Penguin Classics Newsletter | November 2009

The Ten Essential Penguin Classics

It's SNL meets PBS! Watch our new homemade video, The Top Ten Essential Penguin Classics, written, directed, and starring Penguin Classics staffers. Visit the minisite to read the roundtable discussion about the top ten selection, enter into the sweepstakes, and read more about each of the titles. Wonder what made the top ten? Watch and enjoy.


My dearest Fanny, Your affectionate J. Keats

Jane Campion's beautiful film Bright Star inspires us to read old love letters and Keats's poetry as well the verses of other Romantic poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley.

John Keats:
The Complete Poems

William Blake:
Selected Poems

Lord Byron:
Selected Poems

Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Selected Poems

Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Selected Poems 

William Wordsworth:
Selected Poems


"The Recitation"

Intimidated by "the infallible word of God"? Don't be. Although any religious text that bears a reputation as awe-inspiring as that of The Qur'an is bound to intimidate, Tarif Khalidi, a scholar of Islamic literature, assures readers that there are varying levels of meaning, and that even those with no cultural or historical background in Islamic culture have much to gain from this captivating text. Spanning the spectrum from "justice of god, the freedom of the human will, the divine attributes, the ultimate destiny of sinners, and a host of other theological, legal, and historical issues," Khalidi recommends the text to anyone looking for knowledge, inspiration, or enlightenment.


Selma Who?!!

This October's announcement of Herta Muller as the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was preceded exactly one hundred years ago by the naming of the first woman Nobelist in literature. In 1909, the Swedish Academy anointed Sweden's own Selma Lagerlof, whose best-loved novel, The Saga of Gosta Berling, has been called a Swedish Gone with the Wind. To honor Selma Lagerlof on the 100th anniversary of her Nobel Prize, Penguin Classics is excited to be publishing Paul Norlen's new translation—the first new English translation in over a century!

Never heard of Selma Lagerlof? Never heard of The Saga of Gosta Berling? Perhaps this will ring a bell: The novel was made by Mauritz Stiller into a silent film in 1924, with none other than Greta Garbo in the role of Countess Elisabet, the last in a long line of beautiful women who fall for the defrocked preacher Gosta Berling. The film is the great epic of Swedish silent cinema, and with it Greta Garbo (who lost twenty pounds for the role) was launched into stardom.


"All Power to the People!"

Huey Newton's autobiography tells more than how the Black Panthers came to be, or what it was like to be part of the growing movement for civil rights in America at that time. It is both deeply personal and uniquely universal. Newton talks about his quest for ideals, his constant search for purpose, and his utter loyalty to his own moral code. The perfect book to gain knowledge and inspiration, Revolutionary Suicide is also a captivating read as Newton recounts the successes and failures of the Black Panther Party, his brush with the law, and his ultimate acquittal. In addition, his widow, Fredrika Newton, contributes an enlightening introduction to the text, in which she explains the concept of "revolutionary suicide." To quote Huey Newton: "Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible."


Singer-Songwriter Steve Earle Pays Homage to an American Classic

James Agee's A Death in the Family has long had a place among the great American novels, and it makes its Penguin Classics debut this month, for the 100th anniversary of Agee's birth. Set in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early twentieth century, and based on the story of Agee's own father, who died in a car crash when Agee was in elementary school, it is an exquisite, devastatingly beautiful portrait of a family trying to hold itself together in the face of loss, and of a boy forced by tragedy to become a man.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize fifty years ago, two years after its author's death at the age of forty-five, and in his introduction to the Penguin Classics centennial edition, legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle makes a case for its permanent place in the American canon, and in his heart: "[James Agee's words] are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn't reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to."


A One-Night-Stand, and a Woman Destroyed

A demure, upstanding single woman meets a man at a costume party and steps out of character herself, deciding to spend the night with him. Little does she know that he's on the lam, and before long the media is swarming her, and she finds herself implicated in his crime.

Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a powerful short novel about a woman terrorized by the media and driven by a succession of lies and distortions to take extreme action to defend herself. Inspired by Germany's scandal-mongering tabloid press, whose fanatical coverage in the 1970s of the ultra-left-wing Baader-Meinhof Gang made a fair trial of its members impossible, it presents a lesson in journalistic ethics with striking parallels to our current media climate: from the ruthless paparazzi to the bullying of right-wing radio to the fearmongering during the 2008 election when Barack Obama was portrayed as a cryptosocialist Weatherman sleeper agent who dared to "pal around with terrorists." Bestselling novelist, radio host, and cultural critic Kurt Andersen makes these parallels clear in his brilliant introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition.


The Short Novels of John Steinbeck

Now available for the first time in a single paperback edition are six of John Steinbeck's most widely read and beloved novels: Tortilla Flat, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, The Moon Is Down, Cannery Row, and The Pearl. The striking Penguin Classics Deluxe packaging gives a nod to the novels' first-edition book designs from the '30s and '40s.


Classics Hearts Comics

Have you seen Tony Millionaire on Moby-Dick? Jeffrey Brown on Ethan Frome? Lille Carre on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Graphic art lovers are clamoring for the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions of these great reads, with covers by some of the best comic artists working today. These three are some of the best we've seen from our award-winning graphic design series with full cover comic treatment . . . and those flaps, those flaps!


