Thursday, August 18, 2005

Capsule reading: pocket books

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.


  1. I'm unconvinced about the value of pocket books that just take out sections of novels and print them seperately. a) I'm not sure I could stop reading if I'd got through some part of the book - so for instance I doubt I could read Caligula without reading all of I, Claudius (not to mention the other Claudius books) and b) even if that could work (so for instance, there've been quite a few times that I've read chapters from Woolf by themselves) I still feel that I'd rather have the full book and read a part of it then be limited to only an extract.

    That said, I do think pocketbooks can serve an important purpose - not just to give you three / four great short stories in a stand alone book, but also as a useful way of publishing short fiction / novelettes by great authors which get left out / clubbed with other stuff. There's loads of this stuff around - all the way from Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony and a couple of short stories by Cervantes to Faulkner's mini-novels (The Bear, etc.) and of course Salinger's work (Seymour, Raise high the Roof Beam). Or think Dostoyevsky - the Gambler, the Double. What I find really irritating about this stuff right now is that it invariably comes packaged with some other writing, often stuff I already own, because of which it seems wasteful to buy the whole thing again just to get my hands on one small short work. So putting it in pocket books would be really great. And that way you could easily go from author to author as well.

    I also think pocket books are a great format for plays - I get so tired of carrying around heavy collected works when all I want to read is one play. So for instance I'd rather own each of Eugene O'Neill's plays by itself than invest in a single collected works.

  2. I think the pocket books are a great idea.....perfect to read on a bus or train or during a coffee break at work....(of course, it's perfect to read the entire book as well.....but, oh well!).

    But speaking of I, Claudius......I don't know if you've seen the BBC plays of the book (7 VHS tapes, 13 episodes....which I OWN). I found the dramatization to be excellent over all, and did bring the book to life.

    here's a link I found about that. I don't know if Amazon is shipping now to India, but they have it, and it's worth the buy.

  3. I haven't seen "prepossessing" used in this sense before. Are you sure the usage is correct?

  4. I have long wondered who India Knight is. Every new edition of a Georgette Heyer book has an encomium from this presumably august person saying 'Georgette Heyer is unparalleled' (or some such laudatory word). Who is she?

  5. isn't she some posh woman (daughter of someone..i can't recall whom...only the british upper classes would call their children 'india')...who wrote two books- mostly chicklit.

    having written the above para, i googled her, to find this.

    i've quite a few of the new penguin pocket book series....but india knight???!!!!!

  6. Falstaff: agree, mostly. Incidentally, one of the more oddball reasons I'm not too comfortable with pocket books is that it's awkward finding space for them in a standard bookshelf, and storing arrangements have to be re-thought (how's that for being nitpicky!)

    Sunil: for some reason the British COuncil Library had only the first two cassettes (at least, a few years ago), so never saw the whole thing. Derek Jacobi is a favourite actor, so it was quite frustrating.
    (Incidentally, in the early 1960s there was an ambitious film project underway, with the great Charles Laughton in the lead. But it got scrapped, not sure why exactly.)

    Cheshire Cat: I'm not sure now, wrote it without thinking too hard about it but yes, it does look awkward in the sentence. Might replace it with 'daunting'.

    Marauder, Buchu: I think the stories by her in the pocket book are on the virtues of shopping - retail therapy, etc. Penguin describes her as a "woman-about-town", which I suppose is a good thing to be if you're going to write a pocket book on shopping.

  7. The British Council Library Pune has the whole BBC series of 'I, Claudius' in a set of five DVDs (including Special Features). I've got through the first two. It's an excellent series.

  8. Jabberwock: Know what you mean - there's always the tussle between putting the book in its logical place by content or logical place by size - so it's like should I put this with the early Faulkner? But then it'll look odd sandwiched between these books - maybe at the end there, then, but no, no that's just wrong!

  9. Pocket books are very dissappointing.Uh,about the other Claudius books,are'nt there just two?I,Claudius and Claudius The God?

  10. Srin: You're right, of course. that should have been other Claudius book - mea culpa.

  11. well,i was sorta hoping you were right.

  12. when i was doing my grad in Delhi, i randomly picked up "SUMMER" - a collection of essays by Albert Camus (a pocket book of course) from a small second-hand bookstore in Kamla Nagar. it has never left me and my purse is always big enough to carry it everywhere.