In February of this year Penguin celebrated their 80th birthday and launch the Little Black Classics – 80 pocket-sized paperbacks at 80p each. They span thousands of years of literature, every genre, every form, every style and every continent. And I think they’re pretty great.
Classics can sometimes feel impenetrable. You can fall in love the a story you read in a retelling, see on stage or watch in an adaptation so picking up the book seems like the perfect idea. Then you find out it is 500 pages long and the language is a little trickier to read than it is to hear and see. That’s where the LBCs come in for me.
These snippets of literature are no longer than 50 pages long. Inside their covers are small collections of poetry, letters, short stories and other stories so short they could be considered flash fiction! They give you a brief glimpse into the style of an author and allow to get to know them before you commit to the real thing. I found this with The Reckoning by Edith Wharton. I really love the titles of Wharton’s full-length novels – The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome – and that’s attracted me to her as a writer, but I really knew nothing of her style of writing or the stories she was compelled to tell. But in No.48 I found two short stories – Mrs Mantsey’s Window and The Reckoning – two very different stories from different times in her career. I discovered her themes of marriage and independence; her progressive ideas; her beautiful, vivid writing and her satire and I’ve now got a few of her novels in my Amazon basket! Those 45 minutes I spent checking out her work took me from vague interest to wanting to buy her books.
But at the same time, they also allow you to read and own favourite poems and stories without buying several full collections. During my A-levels I studied the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, the sister of the famous member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her tales of broken and tricked women and the prices they have paid for being seen as possessing original sin and living in a man’s world are wrapped up in fairytales and folk tales and obscure extended metaphors that allowed her to get away with publication in the mid-1800s. I fell in love with her poems, but I have struggled to find nice editions of her collections and that has meant that I haven’t read much beyond the AQA syllabus. This collection gave me 18 poems and I’d only read the title one, Goblin Market – it expanded my experience of this poet and now I’ll be looking even harder to find nice editions of her full collections. There a few better places to retreat into on a lunch break, a bus rid or on a short train journey than into the imagination of Christina Rossetti!
For me, one of the best things about the Little Black Classics series is that it has allowed me take a glimpse into legendary authors and famous stories that I’m a little intimidated by otherwise. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is beloved by many and most people know at least a little of the story, but it was still so much more than I expected! At only nine pages, the story was quick, intense and the tension was incredibly high. I loved it. No.31 also features two other stories, the longer The Fall of the House of Usher and another 10-page punch, The Cask of Amontillado. It turns out that I prefer his shorter stories with their intensity and the crazy atmosphere, but all of his stories seem to feature death, murder, guilt and madness so now I know what to expect and what to look for from an author with a hugely extensive backlist. Now I can stride confidently into the dark, twisted mind of Poe with confidence.
I love this series. I think they’re a fantastic collection for every bookshelf – I want them all, to be honest. They really do make classics accessible for every budget and every timescale.
Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite Little Black Classics? Any you’ve got your eye on?