Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Penguin 10 Essential Classics Retrospective

Most people don't realize that I was the inspiration for the Penguin logo.

As many of you will well remember, about a year and a half ago I started a Classics reading group based upon a list of "essential classics" compiled by Penguin Books.  As you may also well know, the recent post on the end of Moby-Dick marked the completion of that series.  On completion of such a project I feel compelled to indulge myself in a few moments of reflection.

The original website still exists here. An extremely cynical view of the original compiled list would be that it was initially created to move stock on titles that Penguin sells.  I am not quite that cynical.  Although I am cynical enough to believe that, in spite of what Penguin says on their 10 essential classics redux website, a major staple in the publishing industry could not be so mad or short-sighted as to have actually believed that their original list was comprehensive. They have (much like I did on this very blog earlier in the series) created a space where one can vote on one's own list of 10 essential classics (wontedly from their pool of titles) with the possibility of then winning those titles.  Das ist natürlich.  I know of my own public blustering over their micro-canon.  I am certain I was not alone.  When marketing gives you lemons, offer sugar to those making a sour face.

It seems clear to me now (likely even clearer than when I embarked on the project) that the list was compiled for a demographic under which I do not fall.  The campaign was geared toward young people entering the world of adulthood whose dependence upon the typically spotty reliability of the public education system may have produced gaps in their cultural literacy (as it were.)  Of course, the main backfire was that there are not 10 essential classics. There are hundreds, if not thousands of essential classics. The road of opportunity grows ever shorter every moment we are not reading them.  By Gadfry, why on Earth are you still reading this?!!? To the library!

In spite of the gross inadequacies inherent in every endeavor to distill humankind's highest aspirations into a pill easily swallowed, I do want to make one point abundantly clear.  I have come out the other side of the reading list with the report that I found the foundation solid.  I do think it was a decent list of basic cultural literacy for the average 18-21 year old and would recommend its employment to same.  I even say this in light of having strongly disliked two of the titles on the list personally. I am not so narcissistic to believe that they (Walden and Moby-Dick, for those who may not have followed along closely.  Both of which, incidentally, conspicuously fail the Bechdel Test) are not ingrained in our culture.  And, as a good Miltonian, I would add that to the pure, all things are pure and that Solomon seeking wisdom pleased the Lord. I think one can profit greatly from reading material that one struggles with or outright disagrees with.

On the other side of that coin, there is the matter of being enlightened to great material.  There were titles on the list I was previously predisposed to love (Inferno and The Odyssey) but one of the greatest rewards I find in these projects is the discovery of material one might not have otherwise read. I speak mainly of Jane Eyre here, which I had not read nor was I planning on reading anytime ever. Yet it turned out to be one of my favorite titles on the list.  Of course, in following a reading regimen one must needs engage a trusty Virgil.  I would recommend Dr. Charles Eliot.  Although I would be remiss if I did not link this project to my eventual, current Harvard Classics Library reading project.

I believe that my take-away from this project is how profitable such reading projects can be, rather than simply blowing wherever fancy or trends or best-seller lists take you.  For that, I thank the Penguin Group.


  1. I started a comment and realized I was ruminating more on the murky status of my own reading project, so posted it on my blog. I have a lot of trouble with reading lists in general. I commend your discipline in being able to stay with such a project, and with Moby Dick, in particular. I feel a little ashamed (and only a very little) that I didn't stick with it.

    A question on the white whale -- do you think, were it edited down as you and countless others have suggested that we'd all find out that the good parts of the book are little more than a romping sea adventure? Would it still be known for it's philosophy? Or does all the extraneous encyclopedic information (and misinformation, as some of it was out of date even when written) make one feel that there must be something great here to justify the cost of reading?

  2. Like Chris, I have a lot of problems too with shopping lists of culture you must read. I see these quintessential reading lists and reading groups that devote years to reading dictated by anothers judgment of what ought to be read and my mind boggles. Good of course if you discover a book you'd never usually read such as Jayne Eyre and Moby for you, but you'll rarely find Milton even less Browne on such reading lists. Filipino's in particular seem to be crazy about these 2 or 3 year dictatorial reading regimes. Surprised to see Americans such as yourself and Chris playing down chasing the white whale novel as the great American novel, times move on!

    Now to write and heavily monetize my own reading list based on 40 years of World lit. novels!

  3. Did you ever get a chance to read that book I brought up there - "Jane and the Man of the Cloth" by Stephanie Barron? I thought it was excellent and kept in the same style as Jane Eyer.

  4. Christopher,
    I think that is exactly my opinion about Moby-Dick although then the controversy becomes what is superfluous. But in a hypothetical world where someone was gutsy enough to actually do it, I think one would find a pretty good adventure story with moments of transcendence in the writing, but perhaps a bit turgid in hyper-mysticism.

    I really do think the canonization of Moby-Dick stems from my own country's insecurity over the production of great art. Which I think, unfortunately, only serves the weaken the case it seeks to strengthen. I think as an American it's a civic duty to be against Melville at this point.

