Why these parts of Penguin need preserving

The Irish Times - Friday, November 2, 2012


The first casualty in the Penguin/Random House merger could be the Penguin Classics and Modern Classics series, and that would be a tragedy

THE ANNOUNCEMENT this week that Penguin and Random House are to join forces and become a single mega-publisher undoubtedly makes sense at a business level. The argument in favour of the move is that a small number of big companies will be better placed to fight their corner against the digital mega-giants of Amazon, Google and Apple. On a personal level, however – and what are books, if not personal? – it’s a different story.
It’s hard not to worry about the future of the many talented writers on these publishers’ lists.
They say all will be well on those fronts, and we just have to hope that that’s a non-fiction assurance. However, pundits are already predicting that the axe will fall on the iconic Penguin Classics and Modern Classics lists, in light of the fact that these public-domain texts are now available as free ebooks on a plethora of online digital libraries.

There’s little romance in a free ebook, though. I’ve availed of them and they are the digital equivalent of dusty and unloved. The originals, on the other hand, are dusty, tatty – and much loved. I have a whole shelf of them. They date back to the days when I was at boarding school in Milltown. We were allowed, one afternoon a week, to go shopping on Dundrum’s Main Street. But our time was strictly rationed – and cash was in even shorter supply.

What it boiled down to was that you could either get the bus, which gave you a reasonable amount of time to browse in the bookshop but not quite enough money to actually buy a book; or you could walk up the hill, which left you cash to spend but very little time to choose.
And so the Penguin collections were a godsend. It must have been drilled into me at some stage that the best sort of books should match on the shelf. I was probably thinking of tooled leather and gilt-edged pages, but on my budget the cool grey spines of the Penguin Modern Classics (price, somewhere between 44p and 55p) were a pretty acceptable alternative. You could just grab pretty much any of these books and be sure that it was worth reading.
An added bonus was that the front covers offered a thrilling range of images. A collection of Thomas Mann’s novellas Death in Venice, Tristan and Tonio Kröger was adorned with a luminous Turner gondola: JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was clad in soft, shiny silver. Many of the volumes featured contemporary paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I had never seen – or read – the like.

What, I wonder now, did I make of Boris Vian’s surrealist extravaganza, Froth on the Daydream? (Not much, I suspect, because it has disappeared from the shelf, although I know I had it, and mourn its loss, with that wonderful mad Minotaur cover). What, come to think of it, did I make of Malone Dies, or At Swim-Two-Birds, or Heart of Darkness, or even Dubliners? Many must have slipped below, or sailed above, my teenage reading radar.
But Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! hit me like a thunderclap, prompting me to go back for The Sound and the Fury and The Wild Palms. I shelled out 58p for Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. It was a life-changer.
In a way, they all were. Maybe nobody knows what will happen to these books when the the big merger happens.
But if they disappear from the bookshelves of the (real) world, it will be a sad day in my house. For sure.