It was love at first sight.
I was at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association bookfair earlier this year, and was passing the Penguin booth when I noticed a display of attractive new books. They were the publishers new Great Ideas series, a repackaging of excerpts from a dozen classic titles. Needless to say, I shamelessly wheedled a copy of one of the books from them, and, shall we say, the die was cast.
The book was a collection of Orwell's essays called Why I Write, and, along with the title essay, it included such gems as "The Lion and the Unicorn," "A Hanging," and "Politics and the English Language." I was floored, and it wasn't long before I bought the whole lot.
Each individual title is culled from Penguin's enormous list of the last sixty or so years. Each of the books weighs in at about 100 pages, and they're published without copious annotation or introductions. Their contents are limited to ancient and contemporary classics. There's a marvelous Nietzsche (Why I Am So Wise), for example, which combines material from his autobiographical Ecce Homo with aphorisms and the like from other works, to present a brilliant and readable introduction to this much misunderstood and indeed intimidating author's work.
The books thus far published are: George Orwell, Why I Write; Seneca, On the Shortness of Life; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations; Thomas A. Kempis, The Inner Life; Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince; Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship; Edward Gibbon, The Christians and the Fall of Rome; Thomas Paine, Common Sense; William Hazlitt, On the Pleasure of Hating; John Ruskin, On Art and Life; Charles Darwin, On Natural Selection; and Friedrich Nietzsche, Why I Am So Wise.
Be careful, though: my brief acquaintance with the series has led me to buy the works of Montaigne, several volumes of Nietzsche, and a marvelous collection of essays by arch-curmudgeon William Hazlitt!