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.