I haven’t traditionally been a fan of pocket books– especially the kind that take an extract out of a novel and print it in a 50-75-page mini-book format, as a "sampler" of the author’s work. The way I see it, if I really want to read the thing I’ll end up buying the whole book anyway, in which case it would be pointless having a condensed version as well. And if it’s something I don’t like, reading the extract in the first place will have been a waste of time.
When two or three short stories/essays are collected in a pocket book it seems a little more purposeful – but even here, given the option, I’d prefer to have the complete stories of a favourite author in just one or two volumes. Far more convenient than for them to be spread over many little collections, some of which are bound to overlap.
But contemplating the 70 titles in Penguin’s recently published box set (to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the company’s founding), I begin to see the merit of this format. It started when I randomly picked up one of the booklets – the one with the "Caligula" section from Robert Graves’ great historical novel I, Claudius (which is one of my all-time favourite books). I thought I’d just flip through the booklet; instead, I ended up reading it all the way through, and it took only 20 minutes. Now the point is, much as I would love to revisit the Graves novel in its entirety, I don’t think I’ll get around to it anytime soon: dealing with the whole book at once would be much too prepossessing a task, especially since new reading material is coming in all the time. But the pocket book had the effect of extracting a reasonably self-contained portion of the novel and presenting it to me for easy consumption; it allowed me to re-experience one of my favourite passages (Graves’ Caligula is one of the great morbidly comic literary creations) without having to read the whole book again.
I’m more-or-less much converted now. These booklets are a delight to behold – nicely produced, feather-light (halfway between peacock and sparrow) and very easy on the eye. Their very size (between 50 and 60 pages each) makes them easy to get through. Usually, at the end of a busy and tiring day, it’s an achievement if I finish more than 60-70 pages of a regular-sized book over a night-reading session. But the night before last, moving from one pocket book to the next at whim, I breezed through:
- Graves’ Caligula, as mentioned
- Two of Wodehouse’s Jeeves short stories (almost a fresh experience, since I’ve always preferred the Blandings Castle stories to the Wooster-Jeeves ones, and barely remembered the latter)
- Five of Nabokov’s short stories collected in Cloud, Castle, Lake
- Steven Pinker’s Hotheads, about the contradictions inherent in the pursuit of happiness; extracted from How the Mind Works
- Some of Anais Nin’s erotic writings, from Artists and Models
- The first two chapters of Primo Levi’s Iron Potassium Nickel, taken from The Periodic Table
And I could have gone on. I tell you, the size makes a big psychological difference; maybe I should chop up all the fat books I have to tackle and then put them back together afterwards?
(Next on my list: George Orwell’s In Defence of English Cooking (which is only one small essay in a collection of four). John Updike’s Three Trips. Borges’ The Mirror of Ink. Richard Dawkins’ The View From Mount Improbable. Hunter S Thompson’s Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson. And, er, 59 other titles.)
Another advantage is that, working as I now am on the books beat, it’s important to be informed about the work of a wide range of authors. As a casual reader, I got into the habit of sticking with one fancied author for weeks on end. Can’t afford to do that now and though I’m still, in principle, against the idea of "tasters", they have become increasingly useful as a way of familiarizing myself with an author’s work.
P.S. There’s been some controversy about how there are hardly any non-white authors in Penguin’s Pocket 70. Be that as it may, any list is bound to be controversial; even if this had been a list of 700 titles rather than 70, there would have been errors of omission, for whatever reason. So take it or leave it. I’m taking it. (That said, I’m bemused by some of the names here. Gervase Phinn - who he? Antony Beevor and India Knight, sharing space with Homer, Flaubert and Freud? Oh well, guess that sort of thing will happen when you have such a huge catalogue of titles to choose from.)
P.P.S. Conversation with Hurree Babu last night, where he offhandedly mentioned he had finished 42 of the titles in the same time it had taken me to read 5, has dampened self-confidence about reading-speed.