How Penguin’s Modern Classics challenged us to judge a book by its cover | penguin

lfa publisher declares a book a classic, as Penguin has done for the past 75 years with its Classics series, and since 1961 with the Modern Classics offshoot, it raises some potentially knotty questions. What makes a book a classic? Who gets to decide? And will today’s classic still be a classic in 10 years, let alone 50 or 100 years?

“It’s a really slippery term,” admits Henry Eliot, who has written a book on the former series and is about to publish a book on the latter entitled The Penguin Modern Classics Book. “There are several ways people have understood it,” he says. “The definition I find most useful is Ezra Pound’s. He said a classic is classic, not because of any structural rules or criteria it meets, but because of a certain internal and unstoppable freshness. And that’s right for me.”

As for who decides, Eliot believes that instead of shielding the landscape from literature by creating a series of classics, Penguin editors are actually opening it up and encouraging readers to broaden their horizons. There are serious imbalances in both series—four-fifths of the authors in the Modern Classics stable are male and nine out of ten are white—but Eliot insists things are changing. “The job of a classics publisher is to identify and correct these imbalances,” he writes.

Another question that seems less haunted, but which has probably caused sleepless nights for many Penguin designers over the years, has to do with external rather than internal freshness: how do you create a cover to match a classic?

According to Eliot, the answer is: not easy. “From the start, built into Penguin’s DNA, the idea has been that the books should be beautifully designed,” he says. “If there’s anything that’s characterized Penguin’s design ethos, it’s a kind of elegant simplicity – there’s something deceptively simple about a Penguin cover. It takes a lot of work to put them together.”

Eliot’s new book opens with a section on how cover design has evolved, and you can see the carefully considered but striking changes introduced by successive art directors over the decades (the Modern Classics series turned 60 this year). Dominant colors (orange, dove grey, eau-de-nil) drop out, only to creep back in later iterations. Fonts, after much pain, are removed to be replaced by more modern-looking counterparts. Grid layouts are imposed – many covers from the 1960s were designed according to the so-called Marber grid, which separated the publisher’s logo, title, author’s name and image – only to shift after a few years or completely to be reviewed.

Some of Eliot’s favorite covers date back to the early 1960s, when the Modern Classics series was still taking hold. From the beginning, Penguin relied primarily on typographic designs, but by the late 1950s, illustrations became more common. As younger designers and illustrators were brought in and given much more graphic freedom, Penguin covers became more edgy and weirder to match the writing they advertised.

The colors of these covers were relatively subdued, Eliot says, “but within that rather muted, subtle frame the art directors gave these sometimes really shocking and surprising original images from the illustrators of the time”. Among them were David Gentleman, Michael Ayrton and a young Quentin Blake, who was supposed to illustrate Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

From left to right: Penguin Classics by F Scott Fitzgerald novels The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1962 jacket design), This Side of Paradise (1986), Jazz Age Stories (1999) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) .
From left to right: Penguin Classics by F Scott Fitzgerald novels The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1962 jacket design), This Side of Paradise (1986), Jazz Age Stories (1999) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) . Photo: Penguin

Blake, whose irreverent, scratchy style was already in place, captures Waugh’s biting humor and keen sense of life’s absurdities. More disturbing is the work of Hungarian-born French cartoonist André Francois. Eliot picks out his cover of William Faulkner’s The sound and the fury, “where each eye of the face is made up of a mouth with a different set of eyes. It’s just such a scary, striking image. It reminds me of Escher or one of Borges’s short stories – there’s something nauseous and dizzy about it.”

The artists played with the form in different ways. Eliot points to the male figure in the foreground of the cover for Carson McCullers’s The heart is a lonely fighter – one of the first books to appear in the series – which appears to lean against the side of the book, as if supported by the designer’s carefully worded margins.

This champion of original illustration only lasted a few years, although it gave rise to over 100 covers. After 1963, Eliot says, the designers began “increasingly taking advantage of existing artwork — the idea was that the cover was roughly flush with the text, so you get an instant visual link to what you’re reading.” So a cover of Virginia Woolf’s To the lighthouse contains a work by fellow Bloomsbury Group member Duncan Grant.

The covers have remained eye-catching and beautifully executed to this day, but for this brief stint in the early 1960s, Penguin let his hair down and showed his wilder, weirder side. “The best covers find a way to make intriguing and well-known authors seem fresh and irresistible,” says Eliot. In that sense, these early modern classical covers succeeded with insane exuberance.

The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot will be published November 18 by Particular Books, Penguin Press (£30). In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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