Friday, 18 November 2005

Only 1082 books that matter, says Amazon, still

Some of you might remember that a while back I had an inconclusive, clumsy and unnecessarily bitter (in the usual blog manner) slap at Amazon's Package deal o' Culture (aka everything on Penguin's current Classics list, about a thousand paperbacks, sold in bulk at a small discount.) I feel about the same about it now - depressed and angry for no specially compelling reason - as I did then. I have no issue at all with publishers doing uniform imprints of classic books, and no real issue with Penguin either, outside of this. Indeed in Australia it is pretty hard to see how anyone could not respect Penguin and be grateful for its existence. You can't buy the complete list in one fell swoop anywhere but Amazon. It's good that you can't. I think Amazon is doing a really really bad bad bad thing in promoting the entire list as a single seamless purchase, because that suggests that this particular collection of titles has the classic book game all covered, and once you've bought these you won't be needing any more books because everything else fails to make it into the Classic collection, so why bother with it? This is complete and utter pernicious and complacent nonsense for reasons I won't immediately go into (again) but I am happy to discuss in comments if anyone cares to.

The reason I'm bringing this up once more is that a purchaser of the set has identified herself and been written about in various venues including the New York Times (I will paste the whole story under the fold at the end to save you participating in their dickheadly registration routine.) The NYT reporter extracted some charming commentary from Harold Bloom, viz:
For Mr. Bloom, the classics scholar, the idea that anyone - whether committed readers or libraries - would pony up for such a collection is admirable. "Especially at this time," he added, "when serious reading is an ebbing current in the English-speaking world."

I do hope there is nobody left in the English-speaking world who ever listens to anything Harold says. It's too sad. All one has to do to get his endorsement, it seems, is spend a lot of money on a lot of books, more particularly, on a lot of books you haven't chosen yourself, without reference to any particular curiosity about their contents. The purchaser of the Penguin set doesn't sound at all like a silly person. But what the article says she's doing (rearranging the books, reading through them very fast and according to a metonymic selection pattern) does sound weird, in the way that intense self-consciousness can make an otherwise normal activity, like choosing a book off your shelves, into something a bit fraught and strange.

Then again, with this wall always glowering at you, I guess you would feel a bit iffy.

November 14, 2005
One Well-Read Home Has Some New Pets: 1,082 Penguins

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Nov. 11 - Rushing to evacuate her home as a forest fire lapped at the edges of this high-desert town in May 2000, Kathryn Gursky took with her just one book, a British edition of "The World of Pooh," by A. A. Milne, bought when she and her husband were vacationing in Dorset some 11 years earlier.

When she returned to Los Alamos after the fire, Ms. Gursky, a 49-year-old former librarian, found that the rest of her 2,300-volume personal library had burned, along with her house and everything in it.

Thousands of scorched tree trunks still range up the hillside across the street from Ms. Gursky's new home here, but inside the house, her library is well on the way to recovery. In September, Ms. Gursky received a birthday gift from her husband that earned her the envy of her book-loving friends: the complete collection of the Penguin Classics Library, 1,082 books sold only by for nearly $8,000.

Penguin Classics, the paperback volumes with the familiar black spine and the orange and black penguin logo, are known to generations of former students who struggled through Dickens and dozed through Henry James in school. While plenty of competitors also sell collections of classics, including Random House (Modern Library, Everyman's Library and Bantam Classics), Oxford University Press (World Classics), the Library of America and Barnes & Noble, arguably none is as instantly recognizable or as renowned as the Penguin Classics.

"It's hard to think of a rival," said Harold Bloom, the author, professor and literary critic who extolled his love of literature in "The Western Canon" and "How to Read and Why." "The Penguin collection has enormous range and comprehensiveness."

Not since Penguin started the collection in 1946, however, has anyone been able to easily compile or purchase a complete set of the books, which range from ancient Greek poetry to the novels of Thomas Pynchon and include the complete works of Shakespeare, four translations of the "Iliad," 20 volumes each of the works of Henry James and Dickens. (The complete list can be found at by searching for "Penguin Classics Library.")

"We'd always wanted to sell them together, but it was always an issue of how could we sell all of the books in a single bookstore," said Tim McCall, Penguin's director of online sales and marketing, noting that most bookstores carry only a few hundred titles in the series. "Finally the Internet became mature enough to give us the ability to display all the books and to reach an audience out there that might want them."

Ms. Gursky's collection arrived in mid-September packed in 25 boxes, shrink-wrapped on a pallet and weighing nearly 700 pounds. Since then, Ms. Gursky has spent countless hours unpacking, shelving, categorizing, alphabetizing and rearranging the books. Oh, yes - and reading; she said she had completed more than 30 of the books in the last eight weeks. Even at that rather remarkable pace, it would take her about six years to make her way through the entire collection.

