Friday, September 28, 2007

Penguin Celebrations

Lean ar aghaidh, a mhic!It gives your faithful correspondent great joy, on his visits to the bookstores, to see the Penguin Celebration displays.

Anyone that enjoys books is generally aware that you can, do, and should judge books by their covers. Reading one of those gorgeous old Pan James Bonds from the sixties is a completely different feeling to reading one of those cheap looking seventies editions. And it’s a marvellous idea on Penguin’s part to celebrate their publishing heritage by taking thirty-six books from the modern canon and republishing them according to the old Penguin house style – orange for fiction, green for crime, and so on. When you pick up Niall Ferguson’s Empire, for instance, browsing the Penguin Celebration edition is a completely different aesthetic experience to browsing the original. In fact, reading the Celebration edition reminded your Spailpín Fánach of nothing so much as the happy month he spent some years ago going fifteen heavyweight rounds with the blue Penguin edition of GM Trevelyan’s splendid Shortened History of England. A comparison Ferguson himself would be delighted with, I would suspect.

So many of the books in this Penguin celebration series are worth reading, just as so many, sadly, are not. Ferguson’s Empire was quite fascinating, especially to Irishmen and women of the Republican tradition, who may be looking at Imperial Britannia with slightly different eyes after this. Not that the Tans should ever have burned Cork or hanged Kevin Barry, of course – that was taking it too far.

Some splendid choices there in the fiction section, with White Teeth having pride of place in An Spailpín selection. The sniffy tone with which Zadie Smith is discussed in the British literary press is so disappointing – as far as your constant quillsman is concerned, Zadie Smith is the greatest chronicler of London daily life, in part and in entirety, since Dickens. Go on, my son!

Marina Lewycka’s Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is one of those books that is almost rotten, and yet somehow quite good at the same time. Of course, living up to so magnificent a title was never going to be easy. I see Nick Hornby and our own Marian Keyes are in there as well. They shan’t be troubling An Spailpín Fánach. And I must catch up with Zoe Hellar’s Notes on a Scandal – she’s always been very much a favourite as a features journalist.

Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World was such a disappointment, although An Spailpín’s hardback edition is a very impressive bookcase behemoth. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is endlessly fascinating, but why don’t people realise that it’s not about the food? You shouldn’t really need a book to tell you that eating in McDonald’s can’t be good for you; what’s fascinating about Fast Food Nation is how it charts how we’ve built this terrible industrial world we live in. Chomsky how are you.

Lovely to see Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in the crime section. The Secret History is one of those marvellous cult novels that will always generate a thrill of recognition between acolytes, like two Freemasons finding each other at the Electric Picnic. An enthusiast may go to his or her fellow believer, touch them lightly on the arm and say “Bunny simply had to die, you know.” There is only one correct response – “I know; there was no other way,” and then walk away in sorrow. Marvellous.

Given the choice, I would have left Rumpole in the Bailey myself and published John Mortimer’s marvellous volume of autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage, instead. Mortimer’s family used to take turns reading poetry aloud (the only correct way to read poetry) at the dinner table during his childhood; Rumpole’s own attachment to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse brought to the light.

Travel books mean little to An Spailpín Fánach, as he’s a man that won’t go to the end of the garden if I can help it. The essay collection, too, is something of a disappointment. No Joan Didion, and the fact they’re only celebrating books that post-date the original Penguin covers rule out the master of the genre, William Hazlitt, but Jeremy Clarkson instead? I saw that World According to Clarkson translated into Polish in Borders in Blanchardstown last Wednesday night. I became weak, and had to stagger off into Lidl down the way, for a shot of that Hungarian hooch they have on special offer. Beautiful and all as these Penguin Celebrations editions are, we cannot be fully sure that books are entirely while with the Clarksons of the world are still on the loose. Couldn’t they have celebrated Anne Fadiman’s lovely Ex Libris instead? Jeremy Clarkson. Dear me.

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