Paperback Nation:  My Favorite Classics Publishers

Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)

–A riff on the chorus of “Paperback Writer” (The Beatles)

When I try to calculate how many paperbacks we have, I wish that I had paid more (any) attention in math. We have hundreds of paperback classics, and some are duplicates. We have Conrad and Colette, Dickens and Dostoevsky, George Eliot and T.S. Eliot. A multitude of publishers specialize in classics, and we have a variety of editions to choose from. Here are some of my favorite publishers of classics, and a few words about them.

A variety of Penguins.

1.  Penguin Classics

According to a brief precis on the back page of a Penguin,  the first Penguin classic was published in 1945, E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Penguin stresses that classics were not widely available at the time except to students and scholars. Penguin brought affordable classics to the masses.

Penguins dominate our shelves. For one thing, they are attractive, with orange, green, or black spines, according to the era of publication, and are easy to find in bookstores. I appreciate the scholarly notes and fascinating introductions. Does any publisher have a more varied list of classics?

Penguin has branched out into a number of different classics lines in recent years. The Penguin Deluxe Classics are oversized paperbacks, with bold, original, sometimes cartoonish covers.  I love the outre, slightly surreal Jane Austen covers (Jane was nothing if not humorous) and the gritty realism of the the cover of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. On the other hand, the covers of Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter are grotesque.  But the Deluxe editions have the same notes and introductions found in the “straight” Penguins.

I also love the sturdy, attractive Penguin Clothbound Classics, with wallpaper=like cover designs by Coralie Bickford.  I never enjoyed Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea until I read it in the beautiful Penguin hardcover.  It is not my favorite of her books, but covers do matter! And these hardbacks too have the intros and notes from the original Penguins.

2.  Oxford World’s Classics

Oxford World’s Classics has been in business for “more than 100 years,” says its website. I am very fond of Oxfords: I like their covers, and the contrast of their white covers with their rival Penguins’ dark. Penguins and Oxfords are almost interchangeable to me. Both have excellent introductions and notes, but Oxfords go one step farther, providing a Chronology that compares the events in the author’s life with the main events and books published at the same time.

The print in the Oxfords is of a comfortable size and has enough space between the lines to be easy on the eye. Over the years I have acquired three “generations” of Oxfords, the yellows, then the red-and-whites, and now the whites. To be honest, I preferred the red-and-whites.  But all of them are gorgeous, so why complain? Oxford World’s Classics also has a hardcover line, with only 10 or so books. The Oxford hardcover War and Peace, translated by the Maudes and updated by a modern translator, is very nice indeed.

Vintage classics

4. Vintage Classics

The Vintage classics win my heart because they are so pretty.

Founded in the UK in 1990, Vintage features an eclectic group of authors ranging from Angela Carter to Fumiko Enchi, Irina Ratushinskaya to Nancy Mitford, Willa Cather to Charles Dickens, and W. Somerset Maugham to Ford Madox Ford.  The covers have always been gorgeous, but in 2007 the red signature spine made them even more eye-catching. .  Really, I adore those books. There are no notes, and only occasionally short introductions, but I can do without either.

4.  University of Chicago Press

The best translations of the Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, are published by the University of Chicago. This was a huge project of Lattimore and Grene’s, who translated some of the plays themselves, but recruited other poets and classicists, among them Robert Fitzgerald, for others.   The translations are close to the Greek, as close as you’re likely to get.  The University of Chicago also publishes Lattimore’s beautiful translation of Homer’s Iliad.

5. Dover Publications

Founded in 1941, Dover publishes inexpensive, attractive editions of hard-to-find classics such as Anatole France’s Penguin Island, Le Fanu’s Complete Ghost Stories, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. They publish mainstream classics, too, but beware of the shorter Dover Thrift Classics: my copy of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World had tiny print and no margins on the page, so I could not read it. No problem at all with the LONGER books, though, such as Dostoevksy’s Demons. Dover recently changed ownership, so perhaps someone forgot about margins. But over the years they have published a glorious variety of books, and you can still buy out-of=print Dovers online.

6.  Otto Penzler Presents American Mystery Classics

I have discovered many spellbinding American Golden Age classics through Otto Penzler’s series.  We hear so much about Golden Age English detective novels that we forget the American writers were also working in this era. :Among my favorites are Ellery Queen’s The Spanish Cape Mystery, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected, H. F. Heard’s A Taste for Honey, and Stuart Palmer’s The Puzzl of the Happy Hooligan.

What are your favorite publishers of classics? Are you a Penguin person, or a groupie of a publisher I haven’t mentioned here?


4 thoughts on “Paperback Nation:  My Favorite Classics Publishers”

  1. Penguin and Oxford are the two reliable, least expensive publishes of good books. Broadview is aimed at an academic and college audience — like the British Longview. The new Everyman series has a “common reader” audience but lately they have been eliminating their apparatus and then they turn into pretty books with reliable texts but no more and they can be expensive. Modern Library seems to be vanishing — they were good texts but also dropped the apparatus. Beyond that there are specialties for certain kinds of books (Greek and Roman classics &c)

    1. I agree, Penguin and Oxford are and useful and affordable. . I rarely see the Canadian Broadview, except in used bookstores, but their list includes some neglected classics to the standard canon. A bit expensive, though. The Everyman editions still have good introductions. At least mine do – and all of them are “pretty” books. 🙂

  2. I think of the tiny India-paper dark blue hardbacks as the “real” World’s Classics and accept no modern substitute.
    A word for Wordsworth Books – yes, they are clunky, with ugly covers and cheap paper, but they reprint books that are otherwise unobtainable except at great expense, if at all – most notably Chapman’s Homer.

    1. I seem to have missed out on the Oxford “blues.” Wordsworths are good if you’re on the road, since you don’t have to worry if they get crumpled, etc.

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