The Sum of its Parts – Four Books in the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ Series – Various

This is another  multiple book review,  but this time I’m doing something a little different, in reviewing both a series and four individual books. These books are all by different authors and make up part of the Penguin Great Ideas series.

Penguin’s Great Ideas series first turned up in the early noughties, and currently number 100, split into five sets of 20. Each set can be distinguished by the colour of its spine, the first set is red, the second blue, the third green, the fourth purple, and the fifth and (currently) final set is a sort of ochre. The first book I ever acquired in the series, totally randomly, was a copy of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ (number 22 – there is a full list here) and I have sporadically picked up a few over the years. However in the last fortnight I have come by four new ones – two from the Postscript books spring sale (still ongoing over here) and another two from the delightful Brick Lane Bookshop, a small but impeccably stocked bookshop which I visited at the weekend as part of my continuing odyssey around London’s bookshops.

The Series

Apparently, the idea for Penguin’s Great Ideas series was for an affordable, accessible inroad to ‘great’ literature and rhetoric through the ages. Despite some token inclusions, it is very heavily skewed towards the West (thankfully two of my four books are not). Consequently, for £4.99 you usually end up with between 80-150 pages of short snippets on various topics. The books eschew any of the academic preamble you often find in republished ‘classics’. This is both a blessing and a curse as sometimes the extracts would benefit from some context (see below). Sometimes the brief treatises, essays, or chapter extracts are good enough to stand alone, but I have several times now felt that it is probably just easier to pick up the book they came from for only a few pounds more or, if you are lucky to locate a second-hand copy, less. It’s the same thing that caused me to cancel my pre-order of Penguin’s latest attempt to do this, the 80th Anniversary Little Black Classics series. Again, these are beautiful, handy-sized collectors books (though not as beautiful as Great Ideas, in my opinion) – but I’d rather just read the whole book. I felt this most keenly with number 90, Jacob Burckhardt’s ‘The State as a Work of Art’, a ‘Great Idea’ that I really enjoyed reading. However, it cost me £4.99 for this extract of the much longer ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’, which a cursory search finds I can pick up from amazon, used, for just under three pounds.

Consequently, I tend to assess ‘Great Ideas’ not just on their merit as an individual work, but also as part of a series which – while very aesthetically pleasing to own – is not necessarily very good value. This is something I would always encourage potential purchasers to look out for with these books. All of the extracts come from pre-existing Penguin Classics, and you should always consider whether or not it is worth just picking up the whole book, or whether you are happy with the snippets.

Ironically, since the content of the books is so significant, the most stand-out feature of the ‘Great Ideas’ series is in its design. I feel compelled to show you a few photos to illustrate this (apologies for my bad photography). The covers on the series are an absolute treat. Employing a variety of incredible simple and spare designs (see The Myth of Sisyphus below), bright splashes of colour (Why Look at Animals), or clever nods to the subject matter (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, probably my favourite cover). Covers often incorporate a quote or some text from the work in question (most prominently seen here in On Suicide’s cover). A further sense of the variety even within a series (three of the four books I am reviewing are ‘ochre ones’ as I call them) can be seen from the photo of the books under review further down.

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus (No. 39) – simple and minimalistic yet striking, many of the series’ covers take white as their baseline.
David Hume – On Suicide (No. 34). Almost all the Great Ideas books incorporate a quote on their front cover, on some it is particularly prominent.
John Berger – Why Look at Animals? (No. 80) – A welcome splash of colour (and illustration – admittedly of a very sad monkey) on the front cover.
Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (No. 56) – My favourite cover design in the series, a clever nod to the content of the work. This cover, like all Great Ideas covers, is 3D on hard card, so that the front cover feels like a row of spines rather than just showing an image of them.


The Books

Books under review:

Hannah Arendt – Eichmann and the Holocaust (No. 40)
Sigmund Freud – The Wolfman (No. 93)
Rabindranath Tagore – Nationalism (No. 95)
Chinua Achebe – An Image of Africa (No. 100)

Books under review – note the variation in cover design even within a ‘series’.

The first ‘Great Ideas’ I read recently was Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Nationalism’. The book is split up into three sections, which appear to be the text of speeches given at some point between the World Wars (since they reference World War One several times). Tagore was a Bengali who I first encountered on a second-year university course on Indian nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I confess that I didn’t really remember much about him beyond that and, in typical ‘Great Ideas’ fashion, the book doesn’t really provide you with much more information either. Tagore was important in promoting and supporting ‘Eastern’ culture against the dualistic arguments of western imperialists, who claimed that ‘the Orient’ could produce nothing of value when compared to the minds of the west.

