With the ongoing second edition of The Penguin Classics Festival: There is One for Everyone, a range of books that have gained the status of being a classic are on sale. The festival is spread across eight Indian cities, and in Delhi its centres are the famous Bahrisons Booksellers at Khan Market and Saket. The Morning Standard spoke to Hattie Adam-Smith, Editorial Director for Vintage Classics. She dissects what qualifies a book as a classic and how every classic will shape your lives.
What are the primary factors for a book to gain the status of a classic?
A book can earn the title of ‘a classic’ for many reasons, and those reasons are always debated by the team at Vintage Classics. Indeed, many people have different and very personal criteria for what makes a book a classic, but one that I think almost all will agree on, is that a classic has the power to leave the reader intrinsically changed. Through books we can explore other worlds, understand how ideas and ideologies can change people, and in doing so, understand ourselves a little better. These stay with us long after the last page, and so, we are changed. This is why books have faced bans and censorship for centuries: they are powerful, and power can be a threat to some ideologies and ways of life.
Could you tell us the impact classics have on our lives?
In the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments, books and reading are banned for all except the powerful elite that run the totalitarian society. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has repeatedly been banned for its depictions of race, sexuality and rape, and use of language. The book is one of the most important pieces of literature on civil-rights equality and has taught generations empathy. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated anti-war fable, has also faced the ban for being ‘immoral’ and ‘anti-Christian’. The people that seek to censor these books understand their power to transform people.
What is your aim with the launch Vintage Classics Most Red series by Penguin?
We will publish it in July 2020 and we’ve reimaged 10 of our red-spine classics for readers. The books have beautiful new cover artworks, screen-printed by hand. They all have something unique to offer to someone knows the classics well or coming to them new. They are all guaranteed to energise, inspire, entertain and, we hope, make our readers see the world a little differently when they have finished them.
What classics have made it to Vintage Most Red?
The Handmaids Tale, for example, was written in 1983 but has had a huge surge in popularity as the ongoing threat to women’s reproductive rights has again made headlines. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, society is controlled by data, science and technology, where consumerism has become so ingrained that people are soothed into submission. It’s amazing to think that this book was written 90 years ago. It has so much to teach us. Classics don’t have to be old books, though. With this series we are publishing Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air as a Vintage Classic for the first time. It was first published in 2016 but we felt so strongly about it that it is already a classic and has found a place on our list.
What are your favourite classics?
I love short story collections, and George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline, Breece DJ Pancake’s Trilobites and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories are three stars on the Vintage Classics list. I devoured the 20th century American classics in my 20s and they are very precious to me, so authors like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Ford and F Scott Fitzgerald. I love Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf. I’m trying to read more of our translated classics, and at any opportunity I will talk to people about the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 and has written some wonderful, strange and funny books. The passing of the truly exceptional Toni Morrison affected the whole world deeply and I am very proud to publish her in Vintage Classics. Her books stand out like lighthouses and there is so much we can learn from her legacy.
What is your reading schedule?
One of the best things about my job is that I always have an excuse to read! I read every day, on my commute to and from work, often on my lunch break, and an hour or so in the evenings. I can lose a whole Saturday or Sunday to a book and what a pleasure that is! I don’t think a lifetime is long enough to get through everything that I want to read, but I’m giving it a really good try.