The recently relaunched Teach Yourself series has been the basic fare of autodidacts (and many others) for an amazing seventy years. It now boasts over 500 titles. I remember buying and treasuring several of them, including Teach Yourself Judo, as a teenager, when they were still published in their distinctive black and yellow covers. Mel Thompson has contributed a number of very clear, wide-ranging and popular books in the areas of Philosophy and Religion since the mid-90s. He kindly agreed to be interviewed on the topic for Virtual Philosopher.
Nigel: How many books have you written for the Teach Yourself Series now? Are you writing any more?
Mel: I’ve written a total of 6 so far – on Philosophy, Ethics, Eastern Philosophy, Philosophy of Science (recently out of print), Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Religion. The first couple are already in their fourth editions. I’m in the process of up-dating the Philosophy of Religion title, and want to include something specific on humanism and atheism as well as generally refreshing the text. I’m contracted to produce Teach Yourself Political Philosophy for next November, so that should be coming out in 2008.
Nigel: When did you first publish in this series?
Mel: My first one was Teach Yourself Philosophy, which was published in 1995.
Nigel: What do you think of the idea of the series? What are its strengths? Do you know anything about the history of the series?
Mel: When I was at college in the 1960s I used the earlier Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion as a quick read before starting my course, and had a number of the old black and yellow covers on my bookshelves. Teach Yourself has a long history: in fact, it’s celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2008! What is wonderful about them is that they attempt to give you a working basis for understanding any subject, without pretending to offer all you need to know, or talking down to you. I read a sample section on a book on Massage the other day and found it fascinating – I just wanted to go out and try for myself. That’s what Teach Yourself is all about.
Nigel: Teach Yourself books sound as if they are aimed at autodidacts. Is that the readership you imagine when you are writing? Do you have any evidence about who buys these books?
Mel: The slogan used for marketing a recent set of editions was ‘Be where you want to be’, and I guess that’s reasonable. It’s for people who want to explore a subject but who have limited time, or who just want a taster to see whether to take things further. So a large part of the market is the general reader with broad interests. I guess also, since I happen to know that a large number of my books are used by students taking A level, that I write to that market too.
Nigel: How do you pitch your writing so that it is accessible to a wide range of readers? Are there any techniques (like reading aloud) that you use to make sure that what you have written makes sense to someone unfamiliar with the area?
Mel: I think the key is not to assume knowledge on the part of the reader, but not to patronise either. I try to keep sentences short, and prune back every time I edit text. The challenge is always to explain something as clearly as possible in each sentence. Breaking up the text and using bullets or boxes is an aid to that. Don’t waffle, just give it straight – that should be the motto of every Teach Yourself writer. I actually find it quite difficult to simplify complex issues, especially when I’m interested in them – but if I go off on one of my particular ‘things’, I’m imposing my own interpretation of an issue on the reader. That’s fine in some books (I’m reading Dawkins on God at the moment!) but not for Teach Yourself.
Nigel: Some academic philosophers sneer at the idea of making philosophy accessible to a wide readership. They claim that their discipline is intrinsically difficult, and requires years of devoted study to understand. Have you encountered this sort of attitude?
Mel: Some of my most bored moments have been listening to, or trying to read, those who think that the more clever and obscure they sound, the more profound their thought. To me, a straightforward and easily grasped argument is – to use a word more associated with mathematical formulae – elegant. Complexity may too often be used as a mask for muddled thinking. In evaluating philosophy, I often ask ‘To what significant and universally relevant question is this the answer?’ To me, the longer you study and the more profound your thought, the more straightforward should be your exposition of it.
Nigel: Do you have a favourite Teach Yourself book?
Mel: The ones I dip into most are Teach Yourself Dutch and the Teach Yourself Dutch Dictionary: the reason being that my wife is Dutch and I so long to be able to converse in her native tongue with friends and relatives – the snag is, of course, that they immediately break into English!
Nigel: What is your favourite philosophy book of all time?
Mel: Like sex, it’s your initiation that you’re likely to remember best. Aged 19 and waiting to go to King’s London, I bought a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy(which was on the pre-course reading list) and worked my way through it, enjoying his humour and entering into a world of which, until then, I knew absolutely nothing. It was a revelation – and remains an object lesson on clear and witty philosophical writing, although hardly an object lesson on objectivity itself!
Nigel: Thank you very much.
I received the following from Terry Thomas who has written a comparison of Mel Thompson's book with the much earlier Teach Yourself Philosophy book by C.E.M.Joad:
Terry Thomas writes: "I've just been reading your interview, via 'Butterflies and Wheels', with Mel Thompson concerning his 'Teach Yourself Philosophy' in Virtual Philosophy, of which I have become a subscriber. It is a book I have tried to use myself. But this email refers to a chance purchase of the original Teach Yourself Philosophy by C.E.M.Joad in a bookshop in Great Malvern, which was published during WW II and under the paper restrictions then in force. I wrote a short piece on a contrast between the ancient and modern versions for The Philosophers' Magazine' [Issue 29, First Quarter, 2005, p.16] and I'm giving a talk at the Tintern Philosophical Circle on the same topic in February [20 February, 2005, at 7.30 p.m. in the Rose and Crown, Tintern].
As you know Thompson uses all the most recent pedagogical methods to get the message across. In his interview with you he talks of: ''Don't waffle, just give it straight...' Joad does sometimes waffle but when Joad 'gives it straight' the tone of his approach is found to be very different. In his opening words he writes: 'Philosophy is an exceedingly difficult subject and most books on philosophy are unintelligible to most intelligent people. This is partly, but not wholly, due to the difficulty of the subject-matter, which, being the universe, is not surprisingly complex and obscure. There is no reason, at least I know of none, why the universe should necessarily be intelligible to the mind of a twentieth-century human being, and I take leave to remind him how late a newcomer he is upon the cosmic scene and how recently he has begun to think.'
Joad then proceeds to give a brief lesson in cosmology and evolution and concludes: 'By any reckoning, then, the human mind is very young, and it is not to be expected that it should, as yet, understand very much of the world in which it finds itself.' Halfway down the third page he has a longish quotation from Kant which is practically unintelligible to anyone, just to prove his point perhaps. His comment on this quotation is as follows: 'Some of the terms employed are technical, and some acquaintance with the special senses in which they are used is necessary to a full understanding of the meaning of the passage. Also it is fair to point out that Kant wrote in German and that the sentence I have quoted is, therefore, a translation.' Joad considered Kant 'still intolerably and unnecessarily obscure' and that he should have 'taken more pains with his writing'.
The rest is so different to the Thompson version of philosophy that they might almost be writing about two different subjects.
Thompson lists the aims of his book on p.ix, and they consist of mapping out the main areas of philosophy; an outline of some of the main philosophical arguments; and the main ways philosophy has developed in history. Joad leaves it until the end of his book to speak of 'The Purpose of the Book' (pp.225-6). 'It began as a guide to philosophical reading and study for those who are embarking upon the subject for the first time; but it has outranged its original purpose and become both an exercise in philosophy and an apology for its pursuit. I have long felt that philosophy has a contribution to make, however modest, to the alleviation of the distresses of our times, [i.e. the war effort], and have on occasion ventured to indicate what this contribution should be.' He then proceeds to discuss Plato's 'philosopher kings'. He then says: 'In a time not very different from that of Plato philosophers ought, in my view, to accept a similar obligation....It is in the spirit of this obligation that I have ventured to write this book." Terry Thomas