marshtide: (Mist)
In the past I think I may have grumbled at people about the Penguin Great Ideas series. It's a sequence which currently stands at 80 books but I think will eventually be 100, presenting, well, great ideas. Or at least ideas that people have thought were great at some point or other. It says.

It's actually a pretty neat idea, to lay a wide range of essays and so on by authors which have had a big impact on the way people think over the ages, simply as themselves. Some of the books are also pretty attractive-looking. I own a couple of them - the Virginia Woolf ones, predictably enough (A Room of One's Own and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid, though the latter is actually a small collection of her essays, since Thoughts on Peace... is a very short text) - but when I look over the whole list of titles it does make me a little irritated, because, wait for it...'s full of dead white men!

Aren't you shocked? I bet you never saw that one coming.

I don't even know to what degree I should even blame the editor(s?) for the fact that the list is hugely skewed towards Dead White Men, given that Dead White Men have been influencing big chunks of the world for a fair while now, and writing about it while they do, while it's true that a number of other groups had things to worry about other than writing essays on What It All Means. But not all groups. And not all the time. This is a list put together in the UK, for a UK market, and there are certain biases which are deeply unsurprising considering that. That doesn't mean I have to actually like that fact, or buy into it.

OK. Other people do make it in! There is a small collection of dead white women - Virginia Woolf appears twice, and then of course they've included an extract from Wollstonecraft, and I should think so too, and then Christine de Pizan (The City of Ladies), and finally Hannah Arendt (Eichmann and the Holocaust). Of these five books, I note, precisely two aren't about what I am pretty sure a number of guys I have known would refer to as Women Stuff - by which I mean, aren't representative of that phenomenon where women talk about the situation of women, but men talk about the situation of humankind. Yes, there are damn good reasons why women have felt the need to write about the situation of women, and I completely support that and love a number of the texts in question, but seeing it represented so clearly does make me kind of sad, because that was what it felt important for women to talk about at the beginning of the 15th Century when Christine de Pizan was writing, and it's was something Virginia Woolf felt strongly that it was necessary to talk about in the early 20th Century, and we're still talking about it now. Of course there's been all sorts of progress made. But. But.

People who aren't white? Well, the Chinese and Japanese make it in, though I do note that the Japanese authors (I don't know which) appear only collectively as "The Zen Masters". There's Confucius and Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu. I don't know what to make of that as a selection of Chinese writers/thinkers, because I'm completely undereducated on Chinese history and duly ashamed of the fact. But they're there.

There's W.E.B Du Bois' The Dawn of Freedom. Uh, that's the only other one I can spot right now, though I might have missed something.

Basically, it's a really wide selection of (largely western-)European and North American white male intellectuals, with bonus Russian and Chinese authors, unspecified Japanese guys sharing a book, a few women (European), and one African-American man. Apparently African people in Africa have made no impact at all; Asia is only China and Japan; no-one is talking about the Middle East; and as for the Indian subcontinent and South America, well, hah.

And sure, that's about reflective of an awful lot of people's mental landscape when it comes to influential ideas in Western Europe (I can't speak for the US, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's similar), although I might have expected, I don't know, some kind of representation of Muslim ideas, given their impact on Europe, which goes back a pretty long way. I guess we try not to talk about that right now! But it's not exactly the most flattering reflection, and basically, yes, the dead white men have a running start on white women and on black people of any gender, basically because they tried their damnedest to not share the paper for a really long time, but they don't by any means have a running start on a whole lot of Asia or on the Arabic-speaking part of the world, just for example, and that doesn't seemed to have helped the representation of those ideas a whole lot, I guess because a lot of dead white dudes have put a lot of effort into making it look as though they somehow don't really count to people here, despite the huge influence that many of them have had overall. Also, pretty sure that in the last hundred-odd years quite a lot of people who aren't white men have been writing all sorts of things even in Europe and the USA, actually, and even before then, well...

...All of this is actually just an incredibly long-winded to say, can anyone recommend me some interesting essays not written by the dead white dudes? Or the white dudes in general? Because some of the dead white dudes had some neat ideas sometimes, but I've read a whole bunch of stuff by them anyway, I'm feeling a bit swamped by them right now, because, you know,

1. Men are not the world, and
2. especially not when by 'men' you mean 'white men', and
3. Europe is not the world either, and
4. nor is the USA.

(Err, they shouldn't be written by Virginia Woolf, either, because I think I've read nearly all of those...)


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December 2012

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