What makes a book a classic? This is a question we at Vintage Classics ask ourselves on a regular basis. At Vintage Classics, we don’t have a set of rules that dictates when we decide to bring a book into our canon. We make our decisions based on something more instinctive.
It must be a book that we come back to time and time again, that doesn’t stay on our bookshelves for long enough to gather dust. It must be a book we feel has, or will, stand the test of time. We publish books that define generations, which are as relevant now as when they were written.
Often, these are books that could risk being lost, but which we feel to be of deep importance to the world, both now and in the future.
Classics offer readers the chance to explore history – both distant and recent – through the stories of the people that lived it. With books, readers can time travel, exploring places we can never go in real life, be that William Faulkner’s America, Vasily Grossman’s Russia, or Tanizaki’s Japan. Were it not for the contributions of these extraordinary writers, these places, in these times, could be lost forever. The authors themselves are preserved in the pages of their books, living to tell their stories to any reader who chooses to listen.
One of the many challenges we face as classics publishers is how to compete for people’s dwindling attention. In the last ten years we have felt this acutely. How do you persuade someone to pick up a Virginia Woolf book for the first time when they have Netflix, Spotify and Instagram to keep them entertained? How do we communicate that it will be a pleasure and a joy to read it, and that it is not just for people with literature degrees? How do we make our classics as appealing as the latest Booker prize-winner?
There are fewer column inches in newspapers, magazines and online for book reviews, and marketing budgets get smaller with every passing year.
Our industry is still booming, there are more and more books being published, yet we are all reading less than we were. We want people to know that reading a classic is not a chore, that these are not fusty, musty old books that have nothing to do with who we are today.
One of the ways that we do this is by ensuring that every book we publish is a beautiful object. Our team of designers works tirelessly to create the most stunning artwork to adorn the covers of our books: covers that surprise, feel timely and, most importantly, delight the eye.
You won’t find any oil-painted ladies in bonnets looking out into the distance. We work to sum up the mood and tone of our books in more dynamic ways. Whether we are working with brilliant illustrators, photographers or print-makers, or delving deeply into museum archives to find matchboxes and fabric scraps, we continue to push the boundaries of our own imaginations to bring something new to these (often very) old books.
Another way that we work to bring new readers to the classics is by making them more accessible.
We publish a huge number of books, so bringing together a series by theme, or pulling out some of our favourites from one author, can be great way to introduce a reader to a theme, culture, era or author.
Iris Murdoch, a true jewel in the Vintage Classics crown, has recently had her work revitalised with six of her novels being published sporting beautiful, newly illustrated covers, making a collectible set and offering new readers an entry point to her work. The Russian classics often seem intimidating; to break down that preconception, we plucked six from our list and reinvented them with covers using old Russian illustrations and fabrics.
Next year, Vintage will publish ten of our most loved classics – Our Most Red – in new editions, with our trademark red spines and screen-printed covers to remind people of some of the best books of the last century. Three of these will have new introductions from authors Naomi Alderman, Yuval Noah Harari and Laura Dockrill: contemporary voices writing about classic books. We hope that they will find a new readership as a result.
Brave New World, for which Harari has written an introduction, is a remarkably prophetic book about the dangerous possibilities of a society where a select elite are controlling the rest of the population through science and data.
It was written in 1931. The Handmaid’s Tale, to be introduced by Naomi Alderman, is one of the most prescient books of our time, despite being written thirty-five years ago. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war fable that has been screaming at us to listen to the past, as it has been since it was written – after Vonnegut’s own experiences in World War Two. There is so much we can learn from these era-defining authors, if we just listen.
With this new series I have decided to include Paul Kalanithi’s life-changing memoir on how to live and how to die: When Breath Becomes Air. It was first published in 2016 but it already feels like a classic, indeed, it has since the very first time I read it, and so I believe it truly belongs on the Vintage Classics list. Having no rules allows you to be creative in your publishing, and to publish from the gut.
These very well-known books exist on our list alongside lesser-known books that are equally brilliant, books like The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness, Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, Civil War Land in Bad Decline by George Saunders. And the bigger books, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and The Magus by John Fowles… Without a classics list to give these books a home, how would we continue to care for them and give them life?
Perhaps the best part of my job is getting to read so much for work, to find those books on which to shine the classics spotlight. In the office, we can easily lose an hour chatting to each other about a book we love, that we want each other to read. A world we have explored and that we want to share, friends that we have made on the page that we want each other to meet.
That is the magic of classics. With a classic, you know that you have something truly brilliant. A Vintage Classic is a mark of quality. If it has a red spine, you know that we are recommending it as something worth your time. It is worth skipping the next episode on Netflix, worth pausing your scrolling.
Hattie Adam-Smith is Editorial Director, Vintage Classics, Penguin Random House UK.
The Penguin Classic Festival is running in India in the month of November, 2019, spread across the
cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Kochi, Chandigarh and Hyderabad.