In celebration of Penguin Classics

In my previous post, I was less than entirely complimentary to Penguin Classics. I feel a bit bad about this, since I can think of no other commercial organisation – not even the Macallan distilleries – whose products have meant so much to me over the years.

Penguin Classics first appeared immediately after the War, in 1946, with E. V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey. Rieu’s vision was to make available for everyone at affordable prices the greatest literature that the world has to offer. It is a vision that may seem somewhat quaint to us nowadays, when so many of us refuse even to admit that anything could be objectively “greater” than anything else; some even judge this sort of thing to be paternalistic, and patronising. The Rievian vision, like the Reithian vision that was the foundation of the BBC, was possibly of its time, and is, many would argue, of little relevance in our modern world. But I won’t start off on another of my intemperate rants on this matter: I want this post to be celebratory. So I will restrict myself to saying that I have grown up with Penguin Classics; that they have been my constant companions throughout my adult life; and that, for better or worse, they have helped make me what I am: I would be a very different person without them.


I remember the first Penguin Classic volumes I ever bought. I think it was the Rosemary Edmond’s translation of War and Peace. I was thirteen years old, and had been utterly transfixed by the splendid BBC dramatisation; and I wanted, desperately, to read the books. So I handed over my pound note for the two volumes – 50p each, I still remember – with pictures of Alan Dobie as Prince Andrei on the cover of the first volume, and of Morag Hood as Natasha on the second. (Antony Hopkins was Pierre in that BBC series, but he wasn’t a big enough star in those days to make the front cover.)

I confess that disinterested love of literature was not then my sole motivation. I did, it is true, genuinely want to read the book for its own sake, but, being too young to be aware how little erudition is valued in society, I had thought that people would be impressed by a mere thirteen-year-old reading Tolstoy. I am tempted to be picturesque here, and invent a story of my sitting on a park bench reading War and Peace with the front cover held up ostentatiously for passers-by to view, but no – even at thirteen, insufferable prat that I no doubt was, I didn’t go that far. But I did read it in the comfort of my room, when I should have been doing more useful and important things such as seeing to my chemistry homework.

In the event, no-one was impressed. But by the time I finished the book, I found, to my surprise, that it didn’t matter. The experience that book had given me was beyond anything I had expected. It obsessed me day and night. And I knew that if this is what classic literature could give me, I wanted more – regardless of whether or not it impressed others.

I remember still saving up whatever change I had in a biscuit tin to buy myself more Penguin Classics. Naturally, I wanted to read more Russians. Anna Karenina soon followed, again in Rosemary Edmonds’ translation. Then Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, in the venerable translations by David Magarshack. And Chekhov’s short stories, and Gogol’s Dead Souls – both, again, in Magarshack’s translations, I found an edition of the plays of Chekhov in the local lending library – translated once again by David Magarshack – but it wasn’t Penguin: in those days, the Penguin version of these plays was translated by Elizaveta Fen, and I didn’t enjoy them as much as I had done the Magarshack versions. Still, it was Chekhov; and it was Penguin Classics. So I wasn’t complaining too hard.

After a while, I diversified. I knew a few of the Russians: it was time, I decided, to try some of the French. So I got myself Alan Russell’s excellent translation of Madame Bovary.  Soon, I was on to Marion Ayton Crawford’s translations of Balzac, Margaret R. B. Shaw’s translations of Stendhal, and Leonard Tancock’s translations of Zola. After a while, I ventured out of the 19th century: John Butt’s beautifully fluent translation of Voltaire’s Candide – and, later, John Butt’s translations of Voltaire’s Zadig and L’Ingenue. And, as a nod to my own background, Juan Mascaró’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The only disappointment, as I remember, was J. M. Cohen’s version of Don Quixote, which, I later discovered, had the reputation of being accurate but dull. The accuracy I couldn’t vouch for, but the dullness I could. However, since the more recent publication of the translation by John Rutherford, Penguin Classics now boasts what is reckoned to be one of the finest of all English versions of Don Quixote, renowned for its accuracy both to the letter and the spirit, and also – and this last bit once again I can vouch for – for its fluency.

And so it continued – through my student years, my adult life, and right into my now advancing middle age. Bit by bit, my reading repertoire expanded. Those Penguin Classics I read in my teens I have since re-read in different translations, but, call it nostalgia if you will, it is those translations I first encountered that I usually love the best. When I want to re-read Madame Bovary, for instance, it’s still Alan Russell’s version I turn to.

When I look through the Penguin Classics catalogue online, I can but marvel at the range and depth of it. Of course, I suppose it’s a bit biased towards Western literature, but given that Penguin Classics are Western publishers, that’s nothing to be surprised by or to complain about. However, having said that, the literatures of India, of China, Japan, Persia, etc, aren’t badly represented at all. If anyone has read all the titles Penguin Classics publish of non-Western literature, one could count oneself to be very well read indeed in those areas.

And from the West, we have just about everything from Athenian drama to medieval Arthurian romances; from nineteenth century European novels to  Icelandic sagas; from early Christian theology to Byzantine histories; Renaissance drama to Romantic poetry; Greek philosophy to modernist experimentation … It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave of treasures. And it is sad that the PR team whose job it is to publicise these marvels focus so unremittingly on only a few of the most popular of titles – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre,  Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and a relatively small handful of others. It’s only when you go into a large bookshop, or browse the online catalogue, do you realise the sheer range of the riches on offer. And in both cases, you need to know beforehand what you’re looking for. Why hide such glorious light under a bushel? When you publish splendid new translations of Ovid, say, or of Cervantes, why not shout from the rooftops about it?

