Tuesday, 12 July 2005

Penguin Colony

I have a lecture on Irvine Welsh to write, so naturally I've spent the last hour and a half at Amazon playing withThe Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection: you can buy the whole entire Penguin Classics catalogue, currently comprising one thousand and eighty two titles, for eight thousand USD (at least, if you live in the USA you can, they won't deliver it any other place.)

It's not that I'm tempted. Rather, I'm trying to figure out whether I think this thing is Good or Evil. Right at this moment, I'm leaning rather heavily towards Evil.

The thing is quite obviously an Amazon gimmick intended to garner exactly the kind of attention and commentary I'm expending on it right now. The Wall Street Journal noticed, and Slashdot, and then the rest of the blogosphere in the usual way. But it's not the gimmickiness...that's just...whatever, dude: one more drop in the advertising ocean. And I'm not that much of a pathetic OUTRAGE junkie, not yet, that I'd actually give a damn whether or not someone spent their money on this set (it's not at all clear whether anyone has indeed bought it, the two "customer reviews" on the site are not by actual buyers); buying books is better than buying a truckload of potato chips, or a bucketful of cocaine, or a Third World baby, or whatever else eight thousand yankee dollars gets you these days. (Although, allow me to point out, it's not really that good a deal dollarwise: the advertised cost is supposed to be 40% off the list price for those 1082 titles, but I clicked through about ten random books and they are all offered at 20%-40% off "list" price anyway.)

No. It's the way this thing is offered as a package deal o' Culture that qualifies it as a piece of the devil's handiwork.

This is a collection of paperbacks, soft books with black spines which will soon develop greyish-yellowish vertical striations. It is not a collection of books printed on acid-free paper in library bindings. Paperbacked books are not built to last: if this bundle is bought for a private library, some books will be crumbling before even one person works their way through to the end. That picture is deceptive, too. The current Penguin Classic catalogue includes at least four different kinds of cover design, so if the buyer is entertaining fantasies of rows and rows of neat uniform size and style, too bad - he or she will have to do what Pepys did and build little anal-retentive booster platforms under the short books so everything is the same standard height. I shelve my own books by colour, and like with jellybeans, the black ones are mighty unappetising. So this mass of books is not going to even make a passable Masterpice Theatre backcloth for your study. It's just going to look weird.
Buying a collection as a job lot is terribly sad: bad faith, simulated, inauthentic. Even if the ultimate goal is to acquire a complete set, there's a world of difference between just hauling it in in one undifferentiated mass, and building it up, one treasured and individual unit at a time:
...My first outing was for my Fayards. The shop in the rue des Martyrs opposite the Medrano has tons of them I'm going there tomorrow. In the Rue Mansard this afternoon I bought 36 classics of which the only ones you don't have are Candide, Stello, War and Peace, Histoire d'un merle blanc, Premieres Meditations poetiques, Tartarin de Tarascon, and Fromont Jeune, that's to say there are only 18 volumes that you don't have out of those I've bought and you'll be able to find them. I now have 295 books I need 90 more to complete the collection.

That is Francois Truffaut writing to his best friend Robert. He is thirteen years old, and in a thrall to books that encompasses both a voracious appetite for stories and the child's desire to make and rearrange sets and collections. It is not romanticising poverty to point out that neither passion can be accommodated and nurtured and sustained by a single massive wallopy hit of paperbacks.

Amazon make a special point of saying that you can't buy the whole catalogue as a job lot like this from any other source. I'm inclined to regard that as a good thing, and to give Penguin credit for refraining from doing this sort of thing up till now. Because this is a Canon, and how. And it's a textbook example of what is so troubling about canons. It's simultaneously too big and too narrow. It gives the impression of containing a representative sample of the best of everything, and it presents that impression as if derived from a fait accompli, chosen by nobody, or by God perhaps, or by some knowitall like Carlyle or Leavis or Bloom at the very least: yet the selection conforms to no known rationale or system other than a simple profit motive. The collection includes all those books Penguin know they must publish, those they are currently selling buckets of, and a load of other old things they had lying around. And what's left out is as interesting and telling as what gets in. For instance, there is no book - not one! by an Australian author: taking in a much looser definition of Australian literature yields only one, Captain Cook's journals. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

It might be said, rightly, that it's Penguin doing the selecting and filtering and excluding and who maintains the list, and so it's the publishers who are adjudicating on this canon. Apart from the dearth of Australian writing, I don't have any particular bone to pick with this selection, nor with the fact that it's a publishing house who's making the decisions about what will be bought and sold and read and what will not. Pragmatically, a choice must be made somewhere by someone, and frankly, we all make up and use canons all the time anyway, and it's no worse for publishers to do this than academics or writers or reading clubs or whomever.

I'm not bothered by Penguin publishing just these titles under the banner "classics" (though I think it's a bit of an unhelpful label, generally.) What I am bothered by, deeply, in case you hadn't noticed, is Amazon selling them as a completed and limited and finished unit. That's it! is the message. Once you have these, not only do you not need any more classic books, but there quite simply ARE NO MORE classic books. This is utterly different to any other method of acquiring books. When you go into a brick-and-mortar bookshop and look at the part where they keep these type of books, you just don't see them all sitting there on the shelves - let alone presented as one shrinkwrapped lump - you "know" perfectly well that Somewhere Else there is an unnamed and unknown continent, looming up silently in the mist, which is composed entirely of books not represented on the shelves before you. Browsing through catalogues is exactly the same, only very much more so: the title currently in front of you is just a tiny fragment of the vast and infinite abyss of titles not currently in front of you. The infinitude is, of course, imaginary. But without it, a canon ceases to be a tool and instead becomes a blunt instrument.


Cat lovr said...

Somebody stole my cat. She looks just like your cat.

Lucy Tartan said...

oh dear! that's terrible. I hope the bastard returns your cat very soon.

Ampersand Duck said...

I have a very soft spot for Penguins, especially the latest series of Penguin 'Great Ideas' that have such beautiful typographical covers that I just can't walk past them in a bookshop without caressing them.

I hope you get your cat back too, what a sad situation.

genevieve said...

Great post Laura, I'm going to link to this when I blog up on the weekend.
The only mitigating factor in the whole sorry business is that at least the introductions to the Penguin selections are of sufficient quality to alert most readers to the presence of other treasures outside the publisher's trove.

Anonymous said...

"Paperbacked books are not built to last: if this bundle is bought for a private library, some books will be crumbling before even one person works their way through to the end."

Oh, that's just silly. They won't last as long as library editions (or texts etched into gold sheeting, for that matter), but they'll still be fine. I have hundreds of paperbacks over forty years old, read at *least* once each (mostly by people other than me), and most of them are in excellent condition If the set is being bought because someone actually wants to read it, they'll have no problem. Unless they die of old age in the process.

I do agree with everything else, though. Takes all the fun out of collecting.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I disagree, Anonymous. Paperback books of the type Laura is describing are *not* built to last. It is true that they are one step up from mass market paperbacks that are actually produced to be thrown away if unsold. They will continue to be legible for many years, it is true. But if you are buying a collection of that magnitude you presumably want it to look nice, and these will not look nice in ten years. Not at all.

This from a former bookstore employee, by the way. Trust me, even unsold books on the shelves start to look ratty after awhile.

R H said...

Well I don't want to comment too much now that Miss Brownie's had another sex change because I feel a bit responsible for her going half and half*. I'll just say that I'm always buying secondhand books and the paperbacks seem to survive quite well. A good place to find them is in a dirty old shed at Laverton trash market. My latest big find there is a thing called 'Stuck' (interviews with the unemployed) by Michele Turner. This was published in 1983 by Penguin, and is worth more than the entire blah from thousands of social workers.
I haven't seen it new anywhere so it's probably out of print. What a disgrace.

*Miss Brownie now has a wide choice of toilets.

Lucy Tartan said...

Anonymous, it is not "just silly." The collection is offered for sale as a "library", and anyone who buys it with expectations about long term utility is going to get a raw deal. As Phantom points out, these are about as cheaply made as a book can be. Not all p'backs are so vulnerable, but then not all are so cheap to buy.

Books like these don't last. The paper turns brown and the glue goes brittle in a very short period of time - as little as ten years from printing. Soft unfinished pulpy paper is very vulnerable to damp and heat and it takes marks and absorbs odours. Any place where the glued spine is cracked, pages will detach. You can still read a book in that condition, of course, but it won't be a pleasant experience, and if you can easily buy a pristine new copy for a few dollars, why would you bother?

For the record, in case it wasn't clear in my post, I'm all for paperbacks. They are democratically cheap and unassuming and convenient, they short-circuit book fetishism, which is a proper response to some beautiful book objects, but is counterproductive and disempowering when applied as a universal thing to all classes of book. Built-in obsolescence is less worrying with books than it is with other technologies, because as an upside it complicates the tendency to regard any particular incarnation of a famous / perennial text as set in stone and given for all time. Whereas the reality is that texts are fluid and they change, classic texts especially.

Jonathan said...

I have several Penguins more than ten years old, most of which were bought used and have been read at least by me. They're fine.

I'm sure they will yellow and crumble, but you are all exaggerating how long that takes, at least in my experience.

R H said...

Yes, well I'll just add that "Stuck!" (Penguin, 1983 edition) is a paperback, and is in what I would call very good condition.
I have hundreds of good paperbacks, decades old. They don't deteriorate just sitting on the shelf, too much handling is what ruins them. Same with women.

Brownie said...

Laura your lit film thing has affected me so much that when I saw your reference to Candide above, I instaly thought Candy! Ewa Aulin, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, adapted by Terry Southern.
re durability of ephemeral paperworks: my complete collection of british Vogues from 1970 onwards and in Vogue binders is disintegrating badly, despite proper storage and handling.They were not meant to be treasured. When Penguins first came out, of course, they were not respected by bibliophiles - they were meant for people who couldn't afford hardcovers. you all know that, whaddam I saying.