Penguin’s Little Black Classics are a collection of short books (mostly around 64 pages, although some are longer), originally published in 2015 as a series of eighty volumes, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Penguin. These first books were priced at 80p each. The volumes cover short stories, poetry, miscellaneous bits and pieces, and the odd slice of non-fiction. All are older works, largely from the 19th century; but with some going much further back, and the odd volume creeping in from the early 20th century.
The first eighty volumes did rather well: within a year combined sales of these little books had comfortably exceeded two million copies, and so in 2016 Penguin added a further 46 volumes (the first Penguin Classic was published in 1946, you see). Now they dropped the 80p business, with the new titles priced at £1, or £2 for a few slightly longer volumes. In 2017 the United States Constitution was published as a sole additional title, making the total number of Little Black Classics in print today 127.
This isn’t the first time that Penguin Classics have bombarded us with tiny little books: the 1995 anniversary was celebrated with Penguin 60s: those cost 60p, and totalled 180 volumes covering a range of subjects including biography, travel, classics, and sixty more modern stories from the likes of Martin Amis and Muriel Spark — perhaps Penguin had more of a budget for licensing and royalties in those heady 1990s. (The full list of Penguin 60s is on Wikipedia.) In 2011 they marked the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics with fifty ‘Mini Modern Classics’, a series of slightly more recent volumes at £3 each.
Getting back to the current series, when the first volumes came out I took note, vaguely hoped to find a cheap boxed set of all eighty books somewhere, and then forgot all about them. I must admit, I expected them to disappear quickly. Not because they’re not worth buying (they certainly are), but because in the days of online free postage and real bookshops with squeezed margins, small very cheap books didn’t seem particularly practical. But as the list has grown, and been embraced by millions of readers and at least some bookshops (my nearest Blackwell’s has a full bay of them; or did until I got my hands on it), perhaps it bears revisiting.
For writers in particular, the Little Black Classics series is a fantastic resource. It’s vital that writers read as widely as they can, and familiarise themselves with as many authors, styles, and ideas as possible.
Anthologies are one great way to do this, whether they’re specific themed collections of periods or genres, or attempts to take in a wider picture, like the two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story that Philip Hensher edited a few years ago (and there are of course still wider pictures than just British short stories). As a quick overview, these anthologies are terrific; and for obvious reasons, The Fiction Desk likes anthologies.
Anthologies generally only contain one story by each author, however, and while these individual stories might bring a writer to your attention, they can only tell you so much about their work. The logical next step, the single-author collection, will take you much deeper into an author’s work, but it’s impractical to read as many of these longer collections as you might want to, particularly when you’re also trying to keep up with more modern writers.
The Little Black Classics come somewhere in between, usually containing two, three, or four stories by the featured author. Having these extra stories on hand gives you just a little of the context and depth that you normally need to go to a collection for, but the price and size makes them much more accessible, much easier to take a chance on.
Here then is an opportunity to find out whether Mark Twain’s humour still hits the spot, and think about why it succeeds or fails in the modern era; to take a look at how Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction compares to the Holmes stories (sometimes Conan Doyle is surprisingly good, and sometimes he’s surprisingly bad); to examine HG Wells’ ability to spin a gripping tale with economy and vitality (Wells is one of the few authors to be honoured with two volumes in the series); to finally take a look at the short fiction of Thomas Hardy (another one); or Balzac or Washington Irving or whoever else you’ve not quite got around to yet — or whose work you need to revisit to freshen your memory.
I’m concentrating on the short fiction because that’s what we do here; the poetry and non-fiction volumes in the series offer similar delights and, again, further opportunities for exploration and discovery.
The Little Black Classics are available from some online outlets, but not all: Amazon has them in both paperback and Kindle form; The Book Depository — whose ‘free worldwide delivery’ seems to steer them away from any book costing under about £2 — have only the boxed set of the first eighty volumes. But ideally, you want to find a physical bookshop in your area that has them there on the shelf, where you can browse properly and make a habit of picking out a volume, or a handful, whenever you happen to be passing.
It would be great if the series could be expanded to include slightly more recent work, as was the case with the Penguin 60s, but there’s still plenty here to be getting on with. You’ll find that one of those nasty plastic fivers can be converted into a lot of nice black books.