how many have you read?

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  • Dante | Inferno
  • Thoreau | Walden
  • Sophocles | Oedipus Rex
  • Kafka | Metamorphosis
  • Melville | Moby-Dick
  • Shakespeare | Hamlet
  • Homer | The Odyssey
  • Austen | Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte | Jane Eyre
  • Steinbeck | Of Mice and Men

roundtable discussion

The Ten Essential Penguin Classics

Elda Rotor, Editorial Director, John Siciliano, Editor, Stephen Morrison, Associate Publisher, and Jeremy Tescher, National Account Manager of Paperback Sales
Left to Right: Elda, John, Stephen, and Jeremy
We recently sat down with four members of the Penguin Classics team, Elda Rotor, Editorial Director; John Siciliano, Editor; Stephen Morrison, Associate Publisher; and Jeremy Tescher, National Account Manager of Paperback Sales; to talk about how the list of the Ten Essential Penguin Classics was compiled, their own thoughts on the list, and how classic works of literature can relate to everyday life. The following is a slightly edited transcript of the conversation.

So, how did you compile the list?

Elda: Well, we were thinking about what it means to be culturally literate, so we asked friends and colleagues what classics come up in everyday life, books that they felt have stuck around culturally or that they felt everyone should know something about in order to get through the day.

Stephen: You mean like, for the water cooler? When you hang around the water cooler and discuss Hamlet?

Elda: Yeah.

Jeremy: I do that all the time.

It's a good representation: poetry, non-fiction, novels. What are your own thoughts about the list?

Jeremy: I think it's safe to say that it's a good cross-section of what one would need to be conversant with to call themselves "culturally literate."

John: Yeah, but it was also really hard to arrive at only ten titles. There was a kind of embarrassment of riches, and we couldn't quite narrow it down to only ten. So, really, any ten we chose could have been the Top Ten Penguin Classics.

Stephen: And our list has over 1,500 titles.

Jeremy: In fact, these are all Western titles. I mean, it is kind of exclusive, for better or worse.

Were there any surprises? Something you didn't think was going to be on the list, but there it is?

Elda: Well, The Inferno, at first, maybe. But then I was like, "Oh yeah, that's right." We kind of forget where they all come from, all those references.

Stephen: I would have thought there would be an important Russian novel on here. I didn't think Metamorphosis would be on the list.

John: I think probably the reason Metamorphosis was chosen is because Kafka is such an outsized literary persona.

Stephen: Like when you're sitting around the water cooler and you're saying, "My life is so Kafkaesque!" And everybody thinks, "Well, what does that mean?"

Jeremy: It's certainly apropos of office life, or modern life, definitely. I was a little surprised to see Walden on there. In terms of American literature it's an essential classic, but I just feel that it doesn't come up as much in conversation as much as other nonfiction.

Stephen: Everybody references it as an idea, but I don't know anybody who's actually read it. Has anybody at this table read it? I haven't.

Jeremy: It's one of the ones that everyone should read, but we all actually haven't.

John: I was surprised to see Walden on the list, too. And yet Elizabeth Kolbert wrote this long essay in the New Yorker about it recently, and it was fascinating for me to learn the back story of Walden. Because apparently, in the nineteenth century, writers were as inclined to come up with gimmicks as they are today. Thoreau was an incredibly ambitious writer who just hadn't quite hit on an idea that would interest publishers. Until, of course, he came up with Walden.

Was there anything that jumped out at you in terms of something you were sure would be there, but isn't? You just mentioned Russian novels.

Elda: But then there's that argument of, "Should it be on the list of things that are brought up in everyday life, or is it the book that makes you the most guilty?" You know, like, "Oh God, War and Peace. Yeah, I should've read that." That's a whole other list we're probably going to hit upon. The Guilt List.

Stephen Morrison, Associate Publisher, and Jeremy Tescher, National Account Manager of Paperback Sales
Stephen Morrison and Jeremy Tescher
Jeremy: It's funny, we had a request go out about New Year's Resolution classics like, over a year ago now, and that was the one I submitted, and I still haven't even read it. And I'm still fraught with guilt about it.

Stephen: Mine was On the Road. I never got to it, and that's what's interesting about this list. I mean, at least four of these were books I had to read for school, and I probably would never go back and read them again. I feel that, as an adult, it's just—and maybe it's just my own personal taste—but I would much prefer to read a great novel that I've never read. I've never read Anna Karenina, but right now I'm reading The Red and the Black, which I also had never read. And that, to me, is more interesting than the idea of going back and reading The Odyssey, even though Fagles's translation is incredible and all that. I just can't imagine myself in the right mental space to actually be able to sit down and read it without a teacher taking me through it. Whereas with The Red and the Black, I'm reading a novel with a plot and characters and the history of a time period, which is much easier to digest.

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