To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Penguin books – you remember, Sir Allen Lane’s ‘ag’ at failing to find a decent book to purchase for his onward journey at Exeter train station prompting him to launch high-brow paperbacks for the masses, rather than simply frowning meaningfully at the WH Smith lady like the rest of us – in 1995 Penguin released three boxed sets: one focusing on 20th century writers, one for children, and this, sixty ‘classic’ works. The only reading challenge I set myself this year – as life’s complicated enough – was to plough through all sixty books over the Christmas/New Year break. I did it and am of course now insufferably smug.
If you can get hold of this set – I long harboured dreams of a random charity shop purchase but then admitted defeat and consulted Ebay – it’s likely to be pricey but worth it for the sheer range of delights that you can dip your reading toes into.
I enjoyed a jaunt through the Greek and Roman classics of Ovid and Tacitus, the ancient myths of Beowulf, King Arthur and Ulster Chieftain Cu Chulaind (#mindblown when I read that the latter dates back to seven centuries before Christ. Christ!), the religious teachings of Krishna and Buddha, the Renaissance wisdom of Machiavelli on the art of war and Vasari on the lives of the artists, the travelogues of Darwin and Goethe, the philosophy of Rousseau and Thoreau (I philosophized deeply about whether having a name ending in ‘eau’ is essential for philosophizing), old-school historians such as Diaz and Gibbons, and a few 19th century authors thrown in too.
Reading Walt Whitman for the first time made me wonder what had taken me so long; revisiting Wilde through his tale of the mysterious ‘Mr W.H.’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets reminded me why I had been obsessed with him as a teenager. Nietzsche broke my brain but the beautiful Haiku of Basho mended it. Ninety pages of historian Thomas Carlyle was more than enough, but the short stories of Maupassant, Cervantes, Balzac and Twain made me want to read their Big Books. So take the plunge, if you can, and see what reading journeys you find yourself on!