Often, books have proven to be better companions than humans. The idea of settling down with a classic in a quaint spot is something bibliophiles look forward to. And so when Penguin Random House India decided to put together their first ever Classics Festival in India in association with different bookstores across five cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai – the excitement was tremendous. The month-long festival showcases the full range of Penguin Black Classics, with 1200 titles including Vintage, Modern and the Murty Classical Library.
At Full Circle, one saw an exquisite display of titles across shelves that readers were impatiently going through. Says Priyanka Malhotra, Director, Full Circle, “The idea behind the festival is to be able to showcase, under one roof, the wide variety of classics that are available. Increasingly, with online book purchases, the richness of visual display is lost. What we have discovered is that just the fact that these books are out on the shelves has created a renewed interest.” Malhotra says this is a reminder that people choose to go back to classics, always.
Looking at the stores, one witnessed the neatly arranged series and volumes, paperbacks and hardbound and the lingering sweet smell of fresh pages in the air. Penguin has also redone a few of the covers, with some of the hardbacks being cloth-bound. “We weren't really very sure about when we decided to go ahead. We have been getting a lot of questions on social media about it. It is heartening because book reading is going down and people are choosing to buy online,” says Malhotra.
Discovering a book
Having said that, the reason some people turn to e-books is because it is environment-friendly. “But that hasn't brought down the culture of owning a book. It remains something that people cherish. The idea of discovering a book that you get at a store is something you can't get online,” says Malhotra. There has been a lot of awareness globally in publishing as well about the environment and most of the organisations claim to have turned to recycling.
Penguin classics represent more than 500 authors and 5000-8000 unique titles, ranging from legends of Mesopotamia to the poetry of First World War. Then there are Greek tragedies, Icelandic sagas, Japanese epics and of course Indian mythologies.
Says Henry Eliot Creative Director, Penguin Classics and author of 'the Penguin Classics Book,' “It began during the Second World War, when a semi-retired educational publisher sat on a rooftop above London - watching for fires during the Blitz - and passed the time by translating Homer's “Odyssey”. Towards the end of the war, E.V. Rieu pitched his translation to the young paperback publishing company Penguin Books, and the founder Allen Lane not only accepted his translation but invited him to edit a new Penguin series of great translations of world classics.” E.V. Rieu's translation of “Odyssey” was published in January 1946 and then he oversaw the series until 1964. “The series has grown exponentially over the last 70 years, incorporating various other Penguin series, such as the Penguin English Library, Penguin Poets and Penguin Plays. It has had four different cover designs and now contains over 1,200 titles, with another 1,000 or so in its sister series, Penguin Modern Classics,” he adds.
Making of a classic
But what really makes a book a classic? The often debated word in fields like literature and arts have had different contexts for different subjects. Says Eliot, “ 'Classic' is a tricky word to define! But for me, a classic book needs to have a combination of three things: literary quality (it needs to be written well), historical importance (it has had some impact on the world) and an enduring reputation (it is still read, studied and discussed). Above all a classic needs to be alive: it must be able to speak to us today.”
Word of mouth
Classics or not, the festival has something for every one who walks in. “I think that is the beauty of this set-up. Sometimes, people want newer, different editions to add to their library or maybe it is a classic they never had the opportunity to buy before. The turnout has been great, especially from word of mouth,” says Malhotra. The festival, which culminates on December 1st is being hosted by the different Full Circle outlets for its Delhi edition.