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December 1, 2005

News & Opinion: Great Ideas - Part II

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 3:33 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Here is my interview with Simon Wilder, creator of Penguin's Great Ideas series. I introduced the series yesterday.
Todd: What prompted the idea of publishing shorter versions of classic works? It is not Cliff Notes for these writers, but one (or a few) of their important ideas.

Simon: The idea really came from two sources. I was concerned about the argument going on in Britain, and which I think is the same in the US, that somehow everything is 'dumbing down' and that the audience for serious books or serious ideas was being seduced away by other media or actively getting stupid. I thought that this was essentially a reactionary idea - an attempt by people who are themselves clever to flatter their own egos by imagining that their audiences were morons (while they of course remained terribly clever!). I had been scouting around for ages for a mechanism that might disprove this in some way. The second source was being on holiday in Central Italy and hanging around at a notably seedy and glum little railway station: on the racks outside a tiny newsstand there were quite short and plain works of philosophy of different kinds. It seemed a bit humiliating to me that Italy (which has a much lower per head purchase of books than the UK) should sell philosophy in railway stations whereas we can hardly sell philosophy even on college campuses.
Anyway: Great Ideas put these two things together. It's a parasitic series in that it is pretty behoven to the Italian one, but its motives are honourable!
Todd: Can you talk about the selection process? How could you possibly choose
from the widely available works in public domain.

Simon: The selection process was loosely organised around (in the UK) twenty books for twenty centuries (in the US 12 titles were published initially). Some of the centuries (like: the Dark Ages!) are a bit thin so it is not an even spread at all, but this was the starting point. After that it was a mixture of my own enthusiasms (Gibbon, Ruskin, Freud, Schopenhauer, Montaigne) and others chipping in - I controlled the make-up of the list, but the list itself really came from other colleagues too who made crucial contributions.
Todd: The design for the series is stellar. It shows what you can with two colors and embossing. Talk about how the cover art of developed to reinforce the book's message and also support continuity with the series.
Simon: This is all thanks to David Pearson, the wonderful designer here, whose background was in text design so knew and loved type and came up with all kinds of lovely solutions. The final touch was what is in fact 'debossing'- which I don't think we had ever used before. David has won awards for his Great Ideas work and really ought to get every award available! A number of people have said that we took a big risk with the design (austere, hardly any pics, etc) but the risk appears much more after the event as at the time we hoped to sell a good number of the books, but not remotely the vast number it has reached, so we could take the risk fairly cheerfully.
Todd: Will there be more? Can you give us a hint of who might be in the next set?
Simon: We have now done a second set of twenty in the UK including all kinds of wonderful writers we were forced for reasons of space to miss out first time round (shameful omissions: Hume, Cicero, Hobbes, Bacon). We also extended the geographical range beyond Europeans: we'd had to keep to just Europeans first time round to make it reasonably, or at least faintly, coherent. So we have several Americans -- Veblen, Thoreau, Arendt -- and Chinese -- Sun Tzu, Confucius)and also some writers I just liked so much that they had to go in come what may (Sir Thomas Browne's URNE-BURIAL is fiendishly hard to understand and a bit obscure, but WHAT A PIECE OF ENGLISH PROSE). I know Penguin in the US are planning to do a further twelve themselves.