnson was a notorious abuser of books (the sort of man who would use a slice of ham as a bookmark if nothing less moist came to hand) and his libertinism extended to their contents. When asked whether it was true that he never finished books Dr Johnson scornfully replied "No, Sir, do you read books through?" It's a very consoling remark for those with short attention spans, even if we conveniently forget that Johnsonian methods might not safely be separable from the Johnsonian mind.

But browsing, even though it has a bad reputation these days, is far better than no reading at all, and these seductive little books encourage it in just the right way - they provoke flirtations. Without Penguin 60s, I doubt that I would have made the acquaintance of Marcus Aurelius and I am very grateful for the introduction on this no long-term commitment basis. In fact, I suspect that Marcus Aurelius is perfectly suited to this form of publication because after only 30 pages of sober admonitions about the illusory nature of fame, riches and pleasure I already felt the stirrings of contradiction. Stoicism can look a lot like fatalism, and fatalism is presumably a great deal more attractive if fate has decided that you will be Emperor of Rome. "Even if what befalls is unpalatable, nevertheless always receive it gladly, for it makes for the health of the Universe", writes Marcus Aurelius. "The universe can catch a cold, for all I care," you imagine a sturdy Roman artisan replying, "just as long as nobody steals my donkey." It's amazing what 60 pence will buy you, isn't it? Now I can write "I have been taking issue with Marcus Aurelius", which feels even grander still.

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