books · criticism · mini-rant · non-fiction · reading · short diatribe · stuff

Penguin’s Great Ideas and the Eradication of the Foreword

I’m usually late to the party when it comes to exciting new things. By the time I discover the author, or hear the band, or whatever, there will already be a large body of work behind them and a fanatical group of followers will have already formed. I’m used to it now, being one step behind. For a while I had this idea that I would try and buy first edition books by debut authors off the shelf at Waterstone’s and then wait and see if they became valuable later. Not really sure why, I wasn’t too interested in making money (and it is about the poorest way of making money that I can think of) and I wasn’t too fussed about the minor prestige of being an early adopter either. I don’t really bother so much anymore. But while I was browsing around the net one afternoon and found that Penguin had released a series of books called Great Ideas – a collection of short, important texts from history I thought I had struck upon an exciting new thing. Then I looked closer and realised they were already on series five. Oh well, late again, but at least I had a hundred of these Great Ideas to dig through.

The format is quite nice, about a hundred pages and small enough to fit in a back pocket (tested and confirmed, you’re welcome,) and covering a wide range of subjects. My initial purchase of four covered Descartes, Seneca, Kant and Orwell, a selection heavily biased toward philosophy I realise now, but the hundred titles also include Churchill, Darwin, Freud; loads to dig through. There was even, pleasingly, one I had already read; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (though I don’t think I can claim to have been there first on a text that is two-thousand years old. Oh well.)

While the Penguin Great Ideas series is, if nothing else, a nicely presented collection of important (or at least interesting) texts it also has a great idea of its own. There are no forewords. The text gets to speak for itself, and given that all one hundred books have been selected as being particularly worthy on its own merits it is hard to imagine that a foreword would add much. But the model of getting someone contemporary to tell you about the old book you are about to read has become pretty ubiquitous. I read about a resurrected Woody Guthry book that is being released with a foreword by Johnny Depp (who was involved in the publishing of the book, rather than having just been drafted in) that talks about how exciting and relevant and important this book is. But if I were going to read that Woody Guthry book I think I would just want to get right into it. Marketing aside, why would I want to read about the book, rather than read the book? Penguin’s Great Ideas gets this right. No preparation, no forearming with knowledge of what is to come or pre-formed, borrowed opinions about it; just meet the book. Maybe you’ll get along. Maybe you won’t.

What I think would be a better idea it to get rid of forewords and have afterwords instead. I would be much more interested in reading about a book I have just read. Once I have finished is the time for explaining the context of what I just read, the importance of it, the relevance. That is something I can engage with. I can meet Johnny Depp’s views with my own, rather than being led by the hand into a book I was already prepared to read. Sometimes when I am finished with a book I am still so invested in it that I would love to read more. A good afterword is like a nice denouement, a slow winding down.

I guess I could just skip the forewords until I am finished with the book. Get a biro and cross out the fore and scribble an after in over it. Maybe cut out the pages and stick them in at the end. There are other solutions, I guess.

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