Buying gifts for readers is difficult, and until recently, I thought the whole thing was a wash. Better to surrender and request the coffee grinder or the headphones, or break the surprise by suggesting that one book you would drop everything to read. But this was before my birthday, when my girlfriend gifted me Penguin’s Little Black Classics, a reader’s best bet in the age of infinite distraction.
The Little Black Classics boxed set comprises 80 little books, few more than 80 pages long, culled from enduring works of world literature. Familiar names make a strong appearance, like Homer, Goethe, and Mary Shelley. It includes Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” which James Joyce considered the best short story ever written. But the set reminds us that authors known are not necessarily authors read, calling to mind Mark Twain’s definition of a classic, as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” At 60 small pages, it is not so hard to sit with even the most intimidating and stuffy of authors.
The Little Black Classics deserves credit for its wide-ranging selection. (You can find the complete list here.) Chronologically, it stretches forward from antiquity (Suetonius, Sappho). Aesthetically, it finds room for the good-but-neglected (John Ruskin, Katherine Mansfield), and does well to include Eastern writers (Hafez, Matsuo Bashō, Shen Fu, and more), who in the Western World appear too scarcely outside of specialized college-reading lists.
The books themselves are light and portable, perfect for commutes, and are great for carrying along as an unnoticeable tenant in your backpack or handbag. And unlike the gift of someone’s great, big favorite novel, these tiny booklets provide you with a consistent feeling of satisfaction, because you’re pretty much guaranteed to finish a title once you start. It’s like the exact opposite of the sense of dread you felt upon abandoning The Making of Americans or Gravity’s Rainbow after 270 hard-won pages. When it’s easy to get anxious about “falling behind,” these little books provide a gentle reminder of what reading has always been about: pleasure and enjoyment.