One of the tiny and great discoveries of our trip to England this Christmas which continues to illuminate our lives more than a month later is the Penguin Modern series. These are tiny books, so slight that they really do fit into your back pocket with nary a bulge, and are full of literary inspiration. The series starts with MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and ends 51 volumes later with Wendell Berry’s “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” which should give you a sense for their publishing arc. It bends through a bewilderingly diverse and scattered set of literary voices. There’s Borges but also the sorely under-read Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, even John Berger. The diversity of voices is amazing. It feels like a university unto itself.
By necessity they’re all small works but hardly slight. The series is a keen rinder of the virtue of limitations because just the few pages of Borges’ “The Book of Sand” brought back so much, not only the story itself which I hadn’t touched in years but Borges’ playfully speculative voice. Little inspirations like this spark connections, I’d forgotten just how influential Borges has been: Think of Eco, David Foster Wallace, an entire canon of speculative fiction.
And then there’s the design – a stern reminder of joy in physical objects. So small but so visually striking that ever time I see a volume, I compulsively pick it up, flip through it, read a page, before putting it down. As with the Penguin series of old design consistency is critical but this time out it’s an absolutist vision; every volume sports the same color, font (ITC Avant Garde Gothic), and layout. The entire series is even offered as a boxed set. That faith and investment in design and power of publishing is sorely missing from most of our lives.
My only regret is that we only bought six of them. The whole series looked positively luscious lined up at the Tate Modern and bookstores like Daunt. Shoulda coulda woulda. What do we need to do to get Penguin to launch the series over here?