Penguin Classics and the downfall of modern literacy.

I’ve been a bookseller for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of books come and go. There are some great ones out there. And there are some not so great ones. The really great ones last tens, twenties, thirties of years. Hundreds of years. Sometimes thousands. The ones that are not so good…well they fade away.

And today, in the ebook era, sometimes they don’t just fade away. They don’t even register.

The classics, though – they have a reputation that is earned. They’ve got clout. To the point where an imprint like, say, Penguin Classics might publish them. Take a look at this, for example: It’s Don Quixote, under the Penguin Classics banner.

penguin quixote

Isn’t that classy? That black strip at the bottom, under that white strip in the middle, with that artwork up top? Doesn’t that bespeak of quality? Sure it does. Cervantes wrote in the 1500s, and his book is still around. Don Quixote, some say, is the novel that begat all novels. No doubt it’s a classic. Here is another Penguin classic:

penguin milton

How about that one, eh? Is that a classic or what? Do you have the stones to say that Paradise Lost is not a classic, and therefore not fit to be published under the brand of Penguin Classics? I doubt it. Not many people do. Not many people have even read it. I sure haven’t. So that disqualifies most of us. Here’s another:


Now this one I read recently for the first time, and let me tell you, I learned more about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and what it means to be an “Okie” than I ever learned in a history class. I also learned that fiction at its best can be entertaining, enraging, and enlightening, all on one page. And that no matter what part of the country you are from, if you are poor you say “somepin,” not “something.” Just kidding about that last bit. But Steinbeck seems to think so. Anyway, definitely a classic, that one. Now look at this one:

penguin twain

Here is a classic that is rarely questioned. I read this one – not recently, but in highschool. I didn’t mind reading it, but I didn’t see what the big deal was. There was no unrequited love in it – as far as I recall – like there was in The Scarlet Letter, which I liked a lot. It had plenty of unrequited love. Ditto The Great Gatsby. I don’t know how any high school kid likes any book that doesn’t deal with unrequited love. But I remember almost nothing else about Huck Finn except that the N bomb was dropped quite a bit. Now, the N bomb was used quite a bit in Django Unchained, too, and that is no classic. In Huck Finn, there was something about a raft. The raft was supposed to be a metaphor for life, or some such. There were no metaphors in Django Unchained

Here is a tough call:

penguin wallace

David Foster Wallace is a modern-day literary hero to many. I don’t really have a problem with this book getting the Penguin Classics treatment, since its author is deceased, like the rest of those in the Penguin canon, and it is highly regarded, like the rest of the books in the Penguin canon. But I do raise one eyebrow at it simply because it seems a bit early to canonize it. I think it needs more time. Those others have stood the test of time. I’ve not read this book, I must admit. Nor have I read the one below:

penguin morrissey

And now we come to my point. My real problem. The thing that upsets me. I’m bothered by the fact that the lead singer of The Smiths wrote an autobiography, number one. Number two, I’m bothered that he asked for it to be published as a Penguin Classic. Yes, apparently this is something he himself pushed for.

Come to think of it, that alone bothers me quite a bit.

But what bothers me the most is … can you guess?

If you guessed that Penguin Classics actually published Morrissey’s book as a Penguin Classic, you win.

Cervantes, Milton, Twain, (the) Bronte(s), Steinbeck, Gogol, Dante, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Darwin, Tolstoy, Plato…to this noble lineage we now add, apparently, I guess, Morrissey.


Am I wrong about this? I don’t think I am. But let me know if I am. I don’t think I am.

Here’s a bit of Morrissey name-dropping famous writers. I don’t think it qualifies him to be part of the canon, though.

25 thoughts on “Penguin Classics and the downfall of modern literacy.

  1. I completely agree with you. It’s a decision which really cheapens the brand. The sad thing is that Morrissey’s autobiography doesn’t even need to be branded as a Penguin Classic because plenty of people are interested in what he has to say anyway (including me). All round, it’s a very odd decision.
    One thing I hate about the classics though is those pompous introductions where some academic or other tells us the whole story before we’ve read the book. I always read the introduction after I’ve read the book these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alastair! Yes, I’m surprised he asked for it, but even more surprised that they actually did it.

      I hear you about the pompous intros. I do enjoy the insight and analysis, and the historical context and biographical info, but I don’t want the story told before it’s told, so to speak.


      • Actually, if you’d like to have your faith in Penguin Classics restored, check out Robin Buss’s epic translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Reading the book in its unadulterated form is staggering and the story, while vast, is absolutely magnificent.


        • That’s one I’ve always wanted to get to but never have. I will check it out!

