Tag Archives: Penguin Classics

Interview with Henry Eliot

Classic literature is more or less dubbed boring by regular people. Academicians still swear by it. Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written. Oh wait, it is actually the Tale of Genji. Chaucer was way ahead of his times and maybe he was. But does he hold any relevance today? What is classic literature and what does it mean in today’s time and age? Do people even read classics, beside the regular Austen and Brontë sisters? Does anyone give a fig about Shakespeare? How can then classics be made more accessible and make people aware of their existence?

Henry Eliot, publisher of Penguin Classics and author of the recently published, The Penguin Classics Book is of course about Penguin Classics as the title suggests, and rightly so, given Penguin Classics is the largest and best-known classics imprint in the world as of today. The book attempts to document classics (in various Penguin editions) right from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of WWI – covering it all: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, plays, histories, and philosophy. This companion contains 500 authors, 1200 books, and 4000 years of world literature (though I think that is highly debatable, but that discussion is for a later day).

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I had the opportunity to interview Henry while he was in town for the Tata Literature Festival. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Me: I actually adore this book. I love the research. What do you think makes a classic, a classic? What makes Chaucer a classic though so unreadable? Or an Austen who is so readable? Is it just time or is it more?

Henry: I think it is a complicated question, I think. As an experiment, I tried collecting all definitions of a classic and they are all so different and disparate. Well, for me, when I am trying to decide whether a book is a classic, maybe there are four criteria I use. A book doesn’t have to have all of them but if it does have all of them, I am convinced it is a classic. They are: literary quality, which is quite subjective but you know when something is good, some kind of historical significance – either it was a great bestseller in its day or it did something new for the first time and shifted the course of literature, and thirdly, an enduring reputation, so it is still being studied, sort of read or survived somehow and the fourth one, I think is crucial actually, a classic work of literature at some level should still be alive and speaks to you today. I think as soon as books stop speaking to us today, then it becomes just a historical document and not a classic.

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Me: Do you think there are books like these that have lost their significance and are still termed as classics because we cannot get rid of the definition attached to them?

HE: Interesting. I am coming at it from a publisher’s point of view because I work at Penguin Classics. It is subjective to an extent, the way it is arbitrary what we include but not entirely. But if no one is say reading a book anymore, there is no reason for keeping it on the list. There is a kind of Darwinian – almost a kind of natural selection, as books stop being read, they are removed from the list.

Me: I just cannot recall any titles that have been removed from the Penguin list

HE: So, there is this section at the back of the book – these all titles are no longer in print and we couldn’t include them all – because there are so many. I mean, one example is someone like Sir Walter Scott is a good example of someone who was hugely popular all through the 19th century and through the course of the 20th century has become less and less popular. We do have some titles though like Waverley and Ivanhoe, but you know we used to have many more but we have removed some.

Me: Do you ever face a situation where you have started reading a classic and you’re like “Oh My God! I just cannot read this anymore”?

HE: Yes, I certainly find some classics harder to read than others. You just spoke of Chaucer right now and I’m actually a great fan and I really enjoyed studying him, but it is definitely read, and I find when I am reading Chaucer, the first twenty minutes or so I am struggling and then there’s a shift, you’re almost stuck into it and then you begin to understand it.

Something like Origin of Species is highly on the list, and it is very relevant even today, but in terms of literary quality it is quite hard to read. The prose is not easy. So, I certainly have that experience and I can’t think of a classic that I started reading and got bored but sometimes it is hard and you do need a spark of a connection or sometimes you just need a bit of historical context to sort of experience it better.

Me: We live in a world which is very fast, and would you think someone in their 20s or a 20-year-old would actually read a classic? What role then a classic would play in this?

HE: My hope is that people will keep reading classics – the reason for them to read is to expand experiences – what it means to be alive, what it means to connect with these great writers across centuries makes you a bigger and better person, and see the world in more colours, and I hope will read them – whether they come to then later or whether they read them now, given the speed of social media.

