Penguin Classics and Me

Part of the home library I began as a young teenager. I was more careful with some of these bindings than others!

When I was 14 years old, I began writing seriously. I loved to read and write and knew that I wanted to be a novelist. My parents took that dream seriously. While I was always free to read anything I wanted, they suggested that I also read the classics. I don’t think they planned for me to learn Great Themes of Life and Literature—that wasn’t quite how they thought—but they’d read somewhere that to know how to write, you needed to read the important books of the past. To encourage me, they offered to buy me any classic I wanted from our local bookstore and start my own serious home library.

This was my first taste of Tolstoy and my favorite novel.

I knew two things: that I had clear tastes in literature (I had always loved Susan B. Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and was getting into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern), and that we didn’t have a lot of money. So I was careful with what books I picked, looking for engaging descriptions and a price as close to $5.99 as possible.

Penguin Classics paperbacks helped me start my personal library (hence the theme of the first picture of this post). And my local bookstore carried a generous selection of them. To foster my loyalty to those slick black-and-beige volumes, many included a list of “Other Books You Might Enjoy” in the back, sharing “new” classics that, indeed, I did enjoy.

Read the classics. Read texts that span cultures, countries, and histories. That’s a good place for a writer to start.

I never could decide if Conrad was a feminist or not, but I loved the mystery at the heart of this novel.

I’m glad my parents gave me that advice and encouraged me to build the foundation of my own home library in this way. And not for any lofty reason, but simply this: I loved classics. I thrived on those complex sentences with layers of meaning; those characters who suffered to the bottom of their souls (and questioned if they had souls in the first place, if love could be pure, if they had any chance standing up against the grinding wheel of Fate); and those incredible stories (talk about conflict and stakes). I knew these authors well before my high school began teaching them, and had my favorites: Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Emile Zola (notice a trend of drama, gloom, angst, and bleakness?— that was candy for adolescent me).

I didn’t understand everything I read, but I read (including the forewords and afterwords), kept special notebooks for my quotes and reactions, and reread voraciously.

It certainly did affect my writing. I wrote fiction throughout my teenage years, trying out Big Themes and archetypal characters. I experimented with grim stories, staggering drama, and—yes—overblown prose.

I loved books like this. Insanity! Desire! Hatred! Despair! Repeat.

In my post-teen years, I broadened my definition of “classic” to reach farther across the world and into non-European pasts, but I’m grateful to those great European novels I began with: They built the foundation of my writing. In my 20s, you could read it not just in my fiction but in my letters to family, my email messages, and occasionally my verbal conversations. No doubt it crops up in what I’m writing today.

After I signed my contract for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, I happened to notice the line of penguin-adorned foam green spines on one of my bookshelves. I began to muse about my reliance on Penguin Classics in my formative home library, and how apt it is that my beloved debut novel is with Kathy Dawson Books, which is part of the glorious world of Penguin.

Thank you Penguin, and especially Sir Allen Lane, who founded Penguin Books and began those distinctive paperbacks in a bid to get good books out to the masses.

(Photos in this post are all my own.)

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