I played a good dinner-party game this week. Well, it was over a long lunch but the conversation could easily have tided us over until dinner. Stefan McGrath, the MD of Penguin Press, started it.
“What imaginary book combines your ignorance with your interest?” he asked. What book would you read to fill a hole in your brain that you had always wanted to fill but had never got round to doing so, partly because the subject was so big and complicated? More interestingly, who would you like to write this book for you? Who would do a good job of explaining: simply, freshly, engagingly?
Everyone was a little quiet at first – perhaps no one likes to admit to black spots of ignorance – but then imaginations started flowing. Boreal forests, said McGrath. The 19th-century communications revolution, said the historian Orlando Figes. The rules of global journalism, said the economist Ha-Joon Chang. Everything about fashion, said a man whose wife had told him he should be interested in it. The floodgates were opened: dinosaurs, Trotsky, the origins of language, robotics, Russian wooden churches (yes, really!), the British Parliamentary System, the American civil war.
For me, it was the mysteries of physics. To pick up a book, written by a plain-speaking type, who could make the meaning of Einstein’s mystical E=mc2 available to me, who could describe the edge of space and how we are only a whisker away from travelling through time. To read a book like that would unlock the mysteries of a subject that has always been on the hinterland of my understanding, that has nothing to do with the rest of my life or my work, but that
appeals to my imagination. Or what about Islam and terrorism, maybe Tariq Ramadan or Karen Armstrong, separating myth from Koran edict – or at least clarifying interpretations around them. McGrath’s ears seemed to be waggling as the table became animated. That is because, in May, Penguin will re-introduce the Pelican series – remember them? – which aim to do exactly as his dinner-party game suggests: discover the meeting point between people’s interests and their ignorance, whatever the subject, however esoteric or off-the-wall, in an accessible, pocket-sized way.
Figes will write on revolutionary Russia, Ha-Joon on economics, Bruce Hood, the experimental psychologist, will summarise the brain and social behaviour. And that’s only the starting point. Ha-Joon felt there was no subject that couldn’t be explained in plain language; Figes agreed, though Hood made the point that university education seemed somehow to have become utilitarian – students read the books they saw as useful, the ones they needed (and not necessarily wanted) to read.
It may not only be students who do this. Are books, in the wider world, losing their associations with learning for learning’s sake and acquiring a capitalist purpose – learning for the market’s sake? What would you, the reader, read, for reading’s sake? Tell Pelican. If you also have a writer in mind, then all the better (Jonathan Ross on Korean martial arts films? Mary Berry on Madeleines? Kate Adie on the long BBC pip?). Tweet your suggestions to #PelicanBooks or go to www.pelicanbooks.com. The commissioners at Pelican are keeping watch, so set your imaginations free!
Not a good news day: Alain de Botton’s advert, and apology
On the day that the press reported the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a half-page newspaper advert appeared, berating “you”, the reader, about your craving for “the gritty details of his demise”. The advert then recapped these gritty details (the needle in his arm, the bathroom). It went further to scold: “This knowledge [of Seymour Hoffmann’s suffering] is so satisfying that you’ve barely noticed the article about a proposed sculpture trail in East London. Why are you more concerned about an actor’s death than an arts project...”
The point behind this (as far as I’m concerned) distasteful and disrespectful diatribe came at the end: it was there to advertise Alain de Botton’s new book, The News, which tells the media where it’s going wrong. De Botton apologised thus: “The idea behind this was to have a reactive advertising campaign... to question both the way the news is presented and how we consume it. Because it was reactive, the copy needed to be written on the spot... I wasn’t available to check it... but I trusted the agency to get it right. It was a horrible lapse of judgement... about which I’m deeply sorry.” So it’s not just the press that get it so wrong, Alain.