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Embarking on a mind-expanding project – exploring Penguin’s Great Ideas with Seneca! :D

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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Translated by C.D.N Costa

 

You might remember me having a grumble back in June about the dangers of reading challenges, and how I was currently fighting the urge to start a new project of reading my way through the Penguin Great Ideas little books. This all came up because the new batch out later this month contains some irresistible titles and I was hit by the mad desire to try and improve my mind (ha!) by reading the lot in sequence… Yes, all 120! Now bearing in mind my track record with the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Moderns, that was probably a silly idea. However, during August I *did* manage to get back into the saddle with both of these projects (and I think ‘project’ is the best word to use here as this is going to take me some time…) So feeling emboldened, I have picked up the first book in the series and set forth on my journey – wish me luck….

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

The Great Ideas sequence starts with Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”, and the quote on the front very aptly reads “Life is long if you know how to use it“. A Roman philosopher who lived from approx 4 BC to 64 AD, he was a proponent of Stoicism and as well as his philosophical works was also a dramatist, satirist and statesman. This book contains three works – the title essay, as well as Consolation to Helvia and On Tranquility of Mind. As I believe is common in works of the era (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!), these pieces are all addressed to a particular individual; and they’re drawn from the Penguin volume “Dialogues and Essays”.

… sometimes we are gripped by hatred of the human race.

So – onto the first entry in the book, the title piece. This was addressed to Seneca’s father-in-law Paulinus, and in it he addresses the very human habit of wasting our time… His argument is that if we live our lives wisely and with thought, any life is long enough. Instead of spending all our hours rushing around looking for fame or fortune or approval, or losing chunks of our lives in trivial pursuits, we should spend our time in the present moment, doing things with meaning and purpose. It’s a very timely and sensible philosophy, and I think if we did all pause, take stock and direct our lives sensibly we might be happier. It’s not always that simple, of course, but something to aim for maybe…

… it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those who she has deserted.

The second piece is a letter addressed to Seneca’s mother Helvia. The philosopher had been exiled to Corsica for political reasons, as well as apparently losing his only son; so his letter attempts to console his mother for the death of a grandson as well as the exile of a son. Here, his stoic principles are clearly on view as he assures his mother that he is happy and not suffering, and therefore she should not grieve for him.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of it swiftness, but glide on quietly.

The final essay is one of Seneca’s “Dialogues” and addressed to his friend Serenus who seems anything but serene… The latter is in fact anxious and worried, unsure of his path through life. Seneca advises taking the middle way, steering a course between a life of action and a life of contemplation. He comes up with all manner of sensible suggestions as to choice of friends, austere lifestyle and even ensuring that your collection of books is not just for show! Kind of like Roman therapy, then!

My first experience of both Seneca and Penguin Great Ideas was a really positive one! The Stoic Philosopher really does have some good ideas about how to negotiate the madness of the world, particularly in these turbulent times when so much is changing around us, and his works are full of eminently quotable aphorisms. The translation is excellent and very readable, and the book is a wonderful introduction to Seneca. The book comes with no extra or supporting material, apart from minimal notation within the text, which I assume will be the case with the rest of the GIs; and that’s fine, because I feel these works should be treated as a taster for the author in question. If a reader has been stimulated and their appetite whetted, they can go off and research the author, explore further and even buy a bigger book…

Hey! I think this project could be fun! 😀

Reading challenges and me….

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It’s probably fairly clear to anyone who reads my ramblings regularly that I’m an utter failure when it comes to reading challenges – either joining in with those run by others, or with the self-imposed ones I set myself in a flurry of enthusiasm and then allow to fall by the wayside… In fact, the only reading event I usually manage to stick to is the bi-annual reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book; and that’s with a lot of organisation and forward planning… And I was reminded recently that I devised (back in 2015!!) the project of reading all 27 books in the Penguin Modern Poets series, released between 1962 and 1979. In fact, I even have a page on the blog for it…

My Penguin Modern Poets collection!

However, if you have a look you will see I stalled early, at book no. 6, which was back in 2016 – which is pretty feeble. However, despite that utter failure, I am still fighting the urge to approach another reading project; it was this which reminded me of the Poets, and it came about when I saw (on Twitter, I think) that Penguin are releasing set 6 of their Penguin Great Ideas series in September – and it includes Perec and Calvino and Camus amongst many other rather wonderful authors!

My Great Ideas…

A quick hop onto Wikipedia revealed details of the 5 earlier sets, and I hadn’t quite realised how many there were; but I knew I had the whole first set and assorted volumes from the later ones. So of course I had to make a list, which is fatal for any book addict; because immediately you want to start collecting the whole lot, ticking them off merrily as you acquire them (well, I do, anyway…)  Looking down the checklist, there is a fantastic range of titles, all of which I’d be happy to read. And a lightbulb ping moment in my head said “You could read them as a project, you know…” Of course, we know how badly I do with these things, and so it really *isn’t* a great idea (ha!). Still. I’m tempted – and trying to fight against it. You can see from the image above that although I have all the first set, I only have a few of the later ones, so that would be a lot of purchasing and a lot more shelf space needed. No, it really isn’t a good idea…

Penguin Moderns box set and Little Black Classics pile

This also reminded me, of course, that I still have the Penguin Moderns box to make my way through, and I had been doing quite well, getting up to book 26 a year ago; and then I stalled… I *have* been galvanised to pick these up again, and have some reviews coming up next month of later volumes. However, as you can see from the picture, there are also the Penguin Little Black Classics, and I haven’t read all of them either. Yikes!

Anyway, I am going to try to take up the Poets Project again, and so I dug them out on Sunday to see what I had, where I was and generally take stock. This kind of necessitated a shuffle of the general poetry shelves which were slightly in disarray, and looked even worse when I started moving things about:

Poetry mid-shuffle

It was a useful exercise though; after having a bit of a crisis, I decided to shelve them alphabetically and put anthologies at the beginning, and after removing the Russians they fitted in quite nicely. Here’s the back row:

And here’s the front row:

This is, of course, not all the poetry in the house. The Russians are mostly on the shelf below; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are upstairs; and there are various Bloodaxe/Morden Tower anthologies lurking on other shelves. And probably others if I looked properly. Anyway, this is the next Penguin Modern Poets volume in the series:

Watch this space to see if I finish it! As for the Penguin Great Ideas – I think I’m going to be battling the concept of a project for a while; I’ve already sent off for one of the ones I don’t have, and will definitely be investing in more in September. Oh dear, oh dear….

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