I remember the day I discovered La Rochefoucauld; or rather, to put it the way round that is now de rigueur among historians of the Spanish conquest of America, the day La Rochefoucauld discovered me. I was twelve years old, and I had been sent to the local barbers for my two-weekly haircut. I had half a crown pocket money to spend, and I was in the habit of buying books that were slightly too difficult for me to read. Those were the last days in British history when people wanted to appear cleverer, instead of stupider, than they were.

Next door to the barbershop was a newsagent that had a small revolving rack of books. How can I put this without sounding absurdly nostalgic or golden-ageist? You could go to a lot of newsagents in England nowadays without finding a copy of La Rochefoucauld. Anyway, this Penguin Classic, whose bright green border I remember vividly, suited my purposes admirably; a slender...