There are some interesting projects connected to social media to generate awareness of classics. For instance, an email service I subscribe to which sends me an entry from Samuel Pepys diary, every day, on the day that he wrote it. And I feel like, there’s lots of books you can break into accessible bytes like The Arabian Nights for instance. But sure, nothing can replace the experience of actually holding the book and reading.

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Me: How much time did it take you to edit this book?

HE: It took a long time. It is a very ambitious project, and everyone only realized how ambitious it was once we were stuck right into it and we had to keep going. Even the designer, it was a huge job to design – the editions, the photographs, etc. In terms of time, it took me about a year to write and another year to design it.

Me: I was going through the India list and just saw Tagore. Just Tagore?

 HE: This book stops at WWI and I agree there should be more and there’s one thing that this book has shown is that there is a lot of stuff in here but there’s also a lot of stuff that isn’t here.

Me: A lot of male writers. Is it because of function of time?

HE: Exactly! Exactly! And that’s something I speak of in the introduction. There are very few women writers here, because it is probably a combination of fewer women have written classics and I suspect this has got to do with this list being almost 70 years’ time and over that time gender equality has improved. We do have George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Katharine Mansfield, and Gaskell that have their space, but we do need more.

Me: People keep speaking of a modern classic, but I’ve never really understood it. What is a modern classic then?

HE: It is a bit of a blurred line and I suppose the way I think about it; Modern Classic is almost a quarantine period. These are books that have an impact, they have literary quality, but we don’t know whether they are going to endure or not. So, I sort of say is that they are the best bet as of now, but we need to see if they speak to generations coming on. And for that reason, there are some quite whacky choices. It allows us to be experimental actually.

Me: Is there a sequel to this?

HE: I would like there to be a second-volume. So, this finishes in 1918 and the second volume would then cover the last 100 years. Copyright issues might spring up I suppose. If we did a Penguin Modern Classics book, we wouldn’t have so many books, but I hope there is a sequel.

Me: I see so many people trying to take up reading challenges. Would you think this book would then serve as a reference for that as well or steer readers to read classics?

HE: I mean I like that. I wish people would set themselves ambitions. I hope people use this as building their reading lists and come across titles that they haven’t read earlier. It is difficult for one person to know what is out there. So, this book might help them. I hope people use this as a map to discover literature and know more about classics.

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson Title: The Sundial
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0143107064
Genre: Horror, Gothic
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

So it had been a while since I read something gothic or along the lines of horror. I then thought of Shirley Jackson. I had heard of her now and then but never got around to reading her. Friends did tell me about, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and the more famous, “The Haunting of Hill House” but somehow I never got around to reading her. I am amazed and a little sad that I did not read her before. Well, it is never too late. I am going to devour every book written by Ms. Jackson in this year itself.

“The Sundial” is a book which really come to think of it cannot fall under any genre. While reading it, I thought it could be classified as Goth or Horror, but somehow that does not do justice to a book of this range and magnificence. The book’s central character is the Halloran mansion, belonging to the Halloran family. The book starts with the death of the son of the family and the story kicks in from there.

Aunt Fanny has always been the peculiar one in the family. The one, who wanders, gets lost and then eventually returns on her own. This time she returns with a revelation: Her father, the late Mr Halloran appeared to her – a vision and revealed that the world will come to an end and the only people who will survive will be the ones who are in the house. The household is rather calm about it, they believe her and wait for the end to arrive. There is Mr Halloran (Fanny’s brother) and his wife, Mrs. Halloran, their daughter-in-law, Maryjane, their granddaughter Fancy, the help (so to say) Essex and Ms. Ogilvie, who are the principal characters of the house, and more start entering the house, once the news spreads.

The family believes that the new world is just for them. There are a lot of undertones in the book – which I had a ball reading and identifying. The strained relationships sometimes lead to violence. The hatred for one another is apparent and the new world also perhaps cannot do much for them. There is a part in the book which is my most favourite – that said by the young child, Fancy, about the new world. I thought it would be best to make it a part of my review:

“Look. Aunt Fanny keeps saying that there is going to be a lovely world, all green and still and perfect and we are all going to live there and be peaceful and happy. That would be perfectly fine for me, except right here I live in a lovely world, all green and still and perfect, even though no one around here seems to be very peaceful or happy.”

