Book review: let us now praise Penguin, purveyor of little samples of civilisation that are within the reach of all

The British publisher is marking its 80th anniversary by producing 80 selections drawn from its vast library of Classics, at prices so small as to be virtually invisible

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 5:00pm

Little Black Classics

by various authors


It was quite overwhelming, to open the box containing all 80 of these booklets – one for each year in the life of Penguin Books. Each is around 60 pages long; each is an extract from the Penguin Classics range.

Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random. To my delight, I picked out Suetonius’ life of Caligula. You are never going to be bored by Suetonius, especially on Caligula. (Although it would perhaps have been more fitting, or certainly cuter, if my debased version of the Sortes Vergilianae – the ancient tradition of using the poet Virgil’s works for divination – had actually picked out Penguin’s snippet of Virgil.)

As I was reading about the emperor’s vanity and excesses (“during the day he would indulge in whispered conversations with Jupiter Capitolinus” – a statue – “pressing his ear to the god’s mouth and sometimes raising his voice in anger”), I wondered who among us today is so puffed-up that they feel they can bend a venerable institution to their own will, making themselves a laughing stock while doing so?

Yes, readers, I thought of the pop star Morrissey, and his declaration that if his somewhat overwritten autobiography did not appear in the livery of Penguin Classics, it would not appear at all. It is one of the more notably absurd episodes to have occurred in British publishing, and though Morrissey’s work is not one of those chosen for filleting (even if he has won this year's Bad Sex award for a passage in his debut novel, also published by Penguin), I dwell on it because it raises the issue of what it means to be a “classic”, in both the wide and narrow senses.

Quality plus the passage of time would seem to cover it, added to which might be the idea of necessity – that a certain work should be preserved in order to understand the society that produced it. It is not quite as simple an idea as it seems, and when I asked the publicity department how many books they had published and how many were still in print, the reply was not cut-and-dried.

“Slightly tricky questions,” began the answer; “I’ve asked the editorial team and they’ve come up with: 2,358 editions of Classics still in print (which includes Great Ideas, Penguin English Library, Clothbounds, etc). Based on figures for the past five years, we publish around 66 new classics each year.”

That’s a lot, and it seems to imply that once a Penguin Classic is in print, it stays in print, which would seem logical and honourable, although hardly practical. (In fact, that’s not the case. The publisher that does have a policy of keeping all its classics in print is the estimable NYRB Classics – but then it has a very different brief from Penguin, and publishes considerably fewer books.)

But the passage of time means that Penguins that started out in the Penguin English Library with orange spines turn into Classics with black ones; and the list is also topped up by works from other countries. One wonders if, like coal (also black, also laid down long ago), such resources are finite; and sometimes, as you look at another new title that you have never heard of, you consider the elasticity of the term.

Contemplating the books en masse is like being let loose in a sweet shop. Austerely desirable, but also playful in their way

Meanwhile, we have our Little Black Classics. If I had to resort to stochastic methods in order to pick my reading matter, then the Penguin team had a far harder task, although at least they were slightly helped by making sure not to repeat anything from the last time they did something like this, which was 20 years ago, and involved 60 classics at 60p each. Presumably we can look forward to 100 in 2035. In 2015, the selection is heavily weighted to the 19th century, although most other centuries are represented (albeit with nothing from the Dark Ages, or at least nothing European); and, naturally enough, it goes back to Homer (“Circe” and “Cyclops” from The Odyssey).

Contemplating the books en masse is like being let loose in a sweet shop. Austerely desirable, but also playful in their way: some familiar authors have been given unusual titles – “It Was Snowing Butterflies” for a selection from Darwin’s Beagle voyage; “Mrs Rosie and the Priest” for a story from The Decameron – and others are discrete, self-contained, such as De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, or The Communist Manifesto. I do not know the Dhammapada; now I can get a taste of it. Ditto Pu Songling, Kenko, Akutagawa and Shen Fu. Buying the lot doesn’t seem like a crazy extravagance.

No notes, no introductions. The texts stand or fall on their own. This may mean that we do not instantly appreciate, for instance, what exactly Peter Whigham was doing when he modelled his translations of Catullus, in 1966, on the likes of William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound (a daring editorial decision half a century ago); but the selection we have for the LBC series, published under the title I Hate and I Love, still reads as if it is alive, and it is a testament to Penguin’s wisdom all those years ago, weighing up the conflicting needs of the student and the general reader.

Besides, I would like to think that the phrase “spintrian perverts”, from the Suetonius, is all the more resonant for not knowing exactly what it means. Also, such a policy slims the budget and encourages, in the reader, impulsiveness.

One of the problems, for many casual and indeed non-casual readers of, say, 19th-century literature in particular is its sheer length: being able to pick up a slim chunk of Honoré de Balzac instead of feeling obliged to read the entire Comèdie Humaine must be a considerable weight off one’s mind; and the thought that you could buy something at a train station that will keep you entertained for an hour at a price so tiny it is almost invisible is remarkably cheering.

I mention train stations, because it was his dissatisfaction with the reading material on sale in them that inspired Allen Lane to come up with the concept of Penguin Books in the first place. It is one of the things that the UK can be proudest of: not only does it honour its own great and good, it honours the great and good of other nations and cultures; and when it does so, it doesn’t put them into fancy editions (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Library of America); it puts them into black jackets and makes them affordable to virtually everyone.

It is where publishing meets public service, and may the imprint continue for as long as civilisation.

The Guardian