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Penguin Modern Classics book-covers

Posted by on 16 novembre 2021

How Penguin’s Modern Classics dared us to judge a book by its cover

Penguin Modern Classics jackets from the 1960s.
Jackets from the 1960s editions – Penguin

After 60 years of the series celebrating contemporary fiction, have the early jacket designs stood the test of time – and how do you create a cover fit for a classic?

Sun 7 Nov 2021

If a publisher declares a book to be a classic, as Penguin has been doing for the past 75 years with its Classics series, and since 1961 with the Modern Classics offshoot, it raises a number of potentially knotty questions. What makes a book a classic? Who gets to decide? And will today’s classic still be a classic in 10 years’ time, let alone 50 or 100?

“It’s a really slippery term,” admits Henry Eliot, who has written a book on the former series and is about to put out a volume on the latter, entitled The Penguin Modern Classics Book. “There are various ways that people have made sense of it,” he says. “The definition I find the most helpful is from Ezra Pound. He said that a classic is classic not because of any structural rules or criteria that it meets, but because of a certain internal and irrepressible freshness. And that rings true to me.”

As for who decides, Eliot believes that rather than fencing off the landscape of literature by creating a stable of classics, Penguin editors are in fact opening it up and encouraging readers to broaden their horizons. There are serious imbalances in both series – four-fifths of the authors in the Modern Classics stable are men, and nine in 10 are white – but Eliot insists that things are changing. “The task of a classics publisher is to identify these imbalances and redress them,” he writes.

Another question that appears less vexed, but which has likely caused sleepless nights for many Penguin designers over the years, has to do with external rather than internal freshness: how do you create a cover fit for a classic?

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