The Penguin Modern Classics Book

In 2018 Penguin Classics released an illustrated history of the imprint written by Henry Eliot which coincided with the 80th anniversary of its first published classic, though the venture didn’t really take off until E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 1946. Within ten years there were 62 titles available, the most modern being The Cherry Orchard (1904). And so, in 1961, Penguin Modern Classics began. It’s first five authors were Thornton Wilder, Carson McCullers, Nathaniel West, Ronald Firbank and Cyril Connolly – the inclusion of three Americans suggesting where modernity was seen to be located at that time. Would all five be regarded as classics today? That, in a sense, is what makes ‘modern classics’ more interesting than classics – the definition is more malleable, which, over time, has made it more accommodating to variety, increasingly covering a wider bandwidth of gender, nationality and genre. Would anyone in 1961 have suspected that Len Deighton’s back list would one day appear so labelled? (The answer is no, as his first novel was not published until 1962).

The Penguin Classics Book was structured chronologically as well as geographically – but then it had 4,000 years of literature to contend with as opposed to a single century (though a handy timeline is provided at the end). This means that The Penguin Modern Classics Book has the advantage of focus, and feels much closer to a summary of modern literature, albeit partial and filtered through sixty years of evolving perspective. It includes every Penguin Modern Classic, always using the first cover, which allows the reader to see the changes in priority and perspective over the years, from the original five white, male, Booker Prize eligible entries to the present day. It is, of course, heavily Eurocentric, with over half the book focusing on that one continent, and around a quarter on the British Isles alone. There is still plenty to be discovered in this first section, however, even for the hardened reader: Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity caught my eye, and Richard Pennington’s Peterley Harvest, withdrawn days after its publication, is nothing if not intriguing. As a resource for anyone near the beginning of their love affair with literature, however, it is invaluable.

The further we get from, let’s be honest, the European languages traditionally taught in British schools, the less reliable it is as a comprehensive overview – Turkey, for example, is represented by only two authors, both recent additions. But to complain is both churlish (what other imprint has done as much to make the very best of modern literature available cheaply over the last fifty years?) and misses the point: this is a project in progress, not an end point. This can be seen in the countries most recently added to its global reach – countries such as Norway, Syria and Ghana. It’s also worth remembering that Penguin Modern Classics face a barrier that its older sister imprint doesn’t: copyright. To see how it is expanding towards a more representative selection of world literature, however, we need only look at Latin America: once there was little more than Borges, where we now have Mario Benedetti, Raduan Nassar, Eduardo Galeano and Clarice Lispector.

As well as short biographical entries, and brief summaries of texts, we also have entertaining lists scattered throughout the book. While some are a little predictable – More Detectives or More Female Protagonists (though the former is a great list) – others are more esoteric, such a More Chickens, or More Factories, the latter pairing Roald Dahl with Arnold Bennett. There are also brief explanations of literary movements such as Vorticism and New Journalism (I enjoyed the side bar on Cut-Up looking cut up) and a particularly appropriate summary of Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics.

The Penguin Modern Classics Book is a fascinating history of an important imprint – something book enthusiasts are generally lacking, as if somehow the books should be enough and we can’t also have books about books. There is (literally) something worth reading on every page.

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7 Responses to “The Penguin Modern Classics Book”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    This really does look wonderful, and I love the idea of the lists. All too often, these reference tomes can be a little dense and dry, so a few touches of humour here and there wouldn’t go amiss. I might have to treat myself to a copy after Christmas, if Santa doesn’t deliver!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This looks and sounds glorious – I have high hopes that either Santa or the birthday fairy will deliver…

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    Oh, I want this. I didn’t know I wanted it until I read this review.
    Xmas is already sorted, and it’s not in stock here in Oz anyway, so that gives the Birthday Fairy plenty of time to get himself organised…

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s a shame it’s not in stock in Australia, though one of the few things missing from it which I would have loved to see are classics from other Penguin imprints outside the UK like Penguin Australia.

      • Lisa Hill Says:

        Perhaps it will turn up here in due course, we may just be on a different publishing schedule. Plus, with travel still disrupted, books produced overseas can take a long while to get here at the moment.

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