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October 20, 2009

Penguin Classics: A Literary Makeover

Posted by webmaster

Employees at the Penguin Group USA made it their 2008 New Year's resolution to each read one Penguin Classics title. Alan Walker, the company's Senior Director of Academic Marketing & Sales, took it further...much further. He began an ambitious "literary makeover," reading a Penguin Classics title for each letter of the alphabet.

Today we talk with Alan about why he decided to read the classics A-Z (not once, but twice) and what tips he has for book clubs who might like to embark on their own literary marathon.

Click here for a re-cap of Alan's first foray into the Classics and here to follow along on his latest reading adventure. What inspired you to undertake the reading marathon? And then to embark on a second one?

Alan Walker: We have a bookroom at the Penguin offices filled with Penguin Classics, and just being in a room with that many great books is at once frustrating and inspiring. Where to start? How will I ever read them all? I figured I'd attach some semblance of order to that all-important question of what to read next just to make that decision a simpler one, and I selected an author for each letter of the alphabet. Having made it through one round of authors alphabetically, I was motivated to start again mainly by all the books I had to leave behind the first time around. What can I say? I'm an addict!

RGG: What advice do you have for book clubs that would like to do something similar?

AW: I guess my best advice would be not to be intimidated by the Classics. Even if you just throw in a Classic into your regular book club choices, I think you'll find that reading classic literature will add new light onto contemporary works, and you'll just want to read more of them.

RGG: One book in particular piqued our interest while looking over the list of titles you read the first time around --- My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (born Stella Maria Miles Franklin), a semi-autobiographical novel about her life in the Australian outback. "Jane Eyre and Lucy Honeychurch have nothing on this feminist heroine," you remarked about the book. What makes Franklin's novel so compelling?

AW: I'm glad you mentioned this one; this book was a real find and definitely hard to put down. Just a great read; a great story and I'd say one of the best heroines I've ever come across ! I think this was the best part of doing this reading marathon, discovering must-read books like this. I've recommended My Brilliant Career to many friends and all have been as satisfied as I was.

RGG: What are some of the other classics you read during the marathon that would make particularly good selections for reading groups?

Some of my favorite finds were Nella Larsen's Passing, Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, Turgenev's First Love, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and The American by Henry James. All of these stories were extremely compelling. Reading groups will find lots to talk about with these books: issues of race, class, a variety of historical background, writing styles. Mostly, though, I am a glutton for plot and character and you'll find that and much more. I can't help but want to read more of these authors' works.

RGG: The company has launched the online radio show Penguin Classics On Air. Why might book clubs want to tune in?

AW: These shows provide book clubs with ideas on Penguin Classics to choose, as well as starting points for discussions from academics, editors and other writers. Right now, there is a show about a new Classic by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton called Who Would Have Thought It? Ruiz de Burton was the first Mexican American novelist, and apparently this book reads like Henry James meets Uncle Tom's Cabin. I'm already looking forward to my next "R."