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Books: Interview

Henry Eliot: ‘There is something comforting about the classics when you feel uncertain about your own time’

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Editor and author Henry Eliot tells how literature expands our experience of what it means to be human


The Penguin Classics Book | Henry Eliot | Penguin | 480 pages | Rs 1,499

HENRY ELIOT HAS been on a mission in India: he is trying to get more people to read the best of literature. As one of the editors of the Penguin Classics series, his recent book The Penguin Classics Book (480 pages; Rs 1,499) is ‘intended as a reader’s companion to the best books ever written’. It could serve as a map, allowing readers to greet acquaintances from their youth and unearth new philosophers and friends. Covering the history of literature up to the World War I, it is a glorious testament to the power of the written word.

Eliot, who has also written Follow This Thread and Curiocity: In Pursuit of London (with Matt Lloyd-Rose), spoke to us in Delhi about the shifting and expanding worlds of the classics. Edited excerpts from the interview.

When and how did you get involved with the classics?

I’ve only been at Penguin Classics for the last two-and-a-half years. Not a very long time. But I guess I’ve been involved with the classics more widely for longer. I’ve always loved reading. And I studied English literature at university.

What were some of the classics you loved as a child?

The ones I loved when I was younger were Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels. Actually A Room with a View, by EM Forster, was one of the first books which really made me think, ‘Gosh, you can really learn how to live by reading a book.’ You can see these characters and think, ‘I want to behave like that’ or ‘I don’t want to behave like that.’ That was very inspirational. And then I did various projects, all of which kind of had a literary basis. I worked with an app company that developed an interactive edition of The Tempest by Shakespeare. I organise various guided literary tours based on different works of literature. We recreated The Canterbury Tales, by [Geoffrey] Chaucer. There was another trip around East London, based on TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.

Can you tell me more about the The Wasteland tour?

That was fun. I took The Wasteland and chopped it up into all these different fragments, and then we did this long walk, maybe 12 miles, where I tried to find a location that suited each of the sections of the poem. It was a group of, maybe, 20 of us. I’d give slips of paper to different people and we’d read the next bit of the poem. And it worked really well, because that poem is full of different voices and fragments. We began in a cemetery, with the burial of the dead. The poem finishes on London Bridge.

You’ve written the book Curiocity (which explores different aspects of London). What does it mean to discover a city through literature?

I suppose it is two things. I love putting literature into a landscape. And part of that is because I really like the space it allows you—it removes distractions, and helps you focus on what the words are saying. And it usually gives you the time, as you are walking, to digest and discuss them. Reading and writing can be quite solitary activities. So it is one of the few ways that I think you can approach a text as a group, and have a communal experience with it by doing an event with it.

But interpreting a city through literature is, in a way, a separate thing. So many writers have lived in cities and involved cities in their books. The reason we read great literature at all is because these writers have had some rare insight into the human condition and wrapped it up inside this plot and book-shaped text, and transmitted it to us. And I think by reading them, you are unlocking all these different ways of seeing the city around, ways of imagining it. You are seeing these invisible connections that writers have drawn between different classes, different professions, different genders. And so I think any work of literature expands your experience of what it means to be human.

What is the outreach work you are doing with the classics?

It’s been a real mixture.... But the highlight of the trip is that in each of these cities [Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Delhi], I visited a school. And that has been really amazing. I’ve picked out my favourite classics and talked to them about it, for maybe 25 minutes. And then we’ve had maybe 40 minutes of just taking questions. And discussing in groups. I’ve been so impressed by their excitement and enthusiasm around these texts. But also about how clever their questions are. They seem to be asking exactly the questions that we are struggling with ourselves, like ‘What is a classic?’, ‘Does a classic ever stop being a classic?’ These are tricky questions. And we’ve had some very interesting discussions around it.

Have any classics fallen off the list?

They have. I am quite keen to think of a list as a fluid series. I worry that there is a perception that it is a fixed canon that is never changing. That is definitely not true. Historically, titles have dropped off for a very mundane reason: there is a minimum print run when we reprint, so if a book is just not selling well, it can’t justify the print run.

“If you can unlock a book and if it can unlock something inside you, it is a classic. If it can’t do that anymore, it has become a historical document”

What is the minimum print run?

The interesting thing is that that has changed over the years; it has gone down, down and down. As of quite recently, it has become economical to do very, very short print runs. Even do print-on-demand in some cases, and that raises some interesting questions. Because it means technically, nothing needs to go out of print.

Maybe that is good, it keeps a very rich list, but part of me worries that that is a bit like an unweeded garden. There are books on the list that are not being read, they are not really selling. Should we do a bit of manual pruning? If people aren’t reading a book, maybe that disqualifies it from being a classic.

I think of the list as a kind of clear water lake in a mountain, which is constantly being fed, and we’ve put new titles into classics all the time, but it also has an outflow. But when you are looking at the lake it is sort of unchanging, you would never know it is being refreshed all the time.

As a publisher, how do you deal with the fact that the numbers are going down?

It used to be that all books sold many copies, in the 50s and 60s. I think people read more, there were fewer distractions. But in recent years, classics have really held their own and if anything, sales figures are growing. And it is a really encouraging trend. And we are all sort of puzzled why this is happening.

I think part of it is topical relevance; so, for instance, it was well publicised that when Trump came to power in America, suddenly there was a huge boom in the sale of dystopian novels by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. And this really prescient book called It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, which was written in the 30s but is about a right-wing populist politician who comes into power, totally out of the blue, and then terrible things happen in America.

