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The Ten Essential Penguin Classics continued...
So then, how do you get people interested in classics who may not otherwise be interested? How do you relay to them that this will be relevant to their lives, not to mention enjoyable, especially once they're out of college and aren't really required to read something like epic poetry?
Elda: Word of mouth is just always the perennial thing that helps us pass books to each other. Like with Jane Eyre, I know somebody who hadn't picked it up since she was fourteen and reading it now, as a grown woman, she understood more about the passages that had just completely flown over her head before. And she thought, "I don't regret having read it when I had to, but going back to some of this stuff is so much more rewarding now that I've had this life experience." So some of these things, like reading about intense relationship issues, sometimes teenagers just don't get it. They hope they get it, but they don't. And then later on, when you have enough disappointments in life, or romance, you can go back to these things and really enjoy them.
The literary critic Richard Poirier said that classic books offer "a fairly direct access to pleasure" but that they also become "on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable." Do you think that most people view classics works like that, as "strange and imponderable?"
Elda: That certainly applies for the ones you haven't read. But once you read a bookfor instance, my secret is Moby-Dick; it's been my great white whale, literally; I haven't ever read it. And I finally decided to read it and, I have to say, I loved it. I now talk about it like I talk about episodes of Lost. It's so good and funny, and it's cinematic and it's modern. The characters are so well written, and it sounds slightly condescending to say that afterward. Like, duh. But I think that's the great thing about Penguin Classics. Everyone has his or her own personal discoveries, and it'll happen whenever you're ready in your life for it. Moby-Dick is waiting for you.
Jeremy: I actually have a similar relationship with that book, because we look at a lot of the fat books, like Anna Karenina or Moby-Dick, and they're just sitting on the shelf. They're dusty, they're old, and they're huge. It's intimidating or it seems boring. I read Moby-Dick for the first time early in college, and I found it to be completely the opposite of that, the image that I had. It's actually exciting; it's funny; it's totally different than anything else. I mean, people can say that, and that's how it gets its reputation, but when you experience that for yourself, that's what that critic is getting at...the book has a lasting relationship inside that you take with you. And it's not really at all intimidating when you get down to it. When you go through the first fifty pages or so you realize that you're in it. It's that simple.
From this list, or different books altogether, what are your own favorite classics? In terms of something you thought was unscalable and yet you've scaled it, on this list or other lists.
Jeremy: I'd say The Adventures of Augie March or Herzog, or any of Saul Bellow's novels. I think he's one of the greatest twentieth-century novelists, and we happily publish all of his stuff. It's a pleasure to be able to work with the books directly, but I think that he's still relatively undiscovered even though he won the Nobel Prize and he's lauded and whatnot. I'm constantly determined to try to notch up his image or his sales or whatever we can do. He's just incredible, unlike anyone else.
John: What is it about Bellow that people feel put off by or unworthy of?
Jeremy: I think it's that he focuses on writing a lot of intellectual characters, which is not very easy to do. And I think in American literature we find these brainiac writers, like a Faulkner or a Hemingway, writing relatively simplistic characters. So for someone like Bellow, or Phillip Roth currently, to try to take on characters that are in themselves geniuses, and try to give them human flaws and relationships, and take them through whatever their life's adventure is, is maybe a little bit intimidating. For Bellow, also, a lot of his books take place in Chicago, so maybe there's a certain regionalism. There's a lot of ways that he can be pigeonholed, but there's a true universal value to his work that's still underestimated, relatively.
We already touched on this a bit, but anyone care to admit not having read one of the books on the top ten list?
Stephen: Walden's one of mine. There's something that's never intrigued me about it. It felt a little contrived, but at some point I will read it because I feel that I should.
Stephen: It's also interesting when you read booksI'm thinking about favorite classicsbecause I always think back to my first experience of enjoying a classic, which was reading Great Expectations in the seventh grade. I consciously remember being assigned that book. I mean, it's a great thing for twelve-year-old to read because it's a novel about growing up and all that. I don't know if I've ever read it since, but I remember the experience of it and of loving that experience. I almost don't want to go back and read it because I have this feeling that it may just strike me in a whole different way. But my memory of that experience was such a good one that I think I'd probably rather spend my time reading classics that are new to me in the hopes that I will find another similar type of experience. You'll find the right book at the right time that speaks to you.
Jeremy: I feel a similar way about A Farewell to Arms. I read that book when I was twenty-one, and it totally devastated mein a good wayand I haven't read it since then. I'm kind of afraid to go back to see if the experience will be different.
Elda: It's like relationships, right? These books embody the experiences of what you were like at a time in your life, and visiting them is like visiting old friends. And that's probably the ideal experience you could possibly get from the classics. And that does not necessarily happen with all books you read. What I heard over and over since I started here is that people have such emotional ties to their Penguin Classics because they remember what they were like when they read them. That's the number-one link to what makes this great literature; it just illuminates you at times in your life and you remember that. And, of course, it also enlightens you.
At what point do books become classics? Is there a risk in anointing books as "classic" too soon?
Jeremy: Culturally, whenever you say, "This is a classic," I think at least a generation or two has to pass after a book has been out. We can know that it's great right off the bat, and people can slowly come to it, but I think it needs to have a staying power that, after a while, you can't deny that the book has something.
Elda: Also, the professors usually lead the way with certain books. They can tell when something's right for students in the younger generation to start studying and reading, and when enough time has passed. When they give us tips or we notice that they start adopting certain titles that are not yet Penguin Classics, that's definitely a good way of noting something and considering it for the list.
Jeremy: I think it's very subjective, ultimately. I think the best thing is to keep the broadest possible list so that people can decide for themselves. We were talking before about how we have so much beyond just American and European literature; there's so much Far Eastern stuff that we've done, so much Middle Eastern stuff. Our list being that comprehensive is a huge boon to everyone out there. Even just flipping through a Penguin catalog you can discover something that you've never heard of before, even if you're not in college anymore and you're still looking to educate yourself.
John: But I guess there's a folly in comprehensiveness, too, because as publishers what we're trying to do is not simply just to have everything. I remember when I got this email from somebody who was just writing in to the Penguin general mailbox, saying, "Send me a list of all of the classicsnot just your classicsbut all the classics in the world." So therein lies the folly of anointing everything by some yardstick as a "classic" just because it's old enough.
Stephen: With Penguin Classics itself, as Elda said, it's all about the academics. It means there is some professor, even on our more obscure classics, there is some professor who has thought long and hardor an academic or writer or thinkerwho has something to say about the classic: Why it's relevant, why it was written, why they think it's a classic. And with those as introducers, they're making the books relevant and making the case for them being classics. You can disagree with them, but these books all have advocates. Whether they have thousands of advocates if they're Jane Austen or hundreds of advocates if they're a lesser-known author, but they all have an advocate somewhere.
John: We would be nominally doing our jobswe would be only nominally doing our jobsif we published all of the books in the world and deemed them "classics." What's exciting, fun, and vital about our jobs is the role we play in putting things out there, and trying to curate the conversation or publish something that we think reflects either a cultural moment or that reinforces an interest that people seem to have at a given time. Because at the end of the day we're not just tracking sales numbers and making safe bets in publishing things that we know everybody already buys and reads. There are people behind the Penguin Classics and, I think, that's really what this exercise is. We follow our own whims and passions and enthusiasms and, as much as we follow our own whims and passions and enthusiasms, we're paying attention to what's going on in the world. We're reading widely, we're seeing what other people are excited about, and we're making determinations about whether something is just a flash in the pan or whether it has staying power. And that's the kind of curatorial aspect of the job that's really exciting.
Any final thoughts?
Jeremy: Read Saul Bellow.
Elda: And Moby-Dick is waiting for you when you're ready.
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Four Penguin staffers recently sat down to talk about the Top Ten Essential Penguin Classics, how the list was compiled, their own favorite classics, and why classic books can appeal to modern readers. Click here for the transcript.
Each Tuesday we'll be adding a new page to this minisite that features an in-depth look at one of the books on the list, starting at number 10 and working our way up to number 1.
Click here to read about book number 1: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
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