Plato’s Republic, The Qur’an, On the Wealth of Nations, and Marx’s Das Kapital

By Simon Blackburn
By Bruce Lawrence
By P. J. O’Rourke
By Francis Wheen

Several years ago “aliteracy” became a bit of a buzz word to describe a new social trend. The aliterate were people able to read but who simply chose not to. Reading took too much time or was otherwise not worth the effort. Always ready to exploit a niche, publishers were quick to respond with series of tiny books constituting an aliterate revolution. Classics started appearing in abridged form and bloated door-stop biographies shrank to a series of “brief lives.” It was literature for the aliterate, fast food for intellectuals and bluffers, the canon for dummies.

There might have been benefits to this development. Edited versions or samplers of longer works like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might stimulate readers to look for more. And a lot of books, especially modern academic biographies, could stand to be put on a diet. The risk that was being run was the loss of context, and the drift toward a curt superficiality.

Another new series in the same vein has just been launched called “Books That Shook the World.” The series aims to provide primer-style introductions or “biographies” of some of the landmarks in world literature, written by well-known personalities like Karen Armstrong (the Bible), Christopher Hitchens (Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man), and P. J. O’Rourke (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations).

Two things might be said about the books selected for treatment: They are ones that (a) anyone interested in such a series has heard about, but (b) almost no one interested in such a series has actually read. And not without reason. They are repetitive, prolix, and often obscure.

They are also sacred books, obviously with the Bible and the Qur’an, but almost as much so in the case of Marx’s Kapital, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Plato’s Republic, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species. What this means is that these are works that have taken on a life of their own – through generations of interpretation their ideas have so entered the collective consciousness that they are now a part of us, even if we have no acquaintance with their original expression. All the more reason then to get introduced.

The first thing to note is that these are both timely and personal introductions. Bruce Lawrence, whose book is both the most devout to its source as well as the least interesting, doesn’t tell a single narrative “biography” of the Qur’an, but rather a series of thematic vignettes illustrating the interpretation of the Qur’an in different historical and cultural contexts. He also mentions Osama bin Laden quite a bit. Simon Blackburn gives the impression that he doesn’t much care for Plato’s Republic but is trying to be objective. Again the attempt is made to place Plato’s ideas in various contexts. Blackburn mentions George W. Bush and Tony Blair quite a bit.

And as for P. J. O’Rourke, he talks a lot about P. J. O’Rourke.

For some reason, one suspects marketing but there must be more to it than that, On the Wealth of Nations seems far more concerned with O’Rourke than Smith. While a picture of Marx graces the cover of Marx’s Das Kapital, a wise-looking bearded fellow in a toga the cover of Plato’s Republic, and some Arabic script for The Qur’an (no need to go looking for trouble there!), the cover of On the Wealth of Nations leaves out the name of Adam Smith entirely and has a picture of P. J. It is also the only book that lists the author’s own works above the other books in the series opposite the title page. And it costs two dollars more.

It isn’t worth it. O’Rourke is a glib, entertaining columnist, but his shtick wears very thin very quickly. And one can’t escape the feeling that he is simply using Smith’s text as a line on which to hang gags about the relevance of all of this to various aspects of contemporary life. This is too bad, since he has read the book and is capable of making interesting observations on it. It is simply that his work is too padded with his own personality. “Why is The Wealth of Nations so damn long?” he asks in one chapter. It is a question he might have asked of his own book, especially given the example of Francis Wheen’s primer on Das Kapital, which is just over half the size and equally effective as an introduction.

Based on the four books reviewed here, the series has to register as a major disappointment, much like Penguin’s Brief Lives. Not that the authors aren’t capable critics and fine writers, but they don’t go much beyond what you would expect to find in any decent scholarly introduction. One assumes that the editors were hoping to effect a happy alchemy in matching each author with his or her perfect book. But there is little sign of inspiration and the results just seem like academic assignments. Simon Blackburn admits wanting to turn down the request to write the volume on Republic (he has never found Plato “a particularly congenial author”) and even after agreeing to take on the chore admits his is a “slight essay,” “perhaps . . . best read only as a preparation for a biography of the book.”

Well, it’s better than that. But is it worthy of an expensive hardcover, especially when you can buy the originals of any of these books for half the price? It seems like a high tax to pay for not reading.

Review first published June 9, 2007.

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