Great Ideas: Series Three (20 volumes)

Beautiful minds on the shelf
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The Independent Culture

In his 1946 essay "Books v. Cigarettes", which sets out to assess the cost of reading relative to other pleasures, George Orwell found the attempt to calculate his own expenditure obscured by the fact that "one often spends money on books without afterwards having anything to show for it": "chiefly Penguins and other cheap editions, which one buys and then loses or throws away." The irony is exquisite, in two senses, that this essay is now reprinted in Penguin's Great Ideas series. Books more gorgeous and less disposable it is hard to imagine.

The great idea behind Great Ideas came to Penguin editor Simon Winder while waiting in an Italian provincial railway station, where he noticed that the bookstand contained, rather than the chick-lit, bonkbusters and thrillers of railway reading in Britain, a choice of philosophical texts. He came up with the concept of repackaging classics to attract the general reader: slim books, modestly priced, and shorn of the scholarly apparatus attached to Penguin's main Classics line, which can be forbidding or distracting.

This was not entirely original – it was the strategy behind the original Penguin Classics in the 1940s, successfully revived in recent years by Wordsworth Editions. The distinctive thing about the Great Ideas series was their look, overseen by one of Penguin's designers, David Pearson. Strong typography alluded to the period in which the texts were written – the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius looked like a Roman inscription; Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub an 18th-century theatre bill. The backgrounds were mostly white, with splashes of red to lend a sense of unity (the second series used a lovely pale blue). And you also noticed the feel, with the titles embossed on a surprisingly heavy, textured card.

The first series of 20, in 2004, ran from the Roman stoic Seneca up to Orwell. Other writers included Marcus Aurelius, offering another aspect of stoicism, and St Augustine and Thomas a Kempis, representing medieval Christianity. Machiavelli's The Prince, Rousseau's The Social Contract, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and The Communist Manifesto together constituted a small course in political theory.

Throw in Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, who together demolished any idea of Man as the centre of an orderly, progressive universe, and you had a pretty good stab at representing the main currents in Western intellectual history. The complaint that it was too Western was addressed a little half-heartedly by the inclusion in the second series of Confucius and Sun-tzu's The Art of War. The series was enriched by some great essayists – Montaigne, Swift, Hazlitt, Schopenhauer, Ruskin, Woolf.

The second series ranged more broadly in period (going back to Confucius and Plato), and subject matter, with Marco Polo's travels in China, Thorstein Veblen on Conspicuous Consumption, and Hannah Arendt on Eichmann and the Holocaust. Now the third series is out, this time badged in green, and with a noticeably modern bias. The only classical writer is Plutarch, and the series ends well into the 20th century, with Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault .

Once more, the books are gorgeous, though to begin with I found the green harsher on the eye than the blue and red. As before, the bulk of the designs are by Pearson, with contributions from his former tutors, Catherine Dixon and Phil Baines (who wrote the definitive history of Penguin covers, Penguin by Design), and one – Edmund Burke on The Evils of Revolution – by Alistair Hall. Some designs are too logical to be really striking: Trotsky (An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe) gets a constructivist picture of machinery. The front of Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction consists of its own spine reproduced over and over – not so much a concept as a pun. For his second appearance, Orwell as before gets a classic Penguin design, this time a 1960s "Marber grid", with logo, title and author's name appearing between black lines, and the graphic element – an abstract illustration of clouds of smoke rising from an ashtray – beneath. But some covers are inspiring: my favourites are the blockish black lettering of Kierkegaard's The Sickness unto Death, capturing the crushing weight of despair, and the amorphous green and grey rings of Camus' The Fastidious Assassins.

On opening the books, there are strong thematic currents. Adam Smith praises the division of labour, William Morris laments the evil of "Useless Toil", Trotsky appeals to the toiling masses. Both he and Morris profess socialism – though Morris's gentle interpretation is a million miles and several million corpses away from Trotsky's.

Burke rails against violence in the service of liberty; Fanon, writing about colonialism, takes it as a precondition of liberty. Proust, in Days of Reading, writes in praise of Ruskin, whose The Lamp of Memory is his second appearance in the series; Walter Benjamin praises Proust. Robert Burton, Kierkegaard and Tolstoy (A Confession) all wrestle with the same sickness unto death – the realisation that life is pointless.

After three series, and no more in prospect at present, it's possible to lament some omissions, and some inclusions. Orwell, Freud, Ruskin, Camus, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have both made two appearances, and the Roman stoics seem to have got a lot of space – yet there's no Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, Mill or Sartre; no German idealists, and no American pragmatists. Only three women have made the cut – Wollstonecraft, Woolf and Christine de Pizan – and none in this final batch.

The other problem with the Great Ideas as a whole is that while some books are complete (The Prince, The Social Contract, A Confession), and others self-contained essays, most are extracts from longer works, and not always clearly labelled as such. It's by no means clear to the casual reader that The Fastidious Assassins is only a tiny taste of Camus' The Rebel. Sometimes the abridgement works (a short burst of Robert Burton's high eccentric style); sometimes, as with Burke, you feel the lack of context is selling the writer short.

My biggest problem, though, takes us back to the beginning, and the matter of books one loses or throws away. These books are too beautiful. If I'm going to read a book, I want to be able to tote it around in a jacket pocket, to leave it in the bathroom to get warped by steam, or in the kitchen to get stained with ketchup. But I have just spent my summer holidays with these last 20, and could not bring myself to take them to the beach for fear they might get creased or sandy. Books do furnish a room; but in the end, you want them to furnish your mind. Great Ideas do both; perhaps a little too much of the one, and not quite enough of the other.

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