Penguin Little Black Classics
If you have wandered into a bookstore recently you might have seen shelves crowded with a swarm of tiny black books. These are the Penguin Little Black Classics, a series of eighty short collections drawn from the full Penguin Classics range, released to celebrate eighty years of Penguin Books. They include both poetry and prose from all over the world, from Classical Greece to 19th century classics. They cost just 80p a volume, easily slide into a bag and, in a world where we often hear of print publishing floundering, have been a resounding success, with the Guardian reporting that 70,545 copies were sold in the first week.
So far I have picked up five of the Little Black Classics and read three. Sappho’s Come Close (no. 74) left me in a state of awe and rapture at the beauty of her fragmented verse, whilst Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (no. 42) contained staggering pain its mere fifty four pages. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (no. 53) reminded me how much I’d loved her work when I read it the first time round in the dark, murky past of my A-Level classes. Collections of John Keats and Jane Austen still wait on my shelf to be read and its quite likely that if I find myself in a bookshop with some change in my purse, I’m going to be buying some more.
But what does it say about modern reading culture that books that are both short and cheap are seemingly so popular? My opinions on this series are divided. On the one hand I love this chance to frolic through the literary canon with so much ease, as well as how accessible these bite-size chunks may be to readers who perhaps wouldn’t usually approach them. They’re very pretty too, which as someone who appreciates the beauty of a nicely organised bookshelf is certainly an appeal. A good book is worth the effort of finding space for, whether on your shelf or in your bag being lugged around with you each day, which isn’t something you have to worry about with these. I want all books to sell well in physical formats, not just the ones that cost so little! So whilst I applaud Penguin for the collection they have created I hope that it draws consumers to something a little weightier, too.
Maybe this series encapsulates the reading habits of today. The Little Black Classics are for those who want to be widely read in different authors, cultures, and time periods. But it’s also for the people who want something to consume on the go and with little inconvenience. Both of these types of reading come with a different mindset, one more reverential and the other practical, but these Little Black Classics cleverly appeal to the large overlap of readers who want to learn a lot, in a few short pages.