Nationalism distills these ideas in about 90 pages. The three speeches deal with the dehumanising logic of colonisation, specifically in India, which said that Britain was civilisationally superior to India and therefore fit to rule it. Tagore rebuffs these arguments with wit and beautiful prose, I was unsurprised to find later that he was a poet (among many other things). The first essay deals with Nationalism in Japan, where Tagore urges his (presumably Japanese) audience to continue to demonstrate how Asian peoples could be the equals of the West (shown in stark form during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, where the Japanese inflicted a highly embarrassing defeat on Imperial Russia) but at the same time not to lose their unique character by being over-eager to assimilate Western mores and machinery. Anyone who knows anything about the history of Japan (or has played TOTAL WAR: Shogun 2) will know that this tension remained a central feature of domestic Japanese life from the time the country’s long isolation was ended by the arrival of US ships under Commodore Perry in 1853.

However, if you don’t know anything about the Russo-Japanese War, or Commodore Perry, then this first essay is merely a nicely-written plea to the Japanese people not to let their culture be subsumed under that of the West. Without any context, it doesn’t really mean anything. And this is the major problem with the ‘Great Ideas’ series, stripping away the sometimes fusty, sometimes overlong, but sometimes very useful and informative academic bookends to these ‘Great Ideas’ turns them into something some guy (and it usually is a guy) once said somewhere, and this decontextualisation can serve to strip the texts of their meanings. If the point of the series doing away with this context is to interest the general reader then it also potentially leaves the same person quite confused. The book itself becomes little more than a source of good quotes for those looking to sound brainy and well-read… ‘It’s like Rabindranath Tagore said…’  ‘Eh?’ For me, with my (admittedly very basic) background knowledge of Japan’s history, colonialism and even the most basic idea of who Tagore was, it’s fine, I understand the argument he is trying to make and what it is being made against. I wonder if someone with none of this background knowledge could take anything away from this.

The remaining two essays/speeches? (even I don’t know, but they read like speeches) are ostensibly about nationalism in Europe and India. They are both concerned with British rule in India, and lament the destructive and reductive power of nationalism as a phenomena (which, throughout, Tagore speaks against). Once again they are beautifully written/spoken, subtle, well-crafted arguments in favour of west and east living and working side-by-side harmoniously. It is a shame that Tagore died in 1941 as it would have been interesting to read what he thought about independence and the bloody horrors of partition into India and Pakistan (Bangladesh would emerge later in 1971) that would come in 1947.

I will give this book four Yen signs ¥¥¥¥ because I really enjoyed reading it, and understood the context of its production, though I worry (as I have done in the past) about the general accessibility of the series when presented in this way. Even a couple of pages of context would have helped – I would have liked to have known when the speeches took place or were published (based on the texts they all seem to have been quite close to each other).

After Tagore, came Sigmund Freud’s The Wolfman. Getting it straight out there, I really disliked this book. I appreciate that years of psychological theory and practice have passed me by but I fail to see how people thought what Freud was doing was valid in any way. It isn’t even a joke to say that he brings everything back to sex, because he really does, but he does it in such arbitrary ways sometimes (there were three dogs in a tree so the patient probably saw dogs having sex three times) that I continually ended up expressing my disbelief out loud. What a load of nonsense this seemed to be.

I can appreciate that, psychologically speaking, visions, dreams and conditions we have all have hidden roots, but I refuse to believe that these hidden roots are always sexual (I am sure they are sometimes – maybe they are most of the time, but Freud seems to be engaging in so much guesswork here that I find it hard to believe anything he says). I had come across Freud and his work before and, while I never thought it was perfect, his thought processes in The Wolfman just seem to make no sense. Everything is derived from the fact that the patient may or may not have seen his parents having sex once, and also the child’s desire to be back in the mother’s womb so that he can be penetrated by his own father and then have a poo which symbolises giving birth which apparently is known as ‘having a shit for God’ (yeah…) Or maybe it was just some kind of chemical imbalance in his brain.

