Penguin Books

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From Left: Elda Rotor, John Fagan and Kathryn Court
From Left: Elda Rotor, John Fagan and Kathryn Court Credit: Darryl Estrine
In recent years Penguin Books has set out to brush the dust off some of its most familiar classic titles, giving them contemporary makeovers in order to both attract a new generation of readers and dazzle literary fans of old. One of the most ambitious efforts of the initiative has been the launch of its Deluxe Classics series, which, among other things, invites renowned graphic artists and illustrators to adorn the jacket covers of famous titles with their own innovative artwork.

The idea was conceived in 2005 and to date has yielded updates of sixteen classics. "It seemed to me that what we should do is make an edition that would be absolutely beautiful in a different way from the hardcover," explains Penguin U.S. president/publisher Kathryn Court. The first book to undergo the treatment was Voltaire's satirical romp Candide, courtesy of award-winning cartoonist Chris Ware. "It was a very particular story about how we started," Court says. "One day I opened the Sunday Times color supplement. There was a piece by Chris Ware, including some of his art, which was absolutely amazing. I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if at some point we could use this guy for a Penguin cover?' Then, when we started talking about Candide and doing it for the Deluxe [Classics] series, we suddenly said, 'Remember that guy we thought was so great? We could use [him].' So he was the first person to do one and it was so fabulous. We loved it."

Featuring a humorous comic strip in Ware's signature colorful form and a title in Medieval-style lettering, the Candide sleeve kickstarted a collection that has assembled some very current, unique talents to reinvest in the Classics. Frank Miller created Pollock-esque flourishes for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, while Art Spiegelman brought Noir-ish flair to The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.

The illustrations lend collector's item appeal to the series and have taught Court a thing or two about re-engaging the market. "I think it tells us something that we did already know, that there's a different world now—it's visual," she says. "We really want young people to read all of these books because they either haven't read them, or they started reading them in school but they just weren't that exciting to them. I knew we were onto something when we published Candide and my 16-year-old granddaughter asked for three copies to take to school. That meant we tapped into something interesting. We would like to see more of that, but it's hard to get people's attention." Penguin marketing director John Fagan agrees. "It's getting the space in the bookstore," he says. "It's very competitive amongst classic novels and a big part of it is just making sure that [customers] can see the books there."

The revamp isn't just skin-deep, however. Penguin also recruited contemporary authors to pen new openers for some titles, including Haruki Murakami for Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The writers' modern-day P.O.V. helps to "bring in a contemporary audience," says Fagan. "All the books are really well done that way and that's what makes Penguin Classics Penguin Classics. We have that variety and it makes it relevant."

Beyond the book makeovers, Penguin has also turned to new media channels to expand its audience and recently launched a Classics blog and a bi-monthly newsletter. Meanwhile, the publisher's efforts have also unknowingly generated online communities of passionate readers. "I discovered a college sophomore that started his own Facebook club called Universal Penguin Patrons," says Classics executive editor Elda Rotor. "He was very earnest and had scanned some of the Penguin covers that he loved. We thought, This is great. It was very important for us to keep it in his and his friends' hands. But we said to him, 'Would you mind if we told other people about this site?' So now there are 400 members. He scans Graphic Classic covers, sends invitations to events that we have, and he doesn't even work for us."

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