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Penguin Classics’ Henry Eliot on why likes physical aspect of a book, and more

By November 22, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu

Penguin Classics Creative Editor Henry Eliot on why reading classic literature will remain an immersive experience for every generation

“The way in which the weight passes from one hand to the other as you read, y’know… it fascinates me,” Henry Eliot says, subtly demonstrating the act. The Creative Editor of Penguin Classics, and a connoisseur of classical literary works, Henry, donning a warm smile, speaks passionately about all things classic, as he sips on his coffee at Starmark, Express Avenue. In the city as part of the Penguin Classics Festival, the writer and walker (as The Guardian puts it; he organises literary tours) believes that classics should not only stand the test of time, but should inevitably be written well and bear historical significance.

Contrary to popular belief, Henry says that there are always different audiences for Penguin’s renowned Classics series. He also acknowledges that there exists a big market among students. However, “From the beginning, Penguin Classics was aimed at a general market and not just the students — that was our ethos.The first Penguin classic that was published was Homer’s The Odyssey. When translator EV Rieu pitched it, the enterprise was not really sold, because there were eight editions of The Odyssey already in the market,” says Henry. But when the founder decided to finally publish it, the translation sold about three million copies, continues Henry. The other editions, replete with notes and introductions, were done by academics, and were specifically aimed at the academia.

EV Rieu’s copy, on the other hand, almost read like a novel, which according to Henry, led to the success. “The readership depends on the book. Maybe some of the older Greek and Latin titles would not be picked up to be read at a beach. But a Jane Austen or an Emily Bronte, a Dickens or more recently, George Orwell, are picked up by the general public,” says Henry. However, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when more classics surfaced in the US, publishers realised that there is academic market, continues the editor. Penguin also steered in the same path in the ‘80s; their texts started having longer introductions, notes and glossaries.

Is the packaging of a classic, in terms of its looks and elements, also targeted at specific reader groups? Henry laughs, “This makes us sound so strategic!” He goes on to say that there are a lot of strands within the Classics series, “For the juniors, there is Puffin Classics, and for the adults, there are paperback versions, clothbound versions and the Penguin English Library.” But, personally, he would prefer a paperback version unless it is for gifting — “I wouldn’t want to break the spine of the book.”


Feel the book

Henry enjoys the physical aspect of a book — the feel, the cover design and the smell — which he believes, contributes heavily to the experience of reading. An e-book would invariably take a backseat in his library. “I feel the need to quote from books regularly and I find it easier to do when there is a physical copy around; I can remember which page and part of the book the quote is in,” he says, adding, “When e-books came along there was a big fear in publishing that print is going to die. Honestly, that hasn’t happened yet with the print sales going up. In fact, e-books force pubishers to bring out the best physical books.” Henry’s only worry is about compressed texts that emerge in social media or in the form of news that “pollutes the ability to read a sustained narrative”.

Henry, before he joined the Penguin team, was also a literary tour guide. “The thing about reading is that it can sometimes be quite a solitary activity. I love reading, but I also love sharing literature with other people,” says the editor. His first attempt was with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “Through the recreation of the work, I was able to understand that people were interested in Chaucer, but the language was a bit intimidating. Initially, I thought, why don’t we read it together as a group and place it in the right landscape,” recalls Henry whose other tours included one about the Lake Poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Sometime soon, he says, he wants to work on a tour around Dante’s Divine Comedy, stretching from Ravenna to Florence in Italy. “There is something about placing literature in landscape. Literature is a very immersive experience and the book acts as a portal that takes you to different places,” he adds.

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