But, instead of my usual rant, I would like to say a big “Thank You” to Penguin Classics. I really cannot imagine my life without these books. While E. V. Rieu, now in the Great Library in the Skies, may well be shaking his head at the antics of the PR department, his heart must be swelling with pride as he surveys the current catalogue, and sees what has developed from the publication of The Odyssey over sixty years ago.

21 responses to this post.

  1. It’s good to see you celebrating Penguin Classics! It has done so much for me too, thanks to its cheap yellow-covered books I discovered countless writers in my teens. We can’t thank PC enough for the joys it has given us 🙂


    • Indeed. I know there are others now who also make these works available at a decent price (Oxford World Classics comes to mind), but it was penguin that started it, and it’s good to see them still keeping up standards, as far as their publications are concerned.


  2. It was the pound Penguin Popular Classics which got me reading the classics in the early nineties, so well done to them 🙂


    • I think the Pound Classics came a bit late for me – i was already into my 30s in the 1990s.. I tried a few of them, and, useful though they were, I like the scholarly notes & introductions that come with the regular editions. I just wish they’d go back to the smaller size so I could slip them into my jacket pocket!


  3. Posted by Caro on April 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I don’t believe no one was impressed with you reading War and Peace as a thirteen-year-old, Himadri. Yesterday I was talking to a woman here who was reading War and Peace (‘again’ she said) and I was very impressed. She’s not a teacher or any sort of academic, a farmer’s wife and clerical worker.


    • Hello Caro, I think this is the very point of Rieu’s initiative: he saw the great works of world literature not as something to be read only by academics and by other specialists, but by everyone. It was the same principle that Lord Reith had in mind in the early days of the BBC – to make the best freely available to all. It’s a principle that has taken an awful lot of battering in the last few decades, but i still cling to it – if only because I, personally, have gained so much from it!


  4. Wonderful post. Can’t help but be impressed by the erudition on display..


    • Hello Seamus, without any false modesty, I really am not that well-read: I know many far better read than I! I think after a while one has to decide whether or not to read widely, or try to get to know better the bits of the canon one is familiar with – and, by and lare, I tend to go for the latter. In other words – expect more posts on Tolstoy! 🙂


  5. Posted by severalfourmany on April 3, 2013 at 2:03 am

    My love of literature dates from a Penguin copy of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve spent countless hours since scanning the used book racks for the black Penguin spines. It was almost always a sure thing–whether I had heard of it or not, if it was a black Penguin it was almost certainly going to be good. The orange Penguins were a close second.


    • Yes, I remember the old Dorothy L. Sayers translations (I think she died while at work on the Paradiso, and barbara reynolds completed it). Penguin have since then also published translations by Mark Musa, and by Robin Kirkpatrick. I bought the Kirkpatrick set last year (it’s a dual language edition, and comes with long introductory essays and with copious notes) but have only read the Inferno so far. I really should move on to the others.


  6. Lovely post, Himadri. One really can’t underestimate the impact of these books. I was delighted during a random walk on my last trip to London, to discover, quite by accident, a plaque marking the location of the original Penguin publishing house run by Allen Lane. I paused and treated it as a sort of secular station of the cross. And confidentially, I was far more thrilled for an academic friend when she was selected to write the introduction for a Penguin Classic than I was when she was awarded tenure.


    • “Secular station of the cross” – I love it! 🙂 It is true, though, that the effect of great art can be similar, or analogous, to what devout believers tell us of the effect of religion. And yes, an invitation to write the introduction to a Penguin Classic is certainly an honour. Some of the introductory essays are so good, I have often thought that Penguin should publish a few volumes containing some of the best of these essays.


  7. The Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago used to have – probably still does – at the front of the store a Wall of Penguin (and Oxford) Classics. There were times I never made it past that section – the whole book budget poured right into the Penguins.

    That collection of introductions – what a good idea.


  8. Posted by Brian Joseph on April 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Though I cannot provide a complete inventory off the top of my head, I have more then a few of these on my bookshelf. Your idea of Penguin publishing a volume of the accompanying essays is a great one!


  9. Posted by alan on April 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Good post. A great institution and worthy of celebration. My only concern is that the volumes seem bigger and more difficult to carry around these days. Difficult to boast if it’s only practical to carry it on an e-reader 🙂


  10. Posted by David on April 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Your post reminded me of an incedent concerning my son aged 13 at the time. I decided, as one does, that certain fruit and vegatibles ( washed of course) would benifit the sprog, so I wondered into his room and presented him with a fine carrot for him to eat. I told him about the benifits and left him to it.
    Whilst in the garden and just below his bedroom window said carrot just missed my ear! Of course I marched back up and in an effort not to be like my father in terms of punishment avoided getting a large stick but instead produced War and Peace for him to read as punishment for not being honest. Not all in one sitting you understand.
    He rewarded my restraint by tearing the book up.
    He is now a grown man with a masters (with honours) in theoretical physics but cannot abide any sort of fiction apparently due to suffering from Aspergers.
    What are they missing the poor sods or is it becoming all a bit too difficult?

    And what I’d like to know is when may I expect a replacement copy from him?


    • Hello David, and welcome.

      It is very difficult for people with Asperger’s Syndrome to become interested in fiction, as the ability to see things from the perspectives of others – which is necessary to appreciate fiction – is obviously something people with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty with. But given what your son has achieved despite his condition, I don’t know that I’d worry too much about the inability to appreciate War and Peace! 🙂

      Penguin Classics now have a new translation of War and Peace, by Anthony Briggs. I have dipped into this, and when I next read this novel (I do this on a fairly regular basis) this will be this translation I’ll read. However, I still have a sentimental attachment to Rosemary Edmonds’ version.


  11. Penguin Classics and Macallan? What a winning combination! I wholeheartedly echo what you’ve said here. Thank you, Penguin Classics!


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