Penguin have recently released their Little Black Classics: 80 titles at 80p to celebrate 80 years of Penguin. Each contains a short snippet of literature from some of the most-loved authors of all time. But do these Little Black Classics make the classics more accessible? Is there really a need to make the classics more accessible?
With classics acting as the backbone of the English literature syllabus, there has to be a worry that, beyond school, people won’t delve into the canon for reading material, unless they are an avid reader or intend to take the subject further. Film and television have allowed the classics to be depicted on screen readily, meaning that it is no longer necessary to read the book. While a number of people in my family are regular readers, I can’t name a single one who regularly reads classics rather than popular fiction, yet I know of quite a few who sit and watch the adaptions on TV.
As an introduction to the classic for a younger audience, Penguin’s latest offering acts as a key transitory product between primary reading and secondary English Literature. Both Oxford University Press and Usborne have brands specifically designed to introduce classics to children, suggesting that there is a real market for accessible classics for the young at the moment. Penguin’s Little Black Classics, whether this was their intention or not, are pitched perfectly at this audience, representing a transition between the retold classics of Usborne and the traditional classic of the classroom at pocket-money price.
The great thing about the Little Black Classics is that they appeal to such a wide audience. We only need to look back at the uproar surrounding Gove’s proposed changes to the curriculum in 2014 to see that the nation wants variety in their reading material. The wide range of the Little Black Classics brand – which includes works by Homer, Austen, Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen, to name just a few – therefore appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, whatever genre or topic they prefer to read about.
Penguin’s Little Black Classics offer the chance to experience great literature at a fraction of the price. This might seem like less of an issue in a world where you can download the e-book for free on the Kindle, but there are still many people out there who enjoy the feel of a physical book in their hands. Having watched the guy in front of me in Waterstones in London on Wednesday buying at least six, I feel confident in saying that there seems to be a real attraction in being able to get a number of works of great literature for the same price as the traditional classic.
Perhaps it is the fact that I’m a history student, but I love the step back in time represented by the introduction of the Little Black Classics. Allen Lane first created the Penguin book in 1935 to fill a gap in the market for accessible and attractively priced books for the public and that is exactly the same objective of their latest offering. Penguin’s entire Being is based on the idea of accessible, affordable reading material and this is the remit of the Little Black Classic.
However, we must ask how necessary this is – are classics really inaccessible in their current format? Just eight years ago, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was named the nation’s top read and always, alongside many other much-loved classics, seems to be in print. There is clearly a market for them, regardless of whether they are downloaded for free on the Kindle or bought in physical form for full price. To remain so well loved they do need periodic rejuvenation, whether this is through a new cover, or publishing short snippets at a low price. For today’s readers the Little Black Classics are something new, a novelty, and this will stand them in good stead with consumers looking for new reading material.
Penguin’s latest offerings are affordable snippets of great literature. The Little Black Classics range constitutes a return to Penguin’s roots and successfully fills a gap in the market for classics accessible to everyone. I for one can’t wait to get stuck into them.