Some Penguin Classics break with tradition, almost always to excellent effect. Of course the foremost tradition we all associate with Penguin Classics is the durable, curiously dignified paperback reprints that have been the backbone of the publishing house for well over half a century, and Penguin still produces those in abundance, the finest reprint line in the English-reading world. But the folks at Penguin have also always been fairly canny at coming up with new and eye-catching approaches to re-packaging the great works of literature in their care, and an absolutely nifty new example of this has appeared in 2015: a line of beautiful little hardcover classics.
These books are pocket-sized (indeed, they’re more pocket-friendly in their dimensions than the trade paperbacks Penguin currently produces)(except for the “Little Black Classics” set currently setting the hearts of book-geeks in the UK all aflutter – I have yet to encounter this set, although I long to), and instead of dust jackets that could tear or wrinkle, they have gorgeous designs inlaid into their covers (the designs are the handiwork of the wonderfully talented Coralie Bickford-Smith).
The set I have before me consists of six seminal works of nonfiction from the canon. There’s The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, here in the sturdy 1888 translation by Samuel Moore, with an Introduction by Gareth Stedman-Jones in which he predictably but quite rightly touts the relevance (that dreaded word) of this crackpot tract:
In short, the Manifesto sketches a vision of reality that, at the start of a new millennium and against a background of endless chatter about globalization and deregulation, looks as powerful and contemporary a picture of our own world as it might have appeared to those reading it in 1848.
There’s also Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell, who tells his readers about Seneca’s “implicit belief in the equality and brotherhood of man despite all barriers of race or class or rank” and then flirts a bit himself with the dreaded relevance:
Whether or not his letters may still be turned to for their pointers to the contented life, they cannot be read without noticing how far in advance of their time are many of his ideas – on the shows in the arena, for example, or the treatment of slaves.
No collection like this would be complete without the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and here they are, translated by Martin Hammond and with an Introduction by Diskin Clay that smartly tries to prepare first-time readers for some of the strangeness they’ll encounter in this remarkable book:
Readers who come to this book expecting the hardness and austerity of a Stoic will not be disappointed, but they will be surprised by prose that often reads like modern poetry and startled by the vivid illustrations that reveal Marcus’ deep appreciation of the beauty and purposefulness of Nature (a word that is properly capitalized).
An odd choice for inclusion alongside all these personal tracts and manifestos is the long poem De rerum natura by Lucretius, which is hardly polemical and not at all confessional. In fact, as Richard Jenkyns points out in his Introduction to the A. E. Stallings translation (here given as The Nature of Things),
Here is a poem without people in it, without any story; instead, if offers a treatise on science and philosophy. The philosophy, moreover, is a strict materialism, which denies the existence of anything magical, mysterious or transcendent. It does not sound like promising matter for poetry at all, let alone for a work of more than 7,000 lines. Yet the result is a masterpiece.
I myself have always been a bit leery about calling The Nature of Things a masterpiece, but one of the books in this current Penguin set certainly deserves the title: it’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine, here in the slightly dated by still serviceable 1961 translation by, settle down now, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who imparts a nice stately cadence to the author’s famous exhortations of praise to his Creator:
Who will grant me to rest content in you? To whom shall I turn for the gift of your coming into my heart and filling it to the brim, so that I may forget all the wrong I have done and embrace you alone, my only source of good?
It’s a radical thematic shift to go from the faith-driven ecstasies of Saint Augustin to the tough, clear-eyed pragmatism of our final book today, this set’s pretty little hardcover of The Prince by Machiavelli, here presented with a very good and very pithy Introduction by the indefatigable Tim Parks, who gets to the essence of the work quite economically:
From start to finish we have a vision of man manoeuvring precariously in a suffocating net of cause and effect. What is at stake is survival. Anything extra is luxury.
There are more of these little hardcover Penguin Classics than just these six, of course, and all are beautifully and sturdily made, clearly able to serve as gifts just as readily as they’ll take their place on your own shelf. It’s a bit strange for me to think “Penguin Classics” and then think “hardcover,” but that’s more due to the fact that I’ve had hundreds of their paperbacks in my life – if their hardcovers are as lovely as this set, I’ll be happy to re-adjust my mental reflexes.
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