          I’ve pretty much decided that my reading for the foreseeable future will focus exclusively on the “classics.” I can’t really articulate why, I just know there’s too many great works that I’ve never gotten around to and it feels like it’s time.


  2. Great post Walt- Johnny Got his Gun- Dalton Trumbo is on my list to be a classic, Jubilee, written by a slave woman’s Grand daughter, Lady sings The Blues, Billie Holiday’s autobiography, ought to be required reading, a worthy classic. I do love the Penguin  cover art. Thanks.


  3. Classics…you’re into reading classics…I get that, I go through those spurts myself. I did read Paradise Lost because I got to take it in college and write lots of intricate notes in it, but not the Grapes of Wrath yet. Have you read The Winter of our Discontent? I did in school and loved the heck out of that. But I am sorely behind in the classics; I get bogged down reading academic stuff sometimes (a tome on the German Genius by Peter Watson now, which is quite brilliant) and I take sideways routes with poets occasionally, to spice up my own writing.

    That Smiths song is one of my favourites. And he seems an insufferable fuck, that Morrissey, but I love him for it. Perhaps I see the unlikeable parts in me, in him, and his ass-wankery helps me feel better about my own. In some ways I think it’s funny he did that with the Penguin Classics; it’s very “Morrissey.” A dear friend gives me accounts of how awful he is to other musicians sometimes, and I kind of don’t even want to hear it. It’s that same riff you and I had some time ago, when I felt like I really got to ‘know’ you, when we talked about keeping your heroes at arm’s length. It’s easier to like anyone that way, innit? – Bill


    • I haven’t read The Winter of Our Discontent, but that is a fantastic title. I wish I’d thought of that title. But then the title wouldn’t have done me much good without a book to go behind it. As a writer, that’s pretty much where I’m lacking. Titles, and the books that go behind them.

      The more I hear about Morissey, the more he does sound like an insufferable fuck. But I only know him from one cassette I bought in high school, which happened to be the one the track linked to above came from. I really don’t know very much about him, but I get the impression he might have been happier if he’d been Bono.


      • That one cassette you have, assuming it’s The Queen is Dead, is really really good. I’d say it’s the only one you need but it’s not. The Winter of our Discontent is a line from Richard III, thank you handy Internet. I need to shake off this F-ing mortal coil.

        Now is the winter of our discontent
        Made glorious summer by this son of York;
        And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
        In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


  4. One other thing: on the IJ as Penguin Classics and Huck Finn, I think they have something in common, the two. They stretched/redefined the format. It may be less about the actual content but the direction they took, that helps clear the trail for others to follow. Wasn’t Huck Finn serialized? He sent a black man south looking for his freedom, which makes for a hard reckoning at the end. And for some dumb reason I always liken that ending to Stephen King’s The Stand, where it’s pretty obvious he just didn’t know how to tie it up, the poor git.


    • Agreed…The Stand was an awesome piece of work that would have been even better had it had a good ending. Interesting that you compare HF to IJ. I haven’t read IJ and I only read HF in highschool, so I can’t really contribute to the discussion, but it sounds like you might be on to something there. How would you say that HF redefined the format? And how would you say that IJ redefined the format that HF redefinined?


      • Uh, so good question there about the HF IJ comment and I’m (a) not a scholar and (b) not wasting anyone’s time by doing a Cliff’s notes search to support my response here but that notwithstanding, DFW and Twain each show us what you can do with a voice/character, by inhabiting these people in their vernaculars (Jim, for Twain and I’ll pick Poor Tony for DFW, a junky transvestite rifling through dumpsters, seizuring and shitting himself in a Boston subway car) the authors might have gone somewhere no one had before. I can’t say why these novels might have been turning points in any broader context, just that they have that in common with each other. It makes me miss not being more involved in academia now and grateful too I’m not.


  5. All this time I didn’t know you sell books. I’m not sure what it means for a person to be a bookseller, but it makes sense that you’d be one. If that makes sense.

    I’m not surprised by Morrissey’s request. (He’s a little heavy on the drama.) But I am surprised by the publisher’s decision to grant it. Maybe not as surprised as I ought to be, though.


    • The guy who blogs at Dysfunctional Literacy likes to refer to B&M Booksellers, which is short for Brick & Mortar Booksellers, which is a euphemism for the last remaining nation-wide bookstore chain. I work for them.

      I too am not surprised by Morrisey’s request, but surprised it was granted. Silly, that. If you ask me. Seems like you’d have to have been deceased for a long while, after having written works that have stood the test of time, for like a long time. Much longer than the writer’s own short lifetime.


Here's where you can type a thing:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s