Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Penguin Great Ideas

by guest blogger, Mr G.B. Toss, Serious Intellectual

Browsing in my local independent book emporium over the weekend, I happened upon a new range of books from Penguin, going under the series title Great Ideas. Oh yes, I thought, and what "great ideas" have been squeezed between the covers of these slim volumes in order to satiate the pathetic yearnings of the culture-starved bourgeoisie? What grotesque abridgments and distortions have been committed to make these "great ideas" palatable to the busy suburbanite, so eager to impress his equally busy friends with a quotation from the classics before they settle down to an evening of salacious rubbish on the idiot box? What crimes against intellectual decency have been perpetrated so that the Camberwell matron and her coterie of gossiping secret drinkers can intersperse their coffee time discussions of Hollywood film stars with pithy observations from the ancients gleaned from some commercial bastardisation linking the deep thought of our intellectual ancestors to some evanescent cultural fad?

Well, upon flipping through a number of said volumes, my gravest fears were confirmed. The Penguin Great Ideas series is, in the words of Tariq Ali, "parochial and philistine". It panders to the most reprehensible species of intellect, that of the half-educated, Friends of the ABC-joining, Labor Party-voting, Radio National-listening middle-class boor. The kind of person who believes a little knowledge to be not a dangerous thing, but rather the very mark of sophistication. The kind of person who gets about town in his or her four-wheel-drive with one of Mozart's more popular symphonies playing on the car stereo while half a dozen children named Tarquin scream their selfish desires from the back seat in imitation of Mummy and Daddy who simply must get to the market before closing time otherwise how will they be able to cook that delightful Ragout a la Dijon they saw on Nigella Lawson's programme last night?

Not that the Great Ideas series doesn't contain some admirable works. However, the booklet format necessitates truncating many of the originals almost beyond recognition, or of compressing a large body of thought into an absurdly small "package", thus giving "readers" (as the creatures who would purchase these books no doubt like to be called) the feeling of having acquired knowledge without having made too much of an effort.

Oh yes, it is easy enough to read the Great Ideas volumes dedicated to Marx, Montaigne, Gibbon, Nietzsche or Freud. Should be good for at least half an hour of distraction, in between watching the commercial news broadcast and fretting over interest rates. Nothing like a quick fix of thought, that quaint concept one used to hear so much about at school, or at least at the schools I myself attended. Then it's back to Middle Australia, back to pop music and Neighbours and posting inanities to your "blog".

How much more difficult to tackle the real thing, to work one's way through Marx, et al, to feel one's worldview expand with the infusion of thought? How much more satisfying to be able to expound at length upon Marx's debt to Hegel, Ruskin's theories of architecture, or the conversion of St. Augustine? Satisfying not only for oneself, but for one's friends and dinner companions. And all it takes is the will to sit down and read, not in the sense of skimming through pamphlets while waiting for the train, but real, concentrated reading, of the kind done back in the old days, when ignorance was rightly punished with a spell in the stocks.

The Great Ideas list is also strikingly narrow, full of dead whites, buried to their necks in the Western tradition. Why not include some of the classics of Chinese or Indian literature, the great works of Islam, and so forth? Where are the works from the blind, Asian Paralympian school of philosophy, so influential in recent years? Why is the highly respected Ulaanbaatar Group of Papist, llama-herding historians without representation? Penguin seems only to desire to reinforce the strict demarcation of cultures that has led the world to its present perilous situation.

While my stance may strike some as elitist, I am merely defending the realm of intellect from the pseudo-thinkers whose insidious influence seems ever greater. From Bertrand Russell to Alain de Botton, there have always been those who have erroneously believed that popularising philosophy and the humanities is "a good thing". As somebody who has spent the majority of his life with his nose buried in the works of Civilisation, who has worked his metaphorical fingers to the metaphorical bone in pursuit of Knowledge, I cannot agree with this position. Leave the proles and their middle-class masters to their ignorance. Let them feast upon the meager stew of pop culture. In short, leave the real thing to the true intellectuals.


Anonymous said...

Elitist? Just a touch..

MrLefty said...

Hmm.. a bit harsh, I think.

There are a lot of people in the world, and I'd rather they were exposed to something other than just bullshit corporate media. It's better than nothing.

Tim said...

Er, it's a joke...

jon said...

I AM an elitist, and I think you didn't go far enough. The vacuous bourgeoisie must be rounded up into strict ghettoes before they infect the rest of us with the malaise of mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

a little stuffy. most people don't have time to sit down and read the entire canon of great works. life is simply too short. better a little knowledge of marx than none. as long as you appreciate their limitations, what's the harm?