So where did she start? "I ran my finger along the shelves, closed my eyes and stopped on one," Ms. Gursky said, sitting in an overstuffed chair in her new library, 31 rows of great literature looming behind her.

She picked "Herland," a feminist utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, combined in one Penguin volume with Gilman's short fiction and poetry.

"I had never heard of her before," Ms. Gursky said. "But that is one of the joys of this collection. It takes you places where you wouldn't have otherwise gone."

Since then, by similarly traipsing along the edge of her bookshelves or by following a reference to one classic made in the introduction to another, Ms. Gursky has wound her way through "The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" and three other books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Soon to follow were "Vineland" by Thomas Pynchon ("Boy, that was weird," she said) and "The Virginian" by Owen Wister. She picked up "The Riddle of the Sands," by Erskine Childers, which she said she had listened to "hundreds of times" on tape but had never seen in print, but noticed that near Childers on the shelf were four books by Kate Chopin, who was unfamiliar, so Ms. Gursky started on Chopin's "Bayou Folk and a Night in Acadie."

Despite its daunting scope, the Penguin Classics Complete Collection is not actually complete. Penguin lists some 1,300 titles in its catalog but included only 1,082 in the Amazon collection. "We included every title in stock at sufficient levels to ensure the continued availability of the collection," Mr. McCall explained. "In the final analysis, there were approximately 200 titles that did not make the cut due to limited availability, most often because they were on our schedule to be completely revised."

Amazon will not say how many sets have been sold so far or who has bought them, citing the need to protect the buyers' privacy. Penguin seems not to know who the buyers are other than Ms. Gursky, who acknowledged her ownership in a review of the collection on Amazon's Web site. Mr. McCall said that Penguin has shipped "one to two sets a week" to Amazon since it began selling the collection in mid-June. Assuming that Amazon has been shipping those copies to customers, rather than piling them up in its warehouse, that would put sales at more than two dozen.

For Mr. Bloom, the classics scholar, the idea that anyone - whether committed readers or libraries - would pony up for such a collection is admirable. "Especially at this time," he added, "when serious reading is an ebbing current in the English-speaking world."

Put Ms. Gursky in the serious-reading camp. "I probably had already read 20 to 25 percent of the books on the list at some point," Ms. Gursky said. "But I like to reread books, and I like to own books I can go back and reread."

Ms. Gursky earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Chicago before returning to Los Alamos, her hometown, and shortly thereafter got a job as a librarian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where her husband, Richard Bolton, is a physicist. She now works in database support for the laboratory.

"We don't own a TV set," Ms. Gursky said, by way of explaining how she has had time to read a new book roughly every two days since the collection arrived. With four cats but no children, "we don't have anything better to do" than read, she said.

The Penguin collection has evoked much discussion online, including on Amazon's site, where some people have opined that it is hardly worth the expense for paperback books, whose pages will yellow and whose bindings are less sturdy than those of hardcovers. The collection also has detractors who cite its literary shortcomings - plenty of Henry James and other books in the public domain, but none of the greatest works of Faulkner or Hemingway, for example, to which Penguin does not own the copyright.

Ms. Gursky discounts those arguments, particularly the paperback one, noting that a collection of 1,082 hardcovers would have been prohibitively expensive. As it is, Amazon's price of $7,989.50 for the collection is discounted by 40 percent (plus free shipping) from a list price of $13,315.84.

"I don't sneer at paperbacks," she said. "They'll outlast me, and that's really all I care about."

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Jon said...

Poor arse-grabbing Harold. It is indeed sad, but the fact that his mots are consistently becoming increasingly less bon the man is unsurprising given that the man is, what? somewhere in his late 80's, I think. I suspect that a significant portion of what was once a highly original (to say the least) mind is devoted, much like my grandmother's, to attempting to remember to wear his underwear in the inside.

Jon said...

...and anyone surmising from the syntax of the above comment that I suffer from similar problems may have a point...

Tim said...

Oh, I don't know. I enjoyed his recent Wading Neck-Deep in the Western Canon as a Means of Impressing Women in Bars.

Tony.T said...

I didn't consider the slap "inconclusive, clumsy and unnecessarily bitter" at all. Quite the contrary, it was a fine post. I'd hate to be on the end of an unambiguous, skilled and necessarily bitter slap.

Ampersand Duck said...

I don't agree with the idea of a neatly packaged 'canon'; I do think she had a fairly good reason to buy the books in one swoop, because she sounds like someone who is going to keep buying to add a bit of colour to those shelves! I'd hate to lose all my books in a fire. One of my friends here in Canberra lost his huge library in the bushfires a few years ago. He got a voucher to help himself at the Lifeline secondhand book fair, but he wouldn't have said no to a package like this.