For me the above quote somehow sums up the entire book and yet as a reader, I had to keep turning the pages to know how it ends. The title of the book comes from the huge Sundial which is in the Halloran’s garden and of course indicative of passing time and how time is no longer of essence really, but still is.

The characters created by Shirley Jackson are spooky, brave, fearsome and at the same time, willing to work towards a change for the better. Their lives are fractured to that extent that they want to put their belief in anything. The writing is packed with punch at every single page. My only grouse (a slight one at that) was that some characters did not get enough of the limelight, but that is alright. It is a great book nonetheless – spooky, weird and contemplative as well. Shirley Jackson for now is my favourite writer of this genre and like I said, I will only read more.

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Book Review: The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza Title: The Art of Joy
Author: Goliarda Sapienza
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 9780241956991
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 687
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are very few novels you will come across in your life – that are huge in scope. That literally takes the breath of the reader and is not shy or apologetic about it. It is also about the magnitude of some novels that almost make you wonder if such authors exist anymore or can there be works of this nature ever produced again. “The Art of Joy” by Goliarda Sapienza is one such classic.

Very few books have left me stupendous – literally dumbfounded at times, without anything left to say. What “The Art of Joy” also does ironically is make you think of your voice and your opinions. Goliarda’s protagonist is so strong and yet so weak, that any of us can identify with her and yet emerge our own person. I also think that somewhere is the underlined intent of the book.

Modesta is everything a woman is – weak, powerful, giving, restraining and yet wanting it all. She blends into the plot, with the history of Italy as the plot unfolds. It is a memoir of sorts and yet it is as hidden as it could get. There are spaces in-between that shine through and will dazzle the reader. There are times when the writing just takes you by storm. The story of Modesta and Italy are superbly portrayed. There is no separating the two.

What I am most surprised is that the book was rejected by various publishers, before it could get published in 2005 and deserved recognition at last. Modesta’s story is one to reckon with. “The Art of Joy” spans through the entire century – the history of the twentieth century, with the figure of one lone strong woman.

There are so many linear plots to the novel and yet there wasn’t a single time I was tired reading it. It felt that I had to go on and on or else I would not be able to sleep. Modesta’s hopes, desires and her aspirations become yours. She is able to be her person and voice in a society that is patriarchal and driven by what men think and feel.

“The Art of Joy” cannot be classified in any genre and yet I will call it literary fiction. It is one book that I think everyone must read at some point in their lives. This book should be cherished and perhaps reread. This is what the value is. A marvellous read.

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Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780241950425
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I think some books just remain, no matter when you read them. It doesn’t matter. They are beyond time perhaps. For me, The Catcher in the Rye is one such book. I have heard a lot of people say a lot of things, about it, however to me it still remains special. Why, you ask? Maybe because I read it at sixteen. Maybe because I read it when I was away from my family – the plot had some perspective I think. I didn’t want to be Holden, but certainly thoughts drifted in the manner he thought. J.D. Salinger knew what he was doing I think while writing this novel. What he didn’t know was the reaction or strings of actions would be created by this book.

Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon and had The Catcher in the Rye in his hand. John Hinckley Jr. attempted an assassination on Ronald Reagan in 1981 and one of the books owned by him was the one written by Salinger. There are several movie and television references to the novel as well. What is it about this book that evokes such reactions? Why? To my sixteen-year old mind, unwell and in bed, it was just another novel lent to me by my uncle and I had to read it. I read it. I loved it and that was it.

The Catcher in the Rye is not just another novel then. It is the voice of several generations of teenagers in the sense of the world. It is the world of angst and no sense of direction. Or maybe it is the voice of intellectualizing everything or trivializing it all. Holden Caulfield is more than an icon. He is someone who is trying to make sense of his life and life around him. It might appear to be as simple as this, when it is not or may be it is. He encounters people – different people as he takes off from his fancy school Pencey Prep and takes on his journey in New York City. This is where it all begins or almost.

