Simon Winder is Publishing Director at Penguin Press, responsible for the black or silver classics that are part of what makes Penguin the world's most recognisable publisher, as well as the pocket-sized Great Ideas series. (Simon is also the author of Germania, The Man Who Saved Britain and Danubia.)
This year Penguin celebrates 80 years since Sir Allen Lane oversaw the production of their first paperbacks, sold at sixpence each, with the Little Black Classics, a series of 80 short reads, at 64 pages and 80 pence each that echo the Penguin 60s that proved so popular 20 years ago. Here, Simon tells us about how the 80 titles were selected. (You can see a complete list of the Little Black Classics at the bottom of the page.)
- See the full list of Little Black Classics here
The choice has been ridiculously fun to make, giving everyone involved a God-like feeling (unusually for publishing) as we swept through whole continents, eras, genres and cultures. The backlist is massive, steadily accumulated over many decades and encompasses everything written, from the dawn of the human record to the beginning of the 20th century (when the separate Penguin Modern Classics series takes over).
Delving around to create Little Black Classics has been a curious process. We wanted to make sure that every book in the series was really and genuinely excellent - a pleasure to read, and a surprise, rather than being merely pious or a chore. We also had to work in an extremely tight format - 64 pages turns out to be a big problem for many writers whose best work was in a much bigger format - so out went such obvious figures as George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Fanny Burney, John Milton, George Gissing and Alexandre Dumas. We didn't want anything if it was short, but actually quite boring. Even writers who did do truly exceptional short works sometimes ran into trouble - so Hoffmann's macabre stories sadly were either too short or too long, and we had almost despaired of Joseph Conrad until the hair-raising story To-morrow magically fitted.
We also did not want too much overlap with Penguin's Great Ideas series, which is mainly philosophical, ethical and political, and also quite short. So we could not help keeping in some Plato, Ruskin, Nietzsche and Marx but were otherwise quite strict.
Having decided what not to include (which helped) we were still inundated with possibilities. But at only 15,000 words or so it is surprising what suddenly shines - short stories of course, but also poetry, essays, travel - this turns out to be the perfect format for enjoying the curious, playful and beautiful. All kinds of sub-themes can be read through the individual books - there is a miniature history of great Russian short-story writers; there is a heroic sequence of great visionary women of the 19th century; there are giants of ancient and medieval epic; peculiar, wacky little fables of all kinds and cultures; explorers, witnesses and adventurers; a smouldering and gory heap of Grand Guignol!
Our hope is that everyone looking at these books will notice and enjoy quite different things - but also that they will trust the series enough to try things they have never heard of. Almost accidentally, for example, Little Black Classics has turned into a celebration of the generations of translators who have worked in a vast range of languages to bring you the greatest works in Persian, Chinese, Greek, Russian, Latin, Arabic and so on and so on, allowing the reader to spin around the world, visiting everywhere from Tang Dynasty China to Renaissance Florence, from the Arabian Gulf to an idyll in the Roman countryside. There are also great witnesses, so the reader can travel with only a simple set of hand movements to a sailing ship in the Southern Ocean or a burning 17th century city, to a tropical swamp or an Indian opium-den. Countless people jostle through these pages: lovers, sorceresses, pirates, demons, merchants, maniacs, pie-sellers, holy men, soldiers, con-artists, courtesans, plus Aesop's unfortunate gudgeon. But beyond the exceptional, these are also books about women and men caught up in lives with inner dramas as rich and strange as the grandest epics. Here are writers as various as Emily Brontë and Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and CP Cavafy, in just a few words conjuring up the turmoil of private worlds.
We hope there are a number of books in the Little Black Classics series which different readers will absolutely hate - we hope that the range of sensibilities, places and ideals on offer is wide enough to be obnoxious to some people just as much as they are wonderful to others. Only someone with very peculiar sensibilities will have come across all the writers here - we have deliberately wandered beyond the obvious because of an individual editor's enthusiasms. If you have never read such crazily various, rich and charming writers as Shen Fu or Nashe or Hebel or Leskov - then you should!