Stung with Love

Plato honored her as a muse. Horace emulated her lyricism. The Ancient Greeks reproduced her image on coins and vases. And poets throughout generations have confessed their admiration for her. Sappho is one of the brightest luminaries of classical literature, revered for her musical style and poignant evocations. Yet she remains an elusive figure. However, even though little is known about Sappho's life and ninety percent of her work is lost to us, there is no doubt that her surviving poetic contributions are invaluable, and should be read by everyone.

In our new Penguin Classics collection of Sappho's work, Stung with Love, her songs have been freshly translated by Aaron Poochigian, and each poem or fragment is accompanied by a page of commentary that contextualizes the subject matter, underscores Sappho's technique, and highlights her stunning gift. This edition provides the most direct and insightful avenue for exploring the works of a poet who has been inspiring kings and peasants, men and women, writers and readers, for centuries.


Campus Classic: The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Richard Haw shares his experience of teaching John Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down in his course "The Second World War: History and Culture" at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

When it comes to the literature of the Second World War, The Moon Is Down is a difficult book to classify, and thus a wonderful book to teach. Steinbeck wrote the novella during the height of the conflict, and designed it explicitly as propaganda (Steinbeck was working for the US Office of Coordinator of Information at the time). Most propaganda doesn't make it onto college syllabi, of course, and for good reason. But this is different: as propaganda, it was awful. Or so Steinbeck's American critics thought at the time. Europeans living under Hitler's iron heel thought differently: they loved it, as have most of my students.

Those that hated the book thought it soft on the Nazis—not sufficiently vicious nor harsh enough on the enemy—but of course there are no Nazis per se in The Moon Is Down, nor Germans, Jews, or Europeans, and neither are there any place names or nations mentioned. Needless to say, the book certainly is about the Nazi occupation of Europe, but the lack of details lends the novella the quality of a fable or parable. The Moon Is Down is not so much about specifics but about situations, about cultural contact, occupation, political legitimacy and profound social turmoil. These—and not the particulars of war itself (although, of course, the mundane details of occupation provide an interesting contrast to the blood and guts of fighting)—were the elements that most intrigued and fascinated my students.

Obviously, the issue of occupation is current, and my students picked up the parallels with Iraq way before I had chance to introduce them myself (it helps that the occupying force in The Moon Is Down are there specifically to mine the town's rich coal reserves). And again, the question (or nature) of propaganda comes into play. Surprisingly, the occupiers are decidedly not demons, and neither are they overtly odious nor especially cruel. They are patriotic soldiers sent by their government to perform a task, and they attempt to carry out this task without undue force or malice, albeit unquestioningly. That they are hated so entirely by the townspeople fundamentally baffles the occupiers, and this fact helps provide a window into Steinbeck's main subject: the psychology of occupation, in regards to both residents and the occupying force. And the issue stretches further than mere war: as my students pointed out, the psychology of occupation presented by Steinbeck is often very similar to the psychology of colonial subjects, making the novella curiously related to issues of empire and imperialism.

The Moon Is Down is also, fundamentally, a book about the modern world. The occupiers are a "time-minded people": efficient, organized, corporate. And the occupying soldiers come to resemble nothing so much as modern office workers. The villagers, by contrast, move to the rhythms of nature and rural life, which makes them unfit for the rigors of organized war, but strangely good at resistance and disruption. They rebel against orders, but also against the idea of order itself. All of which, ultimately, helps explain a fundamental dichotomy of war, as seen by Steinbeck: while a well-organized, well-oiled fighting machine sows chaos and destruction, a rag-tag bunch of unruly civilians work to restore order. Ultimately, it seems, one needs an awful lot of order to create disorder, and an equal amount of mayhem to return.

Richard Haw, Associate Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York
Course: The Second World War: History and Culture



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Reading the Classics from A to Z
Marathon 2

With one complete cycle under his belt, Alan Walker, our Senior Director of Academic Marketing and Sales, embarks on yet another Penguin Classics reading marathon of one book by an author per letter of the alphabet. Check out the Penguin Classics website for Alan's latest blog entries (B to C), as well as his entire first marathon.



Check out the new season of Penguin Classics On Air, a new online audio program from The Publisher's Office at The Penguin Classics staff presents new episodes on the first Mexican American novelist, vampires, philosophy with jokes, the Swedish Gone with the Wind, and Tolstoy's last days. Listen to our earlier shows and enjoy interviews with specialists and scholars; excerpts from Alan Walker's Reading the Classics from A to Z blog; and First Pages with Editor in Chief Stephen Morrison. Episode 2, Vampires on Paper: The Enduring Appeal of Vampires in Literature, features interviews with Donna Freitas on Twilight vs. Wuthering Heights and with Bram Stoker's descendant Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, authors of Dracula: The Un-Dead, who talk about Stoker's masterpiece, Dracula.

Classics Calendar

Monday, November 16
7 p.m.
Greta Garbo in the 1924 silent film epic The Saga of Gosta Berling

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY

Tickets: $12.00



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