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Paperback Publishers Still Feathering Classic Nests

July 11, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is a regular contributor to The Times Book Review section. and

As one who is paid to read vast quantities of contemporary prose published in the so-called "quality" paperback format, I sometimes despair over the apparent fate of Western civilization, or at least of American letters.

Among the titles in the most recent shipment of review copies, for instance, are "Son of Golden Turkey Awards" ("100% New Material"), "In Search of the One-Minute Gynecologist," "The Jewish Mothers' Hall of Fame," and other even more cynical efforts at exploiting the latest imagined enthusiasms of those of us who still buy and read books.

Classical Renaissance

So I take considerable solace in the fact that the publishers have not wholly neglected the books that have earned the right to be called classics--the work of authors who were sublimely innocent of best-seller lists and television talk shows, but whose writing has endured over decades and even centuries.

As long as I can still walk into a bookstore and buy newly published copies of the work of Aristotle or St. Augustine, Donne or Dostoevski, Faulkner or Freud, then there is hope for literacy, democracy and civilization.

Indeed, the repackaging and republishing of the classics is enjoying a little renaissance among the publishing houses. It apparently is not enough to simply typeset, print and bind these books of proven worth and significance; the publishers cannot resist the temptation to dress them up in stylish new covers and issue them in matched sets. Thus, for example, the simple black spine of the Penguin Classic series--which is itself something of a classic in book design--is now embellished with a system of color-coding that allows the reader to distinguish at once among British and American literature, European literature, Greek and Latin literature and Oriental literature.

Other innovations are more intriguing: The Quality Paperback Book Club, for example, is issuing three titles by James Joyce, including the newly redacted text of "Ulysses" that corrects innumerable errors of the Parisian typesetters who rendered the original edition even more obscure than the author intended. But all of these recent efforts represent an entirely healthy and praiseworthy impulse toward the conservation of our intellectual heritage and the preservation of its foundational works of literature.

500-Plus Penguin Titles

By far the most important resource is the Penguin Classics series, a publishing institution that has kept a whole library of world literature in print over the last 40 years. I count more than 500 titles in the most recent catalogue, a list of extraordinary scope and diversity that starts with the "Letters" of Abelard and Heloise and ends with Zola's "Therese Racquin." But the Penguin Classics list goes far beyond the facile approach of a "Great Books" series and reaches some fairly exotic and obscure and--significantly--non-Western works. And so we find not only Aristotle and Aristophanes, Cicero and Suetonius, Austen and Balzac and Chekhov and Dickens in abundance, but also Goethe's "Elective Affinities" and Juan Mascaro's translation of "The Bhagavad Gita" and all four volumes of "The Story of the Stone" by Cao Xuequin. And each title in the series is instantly recognizable by its compact size, its classical typography and graphic design, and its black spine; indeed, carrying a Penguin Classic has become a kind of badge of literacy.

Now Penguin is refurbishing the series, but with a mercifully light touch and its customary refinement and good taste. Starting with 28 titles--including some formerly published in the Penguin English Library and Penguin American Library series--the Penguin Classics will be given what the publisher calls "a new look," including handsome cover art and the rather dubious color-coding bar on the familiar black spine. The refinements are so understated as to be mostly invisible, although I discerned newly minted introductory essays in some of the titles now being published in the new format. And the 28 titles that inaugurate the new series demonstrate the eclectic taste and intellectual curiosity that have always characterized the Penguin Classics.

Among the new or newly reissued titles are deeply familiar classics such as John Cleland's "Fanny Hill," edited and introduced by Peter Wagner ($2.95); Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," edited and introduced by Maurice Hindle ($1.95) and "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Other Writings," introduced by Kenneth Silverman ($3.50), but also such less celebrated works as Joseph Conrad's "Under Western Eyes," edited and introduced by Boris Ford ($3.95); Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor," selected and introduced by Victor Neuberg ($6.95) and Oriental classics including Lucien Stryk's translation of "On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho" ($3.95) and "The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets," translated and introduced by David Hawkes ($5.95).

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