The Penguin Classics Book

Did you know there is a card game played in Japan at the New Year, called uta-garuta, where 100 cards have a full poem on each — traditionally taken from their classical poets — and another 100 have just the final line. Players take turn reading the poem from the deck, while the others race to find its concluding line from the cards with the final lines. I didn’t until I read about it on page 111 of The Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot.

(I think that’s a wonderful game idea and wish someone would do a similar game for Western poets… although I understand that not all western forms fit the card-size restrictions of the game…)

It’s the sort of delightful, fact-and-fun-filled book that encourages browsing to uncover this and so many other tidbits of information about books, their authors, and their culture. I recently added Eliot’s  book to my own library and have spent many hours cheerfully rambling through it. Every page seems to have something to learn and enjoy. It’s the sort of coffee-table-toilet reading book that can suck you in for hours.

The publisher’s description notes,

The Penguin Classics Book covers all the greatest works of fiction, poetry, drama, history, and philosophy in between, this reader’s companion encompasses 500 authors, 1,200 books, and 4,000 years of world literature, from ancient Mesopotamia to World War I. Filled with stories of the series’ UK origin, author biographies, short book summaries and recommendations, and illustrated with historic Penguin Classic covers, The Penguin Classics Book is an entertaining historic look at the earliest chapters of the world’s best-known Classics publisher.

The author, Henry Eliot is, according to the same site, “Creative Editor of Penguin Classics.” The book is an ambitious, well-designed look at the history of one of the world’s most famous publishing imprints: Penguin Classics. The line began in 1946 as a means to make classic literature available to the general public at an affordable price. The books quickly became favourites both for booksellers and academics, and provided a publishing outlet for translators and editors unlike any seen before.

The first title published in the series was a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and in its first decade, the line had a mere 60 titles to its name. Today, it has some 1,200 titles, covering literature from the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic to modern, international authors. And everything in between: the line has plenty of English-speaking authors, but also translations of works originally written in French, Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Norse, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Old English, Greek, Latin, and many more languages. And not just literature: there is poetry, philosophy, biography, history, plays, memoirs, folk tales, and scripture. Four millennia of the written word is here.

For those of us who love reading, this series has provided a wonderful opportunity to open windows into other cultures, other communities. And Eliot’s book is like the exquisite aperitif before the meal.

Eliot’s book draws a somewhat fuzzy line at World War I (including some authors who wrote later, but also missing some like Don Marquis and Marcel Proust who wrote during that period) , which I found a trifle disappointing, since there have been many modern books published in the line since then. I live in hope that a second volume, following from the chronology of the first, will be published. But as I wait, this volume engages me.

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The Emperor’s Handbook

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire. He lived 121-180 CE and died while on campaign in Germany. Like many Roman thinkers of his day, he followed the popular Stoic philosophy and his writing became an important document in the late Stoic phase of classical antiquity.

While he ruled, Marcus Aurelius kept notes – written in Greek – about his thoughts and beliefs, as a guide for his own life and behaviour, applying his Stoic beliefs to his everyday life.

These thoughts were never intended for public reading or publication such as it was in that time (since the printing press would not come into use for roughly another 1,300 years, for works to circulate they needed to be hand-copied). He titled them simply “For Myself.” They have become known today as The Meditations.

A central theme to Meditations is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite”. He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man”.

After his death, his writings were saved – by whom, no one knows for sure – and shared. And copied over the centuries. Copies in Greek survived until the mid-16th century when it was first printed (1558). It was translated into English shortly after and had undergone numerous translations ever since.

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Taoist Lessons for Politicians

Verse 29Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.

That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**

There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.

Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.

Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in his Art of Worldly Wisdom.

A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25

Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.

The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Other translations concur, albeit offer alternate renderings. Regardless of specific wording, or which translation you prefer, all have a similar message that resonates in today’s politics. ***
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