Penguin Classics is an imprint published by Penguin Books, a subsidiary of Pearson PLC. They are published in varying editions throughout the world including in the United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, South Africa, and South Korea. Books in this series are seen by literary critics as important members of the Western canon, though many titles are translated or of non-Western origin; indeed, the series for decades from its creation included only translations, until it eventually incorporated Penguin English Library. The first Penguin Classic was E. V. Rieu's translation of The Odyssey, published in 1946, and Rieu went on to become general editor of the series. Rieu sought out literary novelists such as Dorothy Sayers and Robert Graves as translators, believing they would avoid "the archaic flavour and the foreign idiom that renders many existing translations repellent to modern taste."
Penguin Books has paid particular attention to the design of its books since recruiting German typographer Jan Tschichold in 1947. The early minimalist designs were modernised by Italian art director Germano Facetti, who joined Penguin in 1961. The new classics were known as "Black Classics" for their black covers, which also featured artwork appropriate to the topic and period of the work. This design was later revised to have pale yellow covers with a black spine, colour-coded with a small mark to indicate language and period (red for English, purple for ancient Latin and Greek, yellow for medieval and continental European, and green for other languages).
In 2002, Penguin announced it was redesigning its entire catalogue. The redesign restored the black cover, adding a white stripe and orange lettering. The text page design was also overhauled to follow a more closely prescribed template, allowing for faster copyediting and typesetting, but reducing the options for individual design variations suggested by a text's structure or historical context (for example, in the choice of text typeface). Prior to 2002, the text page typography of each book in the Classics series had been overseen by a team of in-house designers; this department was closed in 2003 as part of the production costs rationalisation of the Classics list, and any design work is now done by editors and outside suppliers.
Within the broader category of Classics, Penguin has issued specialised series with their own designs. These include:
- Penguin Nature Classics, with authors such as Rachel Carson, John Muir, and John James Audubon
- Penguin Modern Classics, with authors such as Antoine de Saint Exupéry, James Joyce, and Truman Capote
- Penguin 20th Century Classics
- Penguin English Library
- Penguin Enriched Classics, such as Pride and Prejudice, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and A Tale of Two Cities
In 2005, a semi-complete collection of books in the series was sold on Amazon.com as "The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection". In 2005, the collection consisted of 1,082 different books (in multiple editions) and cost US$7,989.50. The collection weighed about 750 pounds (340 kg) and took about 77 linear feet (23.5 m) of shelf space; laid end-to-end the books would reach about 630 feet (192 m).
In 2008, Penguin Books published a complete annotated listing of all Penguin Classics titles in a single paperback volume in the style of its Penguin Classics books. The list organises the collection multiple times: alphabetically by author, subject categories, authors by region, and a complete alphabetic title index. This compiled listing indicates there are over 1,300 titles, and more to be published.
A feature of the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, Canada, from its inception in the 1970s, and for years thereafter, was that it stocked all of the Penguin Classics titles, for notoriety's sake. The upper section of the second floor of the store was dedicated to Penguin exclusively.
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In 2007, Penguin Classics released a set of five books limited to 1,000 copies each, known as the Designer Classics. Each book was specially designed to celebrate Penguin Classic's Diamond Anniversary. The cover for Tender Is the Night was designed by Sam Taylor-Wood. Taylor-Wood used an ethereal black-and-white photograph printed onto tracing paper. An elegant young man stands before with his hands in his pocket and bare feet. He perfectly sums up the elegance and fragility of Nicole and Dick Diver's world. The book is wrapped in a cloth hardcover and has a Perspex slipcase. The Idiot was designed by Ron Arad. Arad's book has no cover so the reader will pick it up and read the author's first words. It is stripped back to show the glue and thread in the spine which is visible through an acrylic slipcase (with a lid) with a fresnel lens so the text appears to move as the lid is removed. Arad explains: "By not wanting to have a cover, it ended with the book becoming an amazing object that is alive, but which maintains its transparency. It became a glorious box with a book inside—almost like a monument." The cover for Madame Bovary was designed by Manolo Blahnik. The jacket features Blahnik's original painting of Emma with her lover, and the book is protected by a Perspex slipcase. He said: "I wanted to come up with something light, sensual... something frivolous, because this is a novel about the dangers of frivolity. And I wanted something sexy too, cheeky. I usually focus on one part of the foot—the shoe. For this project, I had to consider a whole scene, there had to be a context, which is new for me. But I managed to sneak in a pair of shoes anyway. She wore good shoes." Fuel designed the cover for Crime and Punishment. Graphic designers Stephen Sorrell and Damon Murray have used Cyrillic and English type. Stephen explains: "This visual device echoes the mind games in the head of Raskolnikov as he battles with his voice of conscience. We want the design to form the shape and feel of the book as a whole not just its cover." They have screen printed the cover on the same brown craft paper used for the text. The book has a Perspex slipcase. Finally, the cover for Lady Chatterley's Lover was created by Paul Smith.
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Penguin Classics collaborated with Bill Amberg in the design of six books (A Room with a View, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Big Sleep, The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, and The Picture of Dorian Gray). These books are bound in leather which was "worked in a way that as the book is handled, the more protected and beautiful it becomes". The books also include their own leather bookmark which is bound with the book title and author. It has been reported widely that the purpose for this approach by Penguin Classics is to target readers/collectors who would like a "high-end" book, but not willing to pay over the odds for it.
With the Penguin Classics release of Morrissey's autobiography in 2013, the imprint faced controversy. Concerns arose from the imprint publishing the memoir of a modern musician, rather than its typical historically significant works. Critics felt that such a book diluted the brand while Penguin argued that the autobiography was "a classic in the making." London's The Independent said: "The droning narcissism of the [book] may harm [Morrissey's] name a little. It ruins that of his publisher... Morrissey will survive his unearned elevation. I doubt that the reputation of Penguin Classics will."
- "Overview". Penguin.com. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
- Cowley, Des; Williamson, Clare (2007). The World of the Book. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press. p. 81.
- "Penguin Enriched eBooks". Penguin.com. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
- Wyatt, Edward (14 November 2005). "One Well-Read Home Has Some New Pets: 1,082 Penguins". The New York Times (New York). Retrieved 30 August 2009.
- "Five leading designers explain how they re-covered their favourite Penguins". The Guardian (London). 28 October 2006. Retrieved 12 December 2009.
- Rawsthorn, Alice (28 October 2006). "How Penguin Classics books became design icons". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 12 December 2009.
- "Penguin Classics: why are they publishing Morrissey's autobiography?". The Guardian (London). 13 October 2013. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- "Autobiography by Morrissey - Droning narcissism and the whine of self-pity". The Independent (London). 17 October 2013. Retrieved 17 October 2013.