Founded in 1961, the Penguin Modern Classics series has featured a wealth of titles and authors – everyone from Carson McCullers and Vladimir Nabokov to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
What distinguishes modern classics? According to the book’s author, Henry Eliot, it is “a product of more recent times: it was written in response to a world we still live in, and can be made more difficult and exciting because of it.”
Each of the 1,800 titles included in the series is featured in this collection, which features the first Penguin Modern Classics cover of each, along with a brief synopsis and some background information on the author. Chapters are divided into regions and countries, and helpful sidebars connect topics across different titles.
The top five covers of Modern Classics were designed by Penguin printmaker Hans Schmoller, who paired Eric Gill’s Joanna typeface with a gray, white, and orange palette. The look of the series has varied over the years, with different art directors putting their own stamps on the jackets. In 1963 Germano Fassetti introduced “Marber Grid,” which put a white, black, or green panel on the cover, paired with full-bleeding artwork.
Cherriwyn Magill changed things again in 1982, with in-house artwork, and then in 1989 Penguin introduced a floating logo in a carousel and white title box set in Jan Tschichold’s Sabon. This was followed by a shiny silver period in the early 2000s, then in 2007 Jim Stoddart, Artistic Director of Penguin Press, introduced Herb Lubalin and Avant Garde to Tom Karnaci as a typeface—which is still in use today.
“The key thing about Modern Classics is that every book is really readable, really recommended, and really exciting – so I think the designers wanted to up their game to match the quality of the books,” Elliott tells CR. “There’s a ethos in List People of breaking the mold and doing something different, and I think designers have really responded to that for decades.”
For Elliot, much of the charm of these covers is the way they function almost as a tour de force of 20th century visual art—something that can be credited to Facetti. “He had this principle that I illustrated and represented the book with artwork that was almost contemporary to the text,” says Eliot.
“This was an idea that has passed through modern classics but also penguin classics…what it means is when you look at it completely, you basically get a slice through the entire twentieth century art….part of the allure of this series is that they carry this beautiful artwork in your hand, as well as the clear text inside it.”
If there’s anything missing from this book – comprehensive in its organization and level of detail – it’s that it doesn’t delve into the many different covers designers have created over the years for the same title. Perhaps this one is for the next compilation.
Penguin Modern Classics is published by Penguin; penguin.co.uk