Penguin Dresses Up the Classics

I haven’t been a big fan of Penguin classics, mainly because the books, unlike their contents, deteriorate so quickly. They are books to be read once and then left to yellow and dissolve on the shelf. But Penguin is making up for it with their new beautifully designed clothbound classics.

Penguin Classics clothbound

The covers are the work of Penguin’s senior cover designer, Coralie Bickford-Smith. In this interview at Design*Sponge, she talks about her influences, including the Arts and Crafts movement, and how she tailored each design to the book and to the equipment and materials used to produce them. I haven’t seen one myself but I would hope they paid equal attention to the quality of the interiors. Using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature I see that they are printed on Forest Stewardship Council-approved paper, which is a good sign, but doesn’t go as far as the Modern Library hardcovers, which are printed on recycled and acid-free paper. Interestingly, they also come with all the usual editorial extras of Penguin Classics, such as introduction, chronology, and notes. I think this is unusual in hardcover classics, except for one-off translations.

I don’t know if I will get any myself. I already have copies of my favourites and don’t really have room for much else, but I love the cover of their Odyssey so much I might just get that one. I already have two editions of it, but it’s good to have multiple translations of ancient classics. Alas, that particular volume doesn’t seem to be available yet, and I can’t find out which translation it is, though I would guess Fagles, which I don’t have. I’ll just have to wait.

If you’d like to ogle more of these books, see this Flickr photo gallery.

Penguin Classics clothbound Jane Eyre

UPDATE: After reading some of the reader comments about these books here and here, I am now doubtful about the quality of these books. One reader says that the foil decoration comes off quite easily when the book is transported in a bag, and another reports that the paper is poor and the binding is glued rather than stitched. If that’s true then these books are not for me. I’d rather have a plain Modern Library hardcover that is beautifully printed on recycled, acid-free cream paper with a proper stitched binding. That is a book that will last, a book that is a pleasure to read, a book that is worthy of its contents.


21 comments on “Penguin Dresses Up the Classics

  1. mel u says:

    Penquin in a lot of cases in their less expensive editions has taken to use of very small print with very little line space-taking away much of the enjoyment of the read in order to sell a boy cheaply that will end up not being read-

  2. AndrewL says:

    These are my favourite posts. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. JaneFan says:

    I was quite suprised to see a few of these last week at my local Anthropologie store!

  4. Boris says:

    Carolie Bickford-Smith also designed the covers for the Lyons translation of the Arabian Nights. The production run is 3000 copies for a 3-volume set in a slip case. The word is that the translation, the first full English translation in over a century, is excellent.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Those are pretty! I especially liked the flamingoes on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 🙂

  6. Tom says:

    Very nice. I wonder if they are feeling some heat from the Folio Society?

  7. Sylvia says:

    mel u, I agree, Penguin classics are not very comfortable to read. That's why I like the Modern Library classics—they are well made and the type is big enough for slightly older eyes. 😉

    Boris, I saw those and am tempted. I'm really not familiar with the work at all, except for the grisly premise.

    Stefanie, I still can't figure out why Emma is represented by a chair. Any ideas?

  8. Sylvia says:

    Perhaps, Tom, though there's obviously a big difference in quality. I read one comment on that interview post that suggested the foil decoration on the Penguins comes off very easily. If that's so, then these books are not much more durable than the Penguin paperbacks. But I suppose that is commerce these days—get people buying and replacing things as often as possible.

  9. Tom says:

    Ah, I didn't actually read the interview. That's a shame. You ought to be able to carry a book around.

  10. Boris says:

    I teach the Arabian Nights for a course I offer on Muslim travelers. Here's an excellent summary- not my own, unfortunately- of the major translations ( I just received my copy last week, but I haven't delved into it due to the US holidays and a stack of papers I need to grade, but the one tale I read looks promising.

    I also have all 20 of the Bickford-Smith's Penguin covers. The quality is more than I expected for the price. I have some space in living room so whatever books I haven't read will be placed there and reread on occasion. Carrying a book around in a purse and then complaining about the foil decoration rubbing off seems a bit unfair.

  11. Boris says:

    Here is an interview where she explains why Emma has the chair motif.

  12. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for that, Boris. I think maybe they could have come up with a better motif for Emma. Maybe strawberries.

    I think I'm with Tom, a book should withstand a little wear. If the book can't take some time in a purse, how will it do with multiple rereadings over the years? Books should above all be built to be read.

  13. Sylvia says:

    I just read in the comments of that post Boris linked to that these Penguin hardcovers are not even stitched! These books seem to be purely for show. Too bad.

  14. Boris says:

    Just out of curiousity, since I less familiar with book buying in Canada than the USA, how many hardcover books with foil covers that sell for CAD 14.99 are stitched?

  15. Sylvia says:

    I don't think there is anything exactly comparable for sale right now, stitched or not. Obviously a well-made book will cost more, and I'm happy to pay for it knowing that I won't have to buy it again.

  16. Boris says:

    Thanks, Syliva, for the comments. It has given me a pause to think about why I purchase books although it is far too complex to go into here. I approached these books purely as aesthetic purchases since Bickford-Smith is a designer. I read all of the titles in high school or college. I'll be reading the Penguin Crime and Punishment (from this series) over Christmas. That said, I expect that I will read it cover-to-cover maybe once a decade for the next three or four decades. I might crack it open to read a passage or look something on occasion. All told, I'm looking at 5 complete reads and maybe 50 occasional reads. I think the book will withstand that and that I won't have to buy it again.

    I really think the quality of the Modern Library trade cloth books has declined in the last decade. If I was going to buy a book based on construction and content, I would buy hardcover editions of the Oxford World Classics. I wish they existed.

  17. Jodie says:

    Aren't they pretty? But like you they are books I allready have! Bit rubbish if the decoration does chip off easily.

  18. Sylvia says:

    Fair enough, Boris. I am probably a little rough on books—tossing them on chairs, propping them wide open, piling and re-piling current reads—so durability is top-of-mind for books I'm likely to read or consult often.

    Ah, Oxford World's Classics. How I wish they would bring back those hardcovers. Though I must admit my ageing eyes prefer the large type of the Modern Library hardcovers (and my environmental consciousness prefers the recycled paper too). Alas, both imprints lost out to Everyman's lower quality and lower price.
    You might be interested in these old posts:

  19. Sylvia says:

    Exactly, Jodie. But I think these books could make a good gift for a youngster or perhaps someone who isn't a big reader. Perhaps the outside can lure people to the inside.

  20. Rebecca Reid says:

    So pretty! I love them for their prettiness. But so sorry to hear that they actually are pretty poorly put together!

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