  5. I like the civic duty argument.

    I have to admit I've never spent much time with American novels, and what time I have spent with them hasn't had the pay-off I've experienced with Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Borges, Eco, on down to my comfort reading of Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien. There's others I haven't included, but the works of these authors have changed my life in not too subtle, though distinctly interior ways. They have each challenged and influenced and even put to death basic assumptions. I've seen a different world through them which is not an experience I've ever had reading American lit.

    I've tried Moby Dick twice now. In both cases stopping short of the halfway mark. I actually found myself getting angry with how uneven it was, with the pointless tedium of much of it. Umberto Eco is known for having his "obstacle" chapters that weed out readers unwilling to get past them. In Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum I didn't learn of the "difficult" chapters until I'd finished with the books, as the entirety was so evocative. The 3rd book of his I attempted to read, Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, started losing me toward the last 3rd, but I was also busy getting married at the time.

    I'm trying to defend myself against any thoughts of being a lazy reader, although undoubtedly, I am just that -- you should see how many books sit around waiting to be finished one day.

  6. I also broke off the list, before Inferno, if I remember right. However, I did follow all of your bloggings, so I could say I read them vicariously, or something. I'm not going to apologize for breaking off; I was finding that I had less and less positive to say about anything, and I don't revel in basking in negativity. I doubt I will ever read Moby Dick.

    Reading and literature has changed greatly over time, and Penguin's list actually shows it fairly well - take the difference between Oedipus and Moby Dick. Writing has changed purposes, and audiences widely over time. I'm not sure I even agree completely with the need to read "the classics." I'm surely not their intended audience. It might be like asking someone 200 years from now to read a EULA, claiming it was great legal writing, or worse, literature.

    Does this mean I think reading a classic is a waste? No, because just like missing out on key films, plays, etc, missing out on a piece of literature can mean missing some cultural, or pop-cultural references. However, if there were a way to just read for those references, (see Cliff, wiki..), or even going the audiobook route, I'm not opposed to a little cheating.

    I still enjoy reading, but I'm going to waste my time reading things I like to read - like detective fiction and mystery-suspense-thrillers. Some of it is crap, but it gets me to sleep at night.

    I'm going to compare this to music. Paul likes/enjoys listening to classical music. I do not, except in some very limited and precise settings and circumstances. I'm probably never going to hunt the radio dial for a classical music radio station. Most music that I like was created between 1950 and 1965, or after 1985 or so. Most of it involves a mix of percussion, electronic equipment, guitars, banjos, and other string instruments. Occasionally it involves brass instruments. Rarely are all of those things combined at one time. If someone were to put out a list of the 10 albums one must listen to, I wouldn't even be interested, because half of them or more would be music I have no interest in listening to, and even though chord progressions and riffs are continually re-worked and even just ripped off, or sampled, I'm not missing much, even if I've never listened to a Beethoven or Wagner piece all the way through.

    However, over time, my music tastes have changed quite a bit. There may be a time when I prefer Beethoven, or Kenny G. I just don't see it happening any time soon. Then again, I never thought I would like much of what I currently listen to. Reading may be the same way - I may one day enjoy reading Shakespeare plays. I put the chances of that up there with Beethoven and Kenny G.

  7. I read for pleasure, even if it's a difficult pleasure. I read for sublimity, for beauty, for a perspective outside my own, for experiences and circumstances in which I've never found myself. I read works far outside our current context because they are outside our context and can open up my world by showing me how differently people have thought about the world and about themselves. I read to know myself and to know others. Occasionally I read for comfort, to hear something long cherished and familiar.

    The conviction that one "ought" to read the classics... this can come from a few different motivations. The desire to not miss social references to a work is understandable, but entirely secondary to why a work was ever considered laudable in the first place. Reading is about the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure to be had in an appreciation of the aesthetic of the words and the images created, and, too, it is the pleasure of entering into a dialog that's been going on for over 4,000 years. The best books are those which give the most pleasure, sustained and even increased with each reading. Reading isn't just a passive consumption of textual media. Whether we plead with or interrogate the text, it is crucial that we not just read something once with a very partial comprehension and then close the book with pride, checking it off the list. If that's our approach to reading, we might as well save some time and become collectors of the artifacts of words rather than even messing with what's between the covers.

    For what it's worth, there's no "cheating" involved in listening to audiobooks. There isn't, however, any such thing as vicarious reading. Reading the notes and gleaning the general plot and theme of a work isn't the same as reading it—it's just a surrogate, yielding up the talking points of a work, which any devoted reader will tell you is merely secondary to the experience of reading it and the effect it can have on you as a person. There isn't a moral imperative to reading deeply. It's something voluntary and optional, like all the best things of life.

  8. I agree totally, read for your own pleasure, following the path of enquiry which is most important to self's growth at the time.

    No imperatives involved with books and audio books are great fun too, often enhancing the text.