So yeah, this one – by comparison to the beautiful and considered prose of Tagore – was a real slog and frankly unpleasant to read in parts. I can only conclude at the end of it that Freud was the one whose entire psychology can be traced back to some sort of sexual experience because he never shuts up about it. While this work was actually alright in being self-contained without explanation, it was still awful to read. I give it one Yen, and it’s lucky to get that ¥

After the anal horrors of The Wolfman, how relieved I was to move onto Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa. I would love to read some of Achebe’s fiction, having read his biography/history of the Biafran War (reviewed here) and now some of his essays. An Image of Africa is typical of a lot of ‘Great Ideas’ in that the titular essay only takes up a fraction of the work, and the rest of it is given over to a much longer essay bemoaning the state of Nigeria in the early 1980s. While I appreciate what this second section called ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ is telling us about the author’s deep concern for his country and the dire state Nigeria was in at the time, it would have benefited from some context. A brief history of the state of affairs in Nigeria politically etc. would have made things all the more clearer. Also, it is a bit disappointing to buy a book and then find the titular essay is only about a quarter of the book’s length.

However, that titular essay is fantastic, and after the turgid and baffling prose of Sigmund Freud I blazed through it in no time. An Image of Africa is a short (about 19 or 20 page) critique of the incredibly influential and popular book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Achebe demolishes Conrad and his work as a means by which racist caricatures of Africans are perpetuated to the self-satisfaction of the West. He has little time for Conrad’s defenders in the academic establishment, and instead issues a stark challenge to the West to face up to its colonial past and acknowledge the continued inequalities of the present. It is a brilliant and biting piece of short-form writing that made the book worth it on its own.

The much longer Trouble with Nigeria section is, as I say, undermined somewhat by the total lack of context. For those not familiar with Nigerian politics one might come away with the stereotypical impression that it is simply a chronicle of yet another ‘failed African state’. While Achebe’s impassioned call for Nigerians to do better does belie this to an extent it seems to exist in a sort of vacuum – what position is Achebe writing from? Where does he stand in all this? What experiences caused him to come to these conclusions? In history this sort of vital contextual information is the prerequisite to any sort of informed reading of a source. As mentioned above, in making ‘Great Ideas’ shorter and snappier Penguin runs the risk of invalidating their own concept by making the books little more than selections of good writing (Freud excepted). I should say that you do get a better impression of Achebe’s life from There Was a Country but you shouldn’t really have to read a whole other book just to understand another one. I am giving this one three Yen ¥¥¥ because ‘An Image of Africa’ was excellent and ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ was well-written and passionate but somewhat overlong given that it lacked any sort of contextualising information.

The final ‘Great Idea’ I read was Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust, which contained extracts from the longer work Eichmann in Jerusalem. This concerned the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the minds behind the holocaust, in Jerusalem after his capture by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960. Arendt used this work to introduce the concept of the ‘banality of evil’, this was perhaps the most coherent and understandable of the ‘extract’ Great Ideas I have read it. It was immediately clear to me, someone I should stress who knew who Adolf Eichmann was and what the Holocaust was all about, what was going on. Furthermore, the book deals with wider themes such as how can a justice system hold people accountable for a crime as horrendous and unprecedented as the genocide of a people? Arendt’s ruminations on guilt, justice and culpability are clearly-presented and very thought-provoking. I would highly recommend this book as a short if chilling read. It gets the full five yen for making a very complicated and tricky subject legible to the reader ¥¥¥¥¥

However, Eichmann in Jerusalem was so good that, like Burckhardt’s book mentioned above, I found myself wanting a copy of the full book, which can be acquired used for about 50p less than I paid for the Great Ideas version. Once again, the series’ problems are boiled down into one example. Even where the shorter books are excellent and compelling reads, if they are extracts it is usually better value to purchase the whole thing. Maybe this is why Great Ideas stopped coming out?

The Great Ideas series reminds me of the classic aphorism ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. As will be seen above, the covers of these books are often stunning and they make an excellent ‘display book’ for your shelves (even the different coloured covers look good all in a row). However, when the book is simply an extract of a longer work it is usually cheaper and more sensible to get that full work instead. I would be more inclined to still consider getting ‘Great Ideas’ which are either full works or collections of essays but even then you can usually find more comprehensive versions of these. Unfortunately given the fact that it is often cheaper to get the original work, I can’t even recommend ‘Great Ideas’ as a good taster – in retrospect I should have just bought Eichmann in Jerusalem or The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. One possibly good use for them, however, is as a gift for friends that you would like to share the ‘Great Ideas’ with. Pick it up, have a read, pass it on, buy the full book, share the knowledge in the process? While individually, as can be seen above, the series contains some gems (and some stinkers), the execution of the concept as a whole makes me less inclined to get any more.







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