Penguin turns 80, and celebrates with range of affordable Little Black Classics
Penguin Books is 80 years young. Since its launch in 1935 it has become, quite possibly, the most recognisable book brand in the world and has consolidated its position as the go-to publisher for the widest range of publications. Its reach was extended – and its power base strengthened – when it joined forces with Random House in 2013. Readers remain loyal, new ones are enticed and sales are healthy. A happy birthday indeed.
Critics have argued that in becoming “the world’s first truly global trade book publisher” Penguin Random House (mercifully not Random Penguin) has crowded the market and put the squeeze on the smaller, independent presses jostling for elbow room.
The quick counterargument is that Penguin has always been expanding, from its acquisition of Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton in 1985 to Dorling Kindersley in 2000, and that any overshadowing or stamping out of the weaker competition is unfortunate collateral damage in the fight against the real threats to the publishing industry: the behemoths of Amazon and Apple.
Another gripe is that since Penguin supersized itself it has, quite simply, sold out and lost its edge. But bigger budgets have resulted in creativity being promoted, not stifled. One only has to look at Penguin’s catalogues to see the various imprints and its diverse selection of titles that cater to all tastes. One imprint, Pelican – aimed at edifying the “interested layman” over entertaining the common reader – was wound up in 1984, but relaunched last year. While it is unlikely that any imminent Penguin publication will create an international scandal on the scale of that ignited by two of its most controversial releases – Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and The Satanic Verses in 1988 – it continues to take artistic risks and varies commercial, mainstream crowd-pleasers with exciting, lesser-known voices and styles.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Penguin Classics range. Despite formidable (and admirable) competition from the older Oxford World’s Classics and Everyman Classics, Penguin Classics is still the leader of the pack; apparently 20,000 Penguin Classics are sold worldwide every day. Its appeal lies in its scope. The “black classics” comprise fiction, history, science, philosophy, religion, politics and economics from all corners of the globe. The Modern Classics range is made up of undisputed 20th-century greats (Kafka, F Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh), recently anointed masters (Angela Carter, Penelope Lively, Roald Dahl), a rich panoply of non-anglophone writers (Clarice Lispector, Javier Marías, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya) and a curious smattering of gatecrashers who were “classic” in other disciplines than writing (Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Charles Chaplin). As Phil Baines comments in Penguin by Design, a history of the publisher’s dynamic, game-changing cover art: “There is now a far more catholic interpretation of what actually constitutes a ‘classic’.”
Admittedly, it takes a certain chutzpah to act as a unilateral custodian of the literary canon, and not all readers approve of how Penguin is constantly and, some might say, arbitrarily enlarging it. Penguin employs a blanket approach to the branding of its classics, whereby not one book but all of an author’s output is deemed classic. Few would contest Nineteen Eighty-Four’s classic status, but should we really extend that honour to A Clergyman’s Daughter, a novel Orwell himself dismissed as a “silly potboiler”? And then there was Penguin’s ultimate misstep of publishing Morrissey’s Autobiography as a black classic.
And yet, however much we might query some of its inclusions, it is surely commendable that Penguin Classics views literature as something living, breathing and, above all, evolving. What’s more, since Penguin’s first classic – E V Rieu’s modern and accessible translation of Homer’s Odyssey – the company has ensured that classic or classical literature is open not just to academics but to all readers.
Those in need of a crash course in classic literature, or those who don’t want to break the bank or a bookshelf, may be glad to know that this month, in celebration of its 80th birthday, Penguin has published 80 Little Black Classics at 80 pence (Dh4.5) each. This kind of project isn’t entirely new: for the 60th anniversary in 1995 there were Penguin 60s, and for the 70th in 2005 70 Pocket Penguins. This latest batch is, as ever, beautifully designed, and includes 48 translations of non-English texts. The publishing director Simon Winder hopes that readers will “trust the series enough to try things they have never heard of”.
Once again, the range is impressive. We get Buddhist sayings, Icelandic sagas, Japanese haiku, Ancient Greek myths and Roman history. There is Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Montaigne’s Essays, Mozart’s letters, Marco Polo’s travels, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Goethe’s Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings and the shrewd Machiavellian maxims of the 17th-century Spanish priest Baltasar Gracián. “In your affairs,” he writes, “create suspense.”
Some of the fiction and poetry is standard fare (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Gogol’s The Nose), but there has been a concerted effort to gather some obscure delights. The Terrors of the Night by Thomas Nashe and Wailing Ghosts by Pu Songling are compellingly macabre, and Nikolai Leskov’s raucous tale of one-upmanship, The Steel Flea, with its doughty Cossack protagonist Platov, demonstrates that this criminally neglected Russian writer was capable of crafting stories as skilfully as his compatriots Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky (also included here). And who could resist delving into Johann Peter Hebel’s Grimm-flavoured and intriguingly titled How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog?
There is also a selection of unfamiliar works from very familiar authors. Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella Olalla isn’t a patch on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but is a welcome change from it. Jane Austen’s surprisingly dark teenage stories about criminals are far from underdeveloped juvenilia.
And one of Dickens’s earliest stories, The Great Winglebury Duel, flaunts the author’s nascent talent and introduces his trademark blend of comedy and dramatic tension. “You had better not order your breakfast in the morning till you have seen me,” warns one duellist to the other in a “letter of defiance”. “It may be an unnecessary expense.” As the appointment nears, Dickens’s lurid imagery slides into sharp focus: one man with “the vacant and mystified stare of a chilly somnambulist” wipes off “the concentrated essence of cowardice that was oozing fast down his forehead”.
Penguin may take the reader from Tang Dynasty China to Renaissance Florence to Victorian London, but there is not much of a stopover in the Middle East. It is gratifying to see the inclusion of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez’s wise, wine-soaked verse, along with Malcolm C Lyons’s robust translation of Sindbad the Sailor – but that is all we are given. One wishes the four editors in charge of selecting the texts had cast their net wider and raided the superb Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness or the recently translated Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange – all Penguin Classics.
One of the best books here happens to be one of the finest stories in the western canon – Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s pioneering feminist tale The Yellow Wall-Paper. In it, a woman is confined to her room by her doctor husband for her “temporary nervous depression” and goes mad due to the solitude, mental inactivity and pattern of the wallpaper – its “great slanting waves of optic horror”. For those who haven’t read it – or for that matter Herodotus, Maupassant or Shen Fu – the Little Black Classics serve as tasters of a whole oeuvre. They also stay true to the Penguin founder Allen Lane’s ethos: “Intelligent books at a low price.”
For Penguin’s 90th, it would be nice to see a better representation of the Arab world. That flaw aside, this current treasure trove of miniature gems sparkles. Here’s to the next 80 years.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.
Updated: February 26, 2015 04:00 AM