The Penguin Classics Book

Did you know there is a card game played in Japan at the New Year, called uta-garuta, where 100 cards have a full poem on each — traditionally taken from their classical poets — and another 100 have just the final line. Players take turn reading the poem from the deck, while the others race to find its concluding line from the cards with the final lines. I didn’t until I read about it on page 111 of The Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot.

(I think that’s a wonderful game idea and wish someone would do a similar game for Western poets… although I understand that not all western forms fit the card-size restrictions of the game…)

It’s the sort of delightful, fact-and-fun-filled book that encourages browsing to uncover this and so many other tidbits of information about books, their authors, and their culture. I recently added Eliot’s  book to my own library and have spent many hours cheerfully rambling through it. Every page seems to have something to learn and enjoy. It’s the sort of coffee-table-toilet reading book that can suck you in for hours.

The publisher’s description notes,

The Penguin Classics Book covers all the greatest works of fiction, poetry, drama, history, and philosophy in between, this reader’s companion encompasses 500 authors, 1,200 books, and 4,000 years of world literature, from ancient Mesopotamia to World War I. Filled with stories of the series’ UK origin, author biographies, short book summaries and recommendations, and illustrated with historic Penguin Classic covers, The Penguin Classics Book is an entertaining historic look at the earliest chapters of the world’s best-known Classics publisher.

The author, Henry Eliot is, according to the same site, “Creative Editor of Penguin Classics.” The book is an ambitious, well-designed look at the history of one of the world’s most famous publishing imprints: Penguin Classics. The line began in 1946 as a means to make classic literature available to the general public at an affordable price. The books quickly became favourites both for booksellers and academics, and provided a publishing outlet for translators and editors unlike any seen before.

The first title published in the series was a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and in its first decade, the line had a mere 60 titles to its name. Today, it has some 1,200 titles, covering literature from the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic to modern, international authors. And everything in between: the line has plenty of English-speaking authors, but also translations of works originally written in French, Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Norse, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Old English, Greek, Latin, and many more languages. And not just literature: there is poetry, philosophy, biography, history, plays, memoirs, folk tales, and scripture. Four millennia of the written word is here.

For those of us who love reading, this series has provided a wonderful opportunity to open windows into other cultures, other communities. And Eliot’s book is like the exquisite aperitif before the meal.

Eliot’s book draws a somewhat fuzzy line at World War I (including some authors who wrote later, but also missing some like Don Marquis and Marcel Proust who wrote during that period) , which I found a trifle disappointing, since there have been many modern books published in the line since then. I live in hope that a second volume, following from the chronology of the first, will be published. But as I wait, this volume engages me.

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Goodbye, Carlos Fuentes: 1928-2012

Carlos FuenteI was in a bookstore in Israel in 1980 or thereabouts, looking for a book in English to read during my visit. I found Terra Nostra, a 900-page novel by Carlos Fuentes, in a Penguin paperback edition. I had read another Fuentes’ book, A Change of Skin, a few years earlier, so I picked it up.

I’ve carried Terra Nostra with me ever since that day in Israel. It’s still on my bookshelf. I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I remembered that book this morning when I read that the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes, had died last night, at age 83.

I’ve read three of his 15 novels. Years after I had bought Terra Nostra, I read his book, The Old Gringo, an enjoyable tale which was turned into a good film in the late 1980s. Buried on my shelf this morning I also found Christopher Unborn, which I read some years ago. I’ve also got the novel that first brought him to international attention, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I can’t recall if I ever read it, but believe I did. It came into my collection around the time we moved up here, and like a lot of books I brought with me and stacked two-three deep on my shelves, I may have simply forgotten it. I tend to read mostly non-fiction these days, and not as much fiction as I once read.

Another novel, The Years with Laura Diaz, is up there, too, but unread and waiting. Not sure why I got it then forgot it. I now feel compelled to re-read his novels.

These might might be among my stash of “retirement novels” – books I meant to read when I retired because I never found the time to devote to them when I was working. I have several shelves of them, many now mixed with books I’ve read. Maybe it’s time to start reading them.

I recall Fuentes as a complex writer, with shifting tales woven into each novel, with transient perspectives, often with historical material that underlaid the novel’s time line.

Fuentes had the distinction of being what he himself called, “a pre-modern writer.” He used only pens, ink and paper to write. According to Wikipedia, he asked, “Do words need anything else?”

I can appreciate that sentiment, because I started out with pen and paper, although the geek within me really like this computer for composing, today. Still, there’s powerful magic in writing that is not found in word processing.

Fuentes said that he detested those authors who from the beginning claim to have a recipe for success. In a speech on his writing process he related that when he began the writing process he began by asking, “Who am I writing for?”

Looking through Terra Nostra today, it seems dense and meandering, like Joyce or Tolstoy. I found a bent corner at page 476. I wonder if that’s as far as I got, 40-plus years ago. I started to read from that page this morning and got sucked in for several pages. I think it’s a sign I should start reading Fuentes again from this book, rather than the newer Laura Diaz.

I was introduced to Fuentes back in the mid-late 1970s. I was reading Latin American authors – writers like Marquez, LLosa and Asturias, and many others. There was a paperback publishing wave headed by Bard/Avon to translate these authors for a North American market. Penguin followed and published others. I read dozens of them in that period – I still have many of those books on my shelves now. I enjoyed reading them; the authors had very different perspectives on life, on society, on government. It opened a new world to me and lead to my first trip to Mexico, more than 35 years ago.

Among my favourite books in that publication boom period was El Presidente by the Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. I liked it so much I bought it in Spanish to try to read it in the original. I didn’t do very well, but I still have the Spanish version upstairs, along with a Spanish version of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez, and a more recent book by Paul Coelho, El Alquimiste. Someday I may try again, reading a line in Spanish, trying to translate it, then reading it in an English edition to see how well I did.

The BBC story on Fuentes’ death notes,

He was associated with the Latin American Boom – a literary movement made up of mainly young authors whose politically critical works broke with established traditions… His narrative, like that of his contemporaries of the Latin American Boom, was rarely linear, instead relying on flashbacks and changing perspectives.

The world lost a great author yesterday.More than that: he was a social commentator and champion of the people. But he lives on through his work and will continue to inspire writers for many more decades.