The Picador Modern Classics!
In honor of their own 20th anniversary, Picador has crafted this set of Modern Classics, sturdy little hardcovers beautifully designed by Steven Seighman as compact lovely volumes that can fit in a bag or backpack with plenty of room left over and can stack in the smallest corner of a crowded bookshelf.
At first, I was a little leery of that whole “Modern Classics” rubric, as you might predict. Not only am I a fairly vocal fan of non-modern Classics – I can dream of a set like this featuring Horace, Catullus, Martial, and Propertius, for instance – but even when it comes to modern classics, my first inclination is to ask “Says Who?” If you’d asked 100 bookworms in 1915 – a mere century ago! – to name some modern classics from their own day, books that had been published in their own lifetimes but that they were certain possessed the eternal charm and voice of a true classic – they’d have been at least as likely to include Stella Benson or Ronald Firbank as they would to include Willa Cather or Franz Kafka. Likewise if you asked 100 bookworms today (presumably different bookworks, except in the case of yours truly), how many of them would instantly nominate the novels of Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt, when it’s painfully obvious that their books won’t outlive their various PR machines (very much including the popular press) by more than a year?
But after thinking about it (and after discussing it a snoring basset hound, a course of introspection I can’t recommend strongly enough, if you’re unfortunate enough to have the means at your disposal), I thought: why not? Why shouldn’t we take stabs at guessing what our own posterity might find indispensable? It’s just such stab-in-the-dark attempts that often set canons, and why shouldn’t a group such as the brainy book-people at Picador give it a whirl?
The four they picked for this initial set are quite intriguingly varied. The oldest title by a long measure is Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which garnered the future Nobel laureate more pointedly negative critical reaction than he’d ever received to that point in his career, and all for questions of “permissiveness” and “immorality” the 21st century would consider piddling. Hesse has been a prime candidate for literary “rediscovery” for decades now, and it hasn’t happened – which simultaneously makes it all the more pleasing that he’s in this set and all the more certain he shouldn’t be.
That thread of “immorality” and “permissiveness” runs throughout this set, come to think of it: there’s a vaguely counter-culture, vaguely dark-bohemian cast to all the books here. Marilynne Robinson’s masterful 1980 debut novel Housekeeping, Denis Johnson’s 1992 story collection Jesus’ Son, and especially Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides – all three are, in their own ways, unsettled works, stories that challenge an imagined moral or social status quo every bit as artfully (but less ponderously?) than Steppenwolf did back in the prehistoric days of the 1920s. If it was a conscious strategy on the part of the folks at Picador – betting on the lasting appeal of moral chaos – it’s a fairly canny one.
And in the meantime, I strongly recommend this set right now in the present moment! As was recently pointed out to me, it would make a delightfully tasteful and thought-provoking gift to some bookworm you know!