A Week in Books: Scraping off the crust of familiarity

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The Independent Culture

According to Woody Allen (in his classic Annie Hall), relationships - like sharks - must either move or die.

According to Woody Allen (in his classic Annie Hall), relationships - like sharks - must either move or die. The same goes for our relationship with great past works of art or thought. Without perpetual renovation, the classics will stiffen into fossils of purely academic interest. With that renewal, the most august masterpiece can blaze with a passion that burns away centuries of habit and cliché. I heard this happen at the Albert Hall on Sunday night - when Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted his Monteverdi Choir in a shattering performance of Bach's B minor Mass that made the grand old warhorse frisk and leap and dance.

For 40 years, Gardiner has applied his magic potion of scholarship and showbiz to the musical canon. A similar rebirth by reinterpretation takes place in the theatre all the time, while classic fiction benefits (or suffers...) from the attention of adapters for film, TV, radio and - increasingly - spoken-word audio. Novelists can also refresh their forebears in the canon by paying homage: this year, amazingly, the ghost of Henry James has stalked through new books by Colm Tóibín, Alan Hollinghurst, David Lodge and Toby Litt.

In contrast, classic non-fiction - the politics, philosophy, theology, history and science that helped to forge our mental and material worlds - gets taken too much for granted. Only when an epoch-making shift in belief rolls along (say, with the ascent of Darwin and the decline of Marx over the past two decades) do many general readers feel the urge to return to first principles.

Now, Penguin Classics has devised a way to scrape off the crust of familiarity and achieve a Gardiner-style shock of the renewed. Using the company's peerless backlist, the "Great Ideas" series offers short explosive volumes of polemic, testament or analysis drawn from landmark works. Tariq Ali has regretted the absence of non-European sages from the initial 20 titles, although he and Penguin seem to have forgotten that St Augustine came from what is now Algeria.

With a price tag of £3.99, the "Great Ideas" format means plain texts stripped of all notes and commentary. Striking covers - with beautiful typography that cleverly evokes the style of each period and author - slap you in the face with a soundbite-style quotation. Much of the list consists of classic calls-to-arms - Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto, naturally, with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Tom Paine's Common Sense - or evergreen reflective works, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Machiavelli's The Prince. Others make up mini-anthologies: four key essays by Orwell under the title "Why I Write"; or seven by Montaigne, called "On Friendship".

More confusingly, "Great Ideas" also presents bleeding chunks of longer works torn from their setting. This occurs with the slices of Augustine's Confessions (retitled "Confessions of a Sinner" for a red-top thrill), of Darwin and of Gibbon. The famous 15th chapter of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that marvel of anti-clerical sarcasm, appears self-contained as "The Christians and the Fall of Rome".

I admire and applaud the reasoning behind "Great Ideas". As their publisher, Simon Winder, says, the first readers of these works "came out feeling different - inspired, sharpened, moved, infuriated, distressed". So should we, just as a platitude-free version of Shakespeare or Bach can erase the passage of the centuries. Yet I worry that the year-zero approach of these editions - no context, no guidance, no explanation - could bewilder as many newcomers as it bewitches. Classics publishing may still await its John Eliot Gardiner, but at least this batch makes for a suitably inflammatory start.