I hate to find myself disagreeing with the hugely-talented Daniel Gray, but I must. In his blog post on The Great Gatsby, he says of Penguin’s current Popular Classics range:
I love these little things – cheap and simple and low-maintenance. You don’t have to feel precious about the binding or the cover, you can just stuff it in your pocket and dip into it whenever, wherever. As much as I love a beautiful big hardback book, there’s something liberating about reading something so basic – the printy equivalent of a simple text file. The design gets out of the way and just gives you the words. They are books purely for reading.
The Penguin Popular Classics range, launched in the 1990s, was a truly wonderful thing. It consisted of cheap reprints of public domain bestsellers using old printing plates that were readable and well-set. The covers were similar to those of the full-price Classics format, but using an oval title frame and less-stellar artwork. This series, and the Wordsworth Classics that preceded them, revolutionised reading; they sold for £1, giving the pre-internet reader a chance to explore great literature at minimal cost. I still have a shelf of them that are going strong after nearly two decades.
The more recent Penguin Popular Classics range, with a cover design by David Pearson, are one of the reasons I embraced ebooks. I worship the printed book and will never relinquish it, but the new Popular Classics are trash. They are poorly printed on low-grade paper and offer an appalling reading experience. David Pearson did his best with the cover design – highlighting the ‘green’ nature of the books (they decompose while you are still reading them) but even the world’s best-designed book cover doesn’t look so good when it’s wrapped around a sheaf of toilet paper and bound like a glossy magazine.
The printed book is not a newspaper to be thrown away after reading; it is to be read, shelved, referred to and read again. This Penguin series consists of classics, which are, by definition, not disposable. Ultimately the PPC design is a triumph of form over function. For a casual read, the cheap-and-ugly public domain paperback has been superseded by the free-and-slightly-less-ugly ebook. Better to dispense with the cheap-and-nasty altogether:
And though we are, indeed, now, a wretched and poverty-struck nation, and hardly able to keep soul and body together, still, as no person in decent circumstances would put on his table confessedly bad wine, or bad meat, without being ashamed, so he need not have on his shelves ill-printed or loosely and wretchedly-stitched books…
(From Ruskin’s Sesame and Liles; free ebook available here.)
Form/function griping aside, Daniel Gray’s blog post is 100% correct in its critique of the Great Gatsby film. Save the ticket price and buy yourself the Everyman hardback instead!