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Some Thoughts On Repackaging The Great Books

September 26, 2008

Penguin Books is reprinting select “great books” for its “Great Ideas” series. They’ve created a box set:

I’ll intersperse interesting new Penguin covers from the boxed set, and the series in general, along the right side as this post progresses. Click on each for larger, more clear images.

I’ve been meaning to comment on Penguin’s endeavor for quite awhile after seeing posts here, here, and here (although I can’t find the link to Jessa Crispin’s original entry).

Here is Penguin USA’s blurb on the Great Ideas boxed set:


Highlights from Penguin’s Great Ideas series in an affordable six-book boxed set

The perfect gift for the true book lover, the Great Ideas series offers groundbreaking works by some of history’s most prodigious thinkers packaged with beautiful type-driven covers that highlight the bookmaker’s art. Now six favorites from our initial list of twelve are available as a boxed set:

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
Why I Am So Wise, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Why I Write, by George Orwell

Offering great literature in great packages at great prices, the Great Ideas Boxed Set is ideal for those readers who want to explore and savor the great ideas that have shaped our world.


So how does Penguin’s effort compare to past endeavors? How does it stack up against the work of Britannica, the Harvard Classics, the Modern Library, and even Penguin’s past efforts?

First, it’s probably not fair to compare paperback and hardback versions of the great books idea. As best as I can tell, all of Penguin’s recent effort is paperback. So that rules out comparisons with Britannica and Harvard Classics. And although the Modern Library does reprint some of so-called “great books,” most of their publishing work focuses on nineteenth and twentieth-century authors.

In comparing the “Great Ideas” series to Penguin’s other “classics” effort, well, the Great Ideas series easily catches the eye better. To the left is the old Fear and Trembling cover. The new one just above is so much more eye-catching. While you know you’re buying a Penguin book with the old cover, the new one grabs your attention. Then again, a few of the Great Ideas series covers (e.g. The Social Contract, below right) remind me of the inexpensive Dover classics series. The Nietzsche, Marx, and Aurelius (immediate right) covers are more original.

This Flikr account series of pictures, from the designer David Pearson, reveals other cover ideas from what the company calls “Great Ideas Volume III.” I really like the green color scheme and the image creativity, but my search of Penguin USA’s site reveals that none of the Penguin series uses a homogeneous color format. I suppose, then, that these were just preliminary pictures. Here are some other links from the David Pearson site: here, here, and here. Here’s a layout for the German version of the series. Cool. Anyway, I love this sample cover related to Tolstoy’s A Confession (above right). And what of the 1950s-ish cover for Orwell’s Books Versus Cigarettes (left)? Understated but awesome. But there’s no accounting for tastes.

Brainiac’s Christopher Shea noted “the basic idea is that the designs evoke the original period in which the works appeared.” I agree—somewhat. I don’t see the period relationship between the covers for Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (above). But no series will be perfect.

Critically speaking, I don’t understand Penguin’s motivation to use the “Great Ideas” moniker. When Britannica used this same phrase back in the 1950s, it denoted a view of the development of a limited set of ideas in history. The Syntopicon embodied that historical conception and the “great ideas” formed the sinews connecting books and authors in Britannica’s 50-plus volume effort. The Britannica editorial team spent years selecting its ideas and writing reflections that intertwined each great book and author. Thus far I do not see the same effort in relation to Penguin’s Great Ideas series. It looks to me like they’re building, however, on intellectual capital created by the original Britannica series. I wonder if they’ve received permission from Britannica on this? I would bet that Britannica renewed their copyrights to everything Great Books related in 1990 with the release of the second edition of the set.

But intellectual issues aside, I agree with this assessment by Shea of a potential superficial effect of Penguin’s redesign (bolds mine): “Penguin Press’s exquisitely designed ‘Great Ideas’ series may help some readers overcome inertia, as the books are as satisfying to gaze upon as to read–and they certainly don’t signal homework.”

I always felt pretty conservative flashing my formal Britannica edition of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I read those works and others back in the early 1990s at my favorite coffee shop, Osama’s Coffee Zone, in Columbia, Missouri. Folks think you’re either out-of-touch or weird. I mean, I didn’t care, but I had a realistic assessment of my appearance to others. You just look pretty buttoned up—and I was single. You do the math. But if you carry around this new hip Penguin version of Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise, you’ll look cool even while being snobbish. With the right crowd and good shoes, intelligent aloofness will take you places in the singles scene.

Your thoughts? – TL

[Disclosure: I have ~no~ working relationship with Penguin. While I approve of their new “Great Ideas” effort, I have no monetary stake in its success.]

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  1. rebuilding the links between today's students (or people in general) and our shared culture really matters, and I'm a believer in design, and in packaging. This seems clever. If it works at all, it is worth doing.


  2. Anurag Zorawar Singh Sangwan permalink

    As on January 1, 2013:

    1. Penguin has sold more than 2 million copies of the Great Ideas series, and it’s part of the larger Random House group now.
    2. Encyclopedia Britannica is no more.

    Market judges the winners, not buttoned up stiff upper lip approach.

    Mr. Shea: The period connection is clear in case of Nietzsche book. The font is hand letter derivative of the original Ecco Homo published in 1908 with design by Henry Clemens Van de Velde one of the leaders of Art Nouveau.

    Trust this lays the argument to rest.

    Anurag Zorawar Singh Sangwan


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