Baldwin James

Penguin Modern

Three years ago, Penguin hit paydirt with its Little Black Classics range: short, pocket-sized slices of work from the authors in its Classics imprint, at 80p a pop, to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books. It wasn’t a new idea: they did it before in 1995 (with the Penguin 60s, with both contemporary and classic authors), in 2005 (with the Pocket Penguin 70s – no, not those Pocket Penguins – containing old and new writing by Penguin authors) and in 2011, to celebrate 60 years of Penguin Modern Classics (with the Mini Modern Classics). And here is another set, 50 slim selections from the Modern Classics range, branded laconically as Penguin Modern.


It seems that Penguin has learned from the sales for Little Black Classics (more than two million in the first year) to put the books at an irresistible price point. The Mini Modern Classics were overpriced at £3 each: these are a pound. As with the previous sets, the list is well-curated in that almost every volume contains self-contained work: one or two stories or essays, typically. To me that matters because I can hold in my hand a slim volume and say “this is Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’!” and because there’s something dingy and disrespectful about abridging longer pieces to fit this length (they’re all around 64 pages). That’s why I had no interest in last year’s Vintage Minis, which got it horribly wrong by mostly being samplers of larger books (Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened reduced to 100 pages!), except when they got it horribly wronger by using complete texts but renaming them (so Huxley’s The Doors of Perception became Psychedelics, and Styron’s Darkness Visible became Depression).

So what’s the purpose of the new Penguin Modern list? Well, it ties in with the new eau-de-nil look for Penguin Modern Classics (readers of an age with me will remember this as the signature colour for Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics in the 1990s, the list from which I first read the likes of Fitzgerald, Greene, Woolf and Waugh). If there’s an anniversary to mark this time around, I’m unaware of it. But the press for the series says it’s about capturing the “pioneering spirit” of Penguin Modern Classics. Certainly if you compare this list to the 2011 Mini Modern Classics, it’s less mainstream – and even those authors whose names are more familiar than your own toothbrush are at the radical end of the literary establishment (Borges, Kafka, Beckett). The sources are a little more diverse too: last time we had 11 women out of 50, this time it’s 17; then there were 3 books by non-white authors, now there are 7; and the number of books in translation has risen from 11 to 19.

The other purpose, for the reader, is to try authors you might otherwise not have wanted to shell out a tenner on, or would never have had the stamina to tackle at full length. The latter is certainly my experience: like the much-missed KevinfromCanada, I prefer to read books, not parts of books, so whereas I’ve had Sontag’s Against Interpretation on my shelves for years, awaiting retirement or empty nest syndrome or some other factor that will give me the time and intellectual room to tackle it, I can read ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ in this new series in one gulp. For me, some of the titles here were a chance to revisit authors I’d read in my youth but never since, so I was reminded how playful and approachable Borges’s stories are, even through their intellectual rigour: the outward simplicity of ‘The Book of Sand’ and its “monstrous” infinite volume, or the spy story structure of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and its exploration of time and futures: “The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”


For some of the familiar authors here, the material is ‘new’; for example I was pleased that James Baldwin’s Dark Days contains three short, late essays not available in the current Penguin collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin is always good value, and his writing often has the cadences of oratory, a consequence of his time as a child preacher, with all the repetition that that entails:

Not one of us – black or white – knows how to walk when we get here. Not one of us knows how to open a window, unlock a door. Not one of us can master a staircase. We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certain results of falling out of a five-storey window. Not one of us comes here knowing enough not to play with fire. Nor can one of us drive a tank, fly a jet, hurl a bomb, or plant a tree.

We must be taught all that. We have to learn all that. The irreducible price of learning is realising that you do not know. One may go further and point