“I live in two worlds. One is a world of books. I’ve been a resident of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, hunted the white whale aboard the Pequod, fought alongside Napoleon, sailed a raft with Huck and Jim, committed absurdities with Ignatius J. Reilly, rode a sad train with Anna Karenina and strolled down Swann’s Way” (Rory Gilmore in the series, Gilmore Girls)
If you remember this quote by book lover, Rory Gilmore (played by Alexis Bledel) in TV series Gilmore Girls, you must have taken the time to check out each of the books that the actor mentions in her graduation speech. Most of these books that she speaks about were classics and have been much loved by readers of all generations.
But what makes a classic?
According to scholars, the classics are timeless and have the unique ability to transport us to different worlds in the finest language possible. Classic literature is usually of high artistic quality and can be appreciated for its literary art. It is also a work that represents the period in which it was written.
If you are looking for some fine classics to read over the winter holidays, don’t miss the ‘Penguin Classics Festival’ that is underway in bookstores across many cities in the country.
Penguin Random House India recently launched its second edition of ‘The Penguin Classics Festival’ across eight cities, namely Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Kochi, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad.
In addition to the books, customers will also have the chance to own some bespoke merchandise, especially designed for the festival.
What’s more, an essay contest is also a part of the festival, where readers submit essays on selected topics, with cash prizes of Rs 50,000 and Rs 25,000 for each the two runners up along with certificates.
YSWeekender caught up Elda Rotor, Vice President and Publisher, Penguin Classics, to talk about classics and how they have stood the test of time.
Elda’s work encompasses the writings of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, William Golding, Amy Tan, and the Pelican Shakespeare series. She has created and edited several series including the Penguin Orange Collection, Penguin Civic Classics, the Penguin Drop Caps, and the forthcoming Penguin Vitae. She is also a board member for the Academy of American Poets and Kundiman, a national organisation dedicated to Asian American creative writing.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YS Weekender: Can you tell us about the Classics Festival?
Elda Rotor: The Penguin Classics Festival offers readers the experience to go through the complete range of our classics which comprises more than 2,500 unique titles. We have the festival running in Baharison Bookstore, Delhi, Kitab Khana, Mumbai, Blossoms Book store, Bengaluru, Odyssey, Chennai, Starmark Kolkata, Mind’s Bookstore, Hyderabad and the Browser Book Store in Chandigarh.
YSW: Which are the authors you will be featuring predominantly?
ER: The festival features the entire range of Black Classics, Modern Classics and Vintage Classics. There is a special focus on US classics which comprises 500 unique titles.
YSW: According to you, which are the classics that are must-reads?
ER: I think this depends on what a reader values, and is influenced by their teachers, their family and friends.
I do think it is good for a reader to read outside his or her comfort zone and to read literature from different cultures and eras, to broaden the opportunities to find connections where you didn’t think you’d find them.
YSW: What makes a book a classic? How is classified as one?
ER: A classic is a work that speaks to generations of readers, who draw both timely and timeless value from the book. The interpretations may differ, but there remains some pertinent quality that continues to enrich the reader’s experience, and that connection to the book serves to bind a community of readers together.
YSW: Which are the most popular classics that are sold widely even today?
ER: Some popular classics include Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, and Frankenstein: The 1818 Text by Mary Shelley.
YSW: How have classics stood the test of time?
ER: What some classics have in common is that they are popular texts to study in school.
Teachers and students have found value in certain works that teach different things, such as craft and artistry, memorable characters and plotlines, and deeper, they may change and challenge readers through imagination and stories. Readers transform in some way, create opinions, become attached to characters and stories, and build empathy in general.
YSW: Among the classics, which are your favourites and why?
ER: One of my favorites is My Antonia by Willa Cather, as there is a simple truthfulness in the writing and it captures a part of America that I have not been to. The relationship and portrayal of Antonia and the related characters have inspired me to think of the importance of being present in life and to people that matter to you.
YSW: What is the trend in classics now- are there newer names that have made it to the list?
ER: We are committed to building more diversity in the series, and have included an exciting list of classic authors who are both celebrated around the world and ready for rediscovery including Tawfiq al-Hakim, Sam Selvon, Yusuf Idris, and Machado de Assis.
YSW: People read less than before. How do you think you can get them to read classics?
ER: I think it’s important to draw their attention to the origin of stories that they enjoy and love from other media.
For instance, you can enjoy the TV series Succession much more if you read Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example. Watching new adaptations like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, will be more appreciated if you also read the original.
YSW: You have several subdivisions in your classics section – how have they been classified?
ER: We publish the core of the programmes. There are the ‘black spine classics’, and then there are the ‘deluxe editions’ with French flaps and deckled edges, and hardcover gift editions.
YSW: What is your opinion of the books in the market today?
ER: I encourage people to read, no matter what it is. There is so much enjoyment to be found in stories of all types.
YSW: Who are your favourite Indian authors?
ER: My favorite work that I would consider a modern classic is God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
YSW: Among the books that have come out in the last decade which books do you think have the potential to become classics in the future?
ER: Toni Morrison’s works will be in the canon if not already.
YSW: Which classics do you read over and over again?
ER: Shakespeare’s plays are fun to revisit, especially the sonnets.
YSW: What do you see happening to classics in the future and the habit of reading?
ER: Classics will remain integral to storytelling, as so much is inspired by and drawn from classic literature. What will change will be a more inclusive programme that represents the dynamic literary histories and books from more cultures and communities around the world.