The book was banned in most schools in the US of A. It is because of its vulgar language, which honestly I did not have a problem with then or now. To me the writing is just surreal, even after rereading it after fourteen years. It just manages to evoke the same sentiments in me and that is why I call it timeless. It talks about adolescence and its struggle like no other book. The Catcher in the Rye in that sense of the word is truly a classic and will be for years to come. I am glad I reread it. Thanks to my The Novel Cure Reading Challenge. It is guaranteed to cure angst of adolescence.

Next Up in the Challenge: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

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Book Review: On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual by Merle Miller

On Being Different by Merle Miller Title: On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual
Author: Merle Miller
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 9780143106968
Genre: Non-Fiction, Gay, Gender Studies, Essay
Pages: 74
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember the time I came out to my family. I had to. There was no other way. I could not live the way I was. Almost a double life. It does not work this way and it should not. I did not want to go through having to lie every time I had to step out or make any random excuse. More than this I guess, I wanted to live my life on my own terms. I did not know how it would be at eighteen though. Today I know better and also am aware that maybe our country has miles to go before homosexuality is accepted in all walks of life, without looking at it as something “queer” or “odd” or “different”. We think we are okay with it. We almost would like to believe it. The story is however different. There are so many friends I know of who would never want their children to be gay. They cannot fathom that and they are okay with me being who I am. Which makes me think: Are they really okay? Would they even let me close to their children? And it was at this time, I read a book which made perfect sense to me and was a right read at that time – “On Being Different” by Merle Miller.

At the same time, it was not easy for the gay community back in the 70s, living in the United States of America. It was looked down upon. People were losing their jobs if out of the closet. There were no gay rights to speak of. In short, it was either treated as something that did not exist or something that existed but more as a mental disease than love between same genders. Merle Miller, an American writer, and journalist then decided to retaliate against an article written by Joseph Epstein for Harper’s Magazine called, “The Struggle for Sexual Identity”, in which Epstein publicly lashed out against homosexuals. Miller did not understand the article and why the hatred against homosexuals. He wrote an article in retaliation titled, “What it Means to Be a Homosexual” for the New York Times. It later became a book called “On Being Different”, with a forward by Dan Savage and an afterword by Charles Kaiser, which I have just finished reading.

I did not love the book because I am gay and I have to love it because it is about gay people or gay rights. I loved it because it was honest. It came from a place which everyone has been to – a place of alienation, of wanting to fit in and at the same time on their own terms, to be treated as equals with the same rights for all, and that to me is primary in any civilized set-up. Miller’s essay is so relevant to the society I live in. He talks of how his straight friends do not want their children to mingle with gay people, in the fear that they might be seduced and lured. He speaks of the atrocities in an angry tone and at the same time speaks of changes that need to occur. It was very difficult for me to imagine that this was written in the 70s, when challenges surrounding gay rights were abound. Teenage gay boys were committing suicide instead of coming out to their parents. They were scared. There was no one to turn to. Miller with his essay made people see the reality of the situation. Gay-Straight Alliances were set up and slowly and steadily changes came about in the United States of America.

The writing of the essay is razor sharp and sparse. Everything is said in about 30 pages or so. There were times while reading the book, I was thinking of my life. I have gone through my own share of ridicule for being gay, for perhaps walking and talking in the manner I used to, for thinking about men the way I did, and of course for never expecting a straight man to understand how I felt. At the same time, I also believed at the end of reading this book, that everyone should read this essay. Just to understand how we sometimes unintentionally or intentionally mock something or some people who are different. How maybe it is time differences are embraced and we learn to co-exist. After all, love knows no gender. People’s minds on the other hand are a different story. “On Being Different” is just that – an essay, a meditation on accepting differences, without prejudices, without any judgments, because maybe the time is right.

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