I guess people were reading this half sort of for comfort—there is nothing new in the world, this is just another thing people have encountered before— but maybe also to see how bad things can possibly get.

We are generally living in quite uncertain times politically, and there is something reassuring about the classics, because they’ve survived so long. There is almost a sense that they are the absolute cream of human insight and thought. The very best that has come to the top of everything that has been written up to now. There is something comforting about that when you feel uncertain about your own time.

Which are your bestselling classics right now?

[In the UK] Orwell always sells well. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. And then there are the classic classics: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; there seems to be a trend for stoicism at the moment.

“Maybe we do need to read a disturbing, offensive book now and then to expand our experience to a point where we might recoil”

Have there been recent additions from India to the Penguin Classics?

In the last two years I’ve been around, a volume called Roots of Yoga. It is one of the first times that writings from different traditions that have fed into modern yoga practice have been collected together.

The Penguin Classics Book only runs till the end of World War I. But in the 19th century, we only have Rabindranath Tagore [from India]. We’ve three titles by him, and of course he is great, but I feel there must be more. And I am hoping to do a second volume which covers the last 100 years. And we do have a few more Indian writers, but not enough, and I am keen to include more.

Looking at fiction today, what might become a classic in 100 years?

I think that is doubly difficult because partly there are so many books being published today. I often think that someone doing my job in a hundred years’ time will be hard-pressed to pick up classics from today. In a way, time will have done the job for them, because some things will be read and some wouldn’t be. It is hard to predict. My money would be on anything that feels it is of great quality and popular, but is nonetheless doing something really quite fresh and different. I feel those are things that inspire people and people refer back to. And which retain a life.

I guess if I had to put some money on it, I might say someone like George Saunders, the American short story writer. I thought his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo was amazing.

I read that when Saunders sent the manuscript to fellow writer Zadie Smith, he hadn’t even stapled it. The pages were wrapped in an elastic band, the idea being it could take any form.

How interesting! I love that sort of thing. There is a novel by an Argentine writer Julio Cortázar called Hopscotch. It is designed that you can read it in any order. There is a suggested way through it, or you could read it straight through. Or you could just read it randomly.

There is another fantastic book by an Irish writer BS Johnson called The Unfortunates (1969). It is published in a box, chapters like pamphlets in a box. There is one called ‘first’, and one called ‘last’, so you have to read those first and last, but everything else in between, you can read in any order you like.

Anyone other than Saunders?

I would say the British writer Hilary Mantel. Historical fiction is a very old genre, but what I love is her technique. She has said that she will check scrupulously anything that can be checked, is historically exactly accurate. But inside people’s minds, she has free rein. I feel it is the best form of history. Because she has all these fantastic facts together and then using her authorly skills imagines what must be going on inside people’s heads and that is what she is presenting to us. I love reading her books because it feels like for years it is her really thinking herself into these minds. And then just giving that to us on the page. It is such a kind of luxury.

Looking at much of fiction today, I feel we seldom see novelty in the novel.

It is so interesting you say that. Because maybe the 19th-century novel, the Bildungsroman, a single figure growing up through life, has run its course. I am more optimistic about the novel, because I feel that compared to other literary forms, it is such a versatile format. I feel it may get replaced, but I feel it can slip around. And will turn into something new before it disappears.

What is your working definition of a classic?

Good point. It is tricky. My working definition needs to tick three criteria. It needs to be written really well. It needs to have literary quality. It needs to have some historical significance—like was a bestseller of the time, perhaps. Or it changed the world in some way. Or it influenced later writers and did something new in literature. And third, it needs to have an enduring reputation. People need to be reading it, discussing it, referencing it. If a book has those three, then it starts to look quite a lot like a classic.

The final emotional test on top of that is a book needs to be able to connect with you. If you can unlock the book and if it can unlock something inside you, then it is a classic. If it can’t do that anymore, then I think it has become a historical document. And it may still be interesting, but it is no longer a classic.

Literary quality, that is the difficult one.

I know, that is the one I tried to slip by you. That is incredibly subjective, and I suppose that is where there is an element of coming to an editorial consensus, of whether we think it is well written. And that can change over time. Someone like Sir Walter Scott was so popular in the 19th century. Every big library had a set of The Waverley Novels. And yet, now I think most people [today] would find him stylistically melodramatic and old-fashioned. Things can, and do go in and out of fashion and favour.

In an archaeological dig, if you come across a skeleton, it is not a forensic police inquiry. And you look at it to find out more about how humans lived back then. And with literature it is sort of similar. There is the moment it was written in, and then there’s the period where it is still too recent to be looked at objectively.

We put The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade into The Penguin Classics. Which many people found quite insensitive, offensive. It is a really horrible book. And I’ve not read it. I started reading it, just to see what it is like, and I had to stop. Sade is like borderline evil. If you are mapping out the territory of what is okay to be a classic and what is not, I feel he is on the flag right on the limit. And the translators of it, in their introduction ask, ‘Can this be called a classic?’ They quote Franz Kafka, who said, ‘If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.’ And maybe we do need to read a really disturbing offensive book now and then just to expand our experience to a point where we might even recoil.

A Clockwork Orange [by Anthony Burgess] is not on the level of De Sade. It is a beautifully written book, stylistically inventive, but it is also very disturbing. And I would say you read it, sort of gingerly. It feels dangerous in your hands. I think we need to be careful with those books, but that is part of this expansion of what it means to be alive. There are some books you probably just don’t want to go into. But you can walk right up to the cliff edge.

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