The making of ‘a book-shaped museum’6 min read . Updated: 01 Dec 2018, 12:08 AM IST
A gorgeous new book revisits some of the greatest works of world literatureand the qualities that make them classics
If you were given a penny for every Penguin Classics edition you spotted around you—in bookshops, libraries, schools, colleges or private collections—chances are you will quickly become very rich. The most ubiquitous imprint in the world, Penguin Classics was the creation of the legendary Allen Lane and helmed by editors like E.V. Rieu and Betty Radice. Having published thousands of titles since 1946, its labyrinthine history (featuring books published only up to 1919) appears in The Penguin Classics Book by Henry Eliot, currently the creative editor of the Penguin Classics list in the UK. During a recent visit to Bengaluru, Eliot spoke about his job, the challenges of keeping it real in the age of social media, and what qualifies as a classic. Edited excerpts:
What is the scope of your job?
I’m not sure anyone knows for sure, let alone me! The job came about because I was an author at Penguin. I had co-written a book about London, called Curiosity, and it just so happened that while it was going through the publishing process, they were looking for someone to come from outside the industry to be a fresh pair of eyes on the classics list. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. My job involves identifying new titles to add to the list and also housekeeping it, including spotting books that are getting out of date. It also involves challenging the way things are being done and coming up with creative ideas to infuse interest about the list in people.
How did the book come about?
There’s not a single list of all the Penguin Classics online, which, I believe, a lot of people will find useful. That’s how this project came about. At one point, we talked about a museum of classics, where people could actually wander around, but eventually we agreed that the thing that Penguin does best is to make books. So we came up with a book-shaped museum.
There is one extraordinary archive, in Rushden in the UK, with every single book Penguin has ever published. It’s on big roller stacks to save space. You roll back one stack and see all the Pelican classics with the blue spines, you roll back another stack and there are all the black classics. Then there is another part of the archive, which is all the paperwork, editorial files, art designs and sketches, which are held at the University of Bristol. There are also some active societies of Penguin collectors in the UK. They have publications about different aspects of the history of the list. Within the company there are people who have been around for 20-30 years. They helped me solve lots of little puzzles—such as the correct dates of publication of some books.
How do you decide what’s a classic?
For me, there are three criteria: first, it needs to have “literary quality", which is quite subjective, but nonetheless we need to agree as editors that it’s written well. Secondly, it needs to have some historical significance, either at the time it was written or later. It may have been a best-seller or perhaps influenced the world or did something new in literature for the first time. Thirdly, it must have an enduring reputation: people have to be reading it, studying it, making film adaptations—it needs to be current still.
How do you add books to the list, especially to the Modern Classics, which includes living writers?
There aren’t any strict rules. I think Modern Classics is like a quarantine period where we can put books that have literary quality and might have some historical significance, but we don’t know yet if they have an enduring reputation as not enough time has passed. We think of it as our best stab at what might be the classics of the future.
How do you source literature from parts of the world that aren’t known globally?
While it’s obviously interesting to look at what’s in The Penguin Classics Book, it’s even more interesting to look for what’s not in there. France has, for instance, 20-odd pages, Italy has one page, so have South America and India. You quickly see there are big gaps. But we are systematically taking one specific aspect of the list and working on it. For instance, in January we have an Arabic literature session, where we will gather academics, translators, readers, journalists. We will put them in a room and let them talk and recommend to us what we should be working on next. We have done this exercise with Russian and Scandinavian literature and come away with hundreds of ideas. It’s a really helpful way to bring things to attention. Personally, I have a database where whenever a book floats on my radar, I put it in there. I wish members of the public would recommend more books to us.
With the diversity debate taking over publishing, how does it affect the Penguin Classics list?
The bottom line with something like the Penguin Classics is that it has to be based on merit. Having said that, it’s definitely true that in all literatures there are some real standouts and then there are tiers below that. Take English language literature, where we have got those big hitters, we have probably also got tiers 2, 3 and some of the 4. While I’m not saying we won’t find any more classics from English language literature, there are probably richer pickings in some of these other literatures, where we might have a couple of those big hitters, but we definitely don’t have the second or third tiers. Of course some things have been lost, but while we are unlikely to discover another Moby Dick in 19th century America, we might still find one in Burmese literature just because we are ignorant of it in the UK. So that’s why I am keen to focus on some of these literatures which are less well represented. For example, in April we are publishing a Vietnamese epic poem called The Song Of Kieu. In Vietnam it is a classic, like the Iliad or the Ramayana, but outside the country, hardly anyone has heard of it.
How does one keep the classics relevant in the age of social media, when people are apparently reading less?
There is an optimist in me that thinks classics will never die because the reason they survive is the way they present the human condition, which people are stuck with and will want to keep reading about. I’d be very surprised if that demand to broaden one’s experience by reading the classics will ever go away. The pessimist in me would say, yes, habits of reading are changing and that’s where we need to get creative. We are offering a real menu of how you can read these books to suit your needs: you can have it either as a bells-and-whistles edition with an introduction, or as a beautiful one, with more generous setting, that you can take along on the tube. In some ways, the word classic is a bit of a burden, which is good in a way because it means something is enduring and of a certain quality. The danger is people also associate the classics with old-fashioned, difficult, dusty books. But these have survived because they weren’t those things when they came out. Imaginative marketing can almost change the association of classics.
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Source: Nandan Jha, senior VP, product and sales, Penguin India