I do take umbrage at that statement that with 4 cats and no kids she has 'nothing better to do than read'... surely she could have rephrased it a bit!

I'm more worried by the more anonymous buyers, who are probably buying books by the yard in the Victorian New-Middle Class sense, all bound the same way. Instant library on the shelves of your renovated warehouse/brand new office. Yuck.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yeah. I don't quite understand why this thing gets me so het up, especially as it seems to lead to blaming the motives / intelligence of the person who buys the set, when I really don't think that person does anything at all blameable. The lady in this article seems a good sort to me - and her motive is impeccable (I know someone who lost his house and all his belongings including his almost completed PhD in a bushfire) - so to me this is a story about the best case scenario. And even under those conditions owning this collection seems to make the reader beholden to it in a slightly sinister way. I don't know if you could buy these books then go out two weeks later and buy a new book just because you felt like reading it and not one of the worthy ones you already had at home. fbdcbp, so there.

R H said...

This is marvellous. Really funny. No kids, four cats, and a truckload of books arrive. These people seem more than half mad (although I wonder if Mr Gursky might be up to something). She's ploughing through them at four a week. In six years she'll be finished. And then what, another fire?

Ampersand Duck said...

So true -- you'd feel obliged just to carack the spines a bit before you bought anymore, wouldn't you?

A PhD as well! tragic! poor kitten.

worldpeace_and_aspeedboat said...

nahhhh I could never go and buy an instant library of books like that, fire or no fire. it would be so meaningless, and books are too personal and meaningful. sometimes I still have a problem borrowing from a library because I want to own the book I read. ha!

I think I'd just go and run bonkers through every op shop and second-hand bookshop I could find.

worldpeace_and_aspeedboat said...

btw I went to look at that Amazon collection but my eye was caught by a link to their Children's Collection.


some classics but... some not. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane is so tragically dull - we were meant to read it in yr 9 or 10 but it was so irrelevant and boring that the class went on strike till we got another text.

who would give that as a gift and call it a classic?

who chooses these collections?

and if you're allowed about a trillion Mark Twains and Charles Dickens then I think something along the lines of Anne of Green Gables would be a worthy inclusion for children.

or, you know, perhaps something published in the last 50 years. when does something become 'classic'? I love older books too (being a bit of a sucker for 19C/early 20thC Australian childrens books) but... there's room for some younger stuff too, surely.

another reason for choosing your own library.

genevieve said...

Two things, no, three:
1.husband gave the books as a present (mm, I guess she could have said no.)In other words, she didn't choose this herself. It might not be easy for a librarian to say, heck no, I don't want them.
Though a trip would be a nice present too, wouldn't it? Or a big book voucher!

2. The Bloom comment needs to be seen in the context of modern publishing being the devil it is - it's about shifting product by using a famous name ( another reason for the article, perhaps. Why didn't Amazon just give her the books? Priceless publicity).

3. In a similar vein - we were asked to purchase a Norton anthology of poetry and prose, medieval period to 19thC, edited by Frank Kermode, for third year English (this is 1981 I'm talking about!) and I went off and bought as many individual volumes as I could instead, most of which I still have. So the impulse to weed and have control over what you collect is pretty strong in most of us. Especially if a top name is telling us headstrong litcritters what to buy.

Lucy Tartan said...

I can't speak to 1981 obviously, but the good thing about anthologies is they tend to be very cost-effective, which is a big consideration when putting a booklist together (where I'm from, at least)

Lucy Tartan said...

WP, I thought the children's collection was a bit weird too. I'm imagining an average kid opening the box and going "where's the Harry Potter?"

The Classics list as defined by Penguin is actually driven by what books they can publish cheaply - books that are public domain or that Penguin has owned the rights to forever, or something like that. It might not have much to do with books anyone actually thinks are the best kids books ever. Most of the books in that list seemed ok, but I think kids need to be allowed to choose their own books sometimes - read what everyone else at school is reading - that type of thing. Otherwise they might go a bit bbvzv.

worldpeace_and_aspeedboat said...

absolutely, children do need choice as well as being led to things they wouldn't neccessarily choose first up...

I guess I'm also wondering what age group that was aimed at, mostly because the concept of writing for the age of the child has changed. eg, at the turn of the 19th century a lot of people wrote down to children, or wrote 'inspirational' books for children, or books to be read to children, not by children. hells bells, some of them are so dry and patronising!

but as you say, most of the collection is probably driven by economics, so it's a moot point, really...

Anonymous said...

The other NYT problem is that their links decay quickly, so its useful to archive the whole article.... they are meanies.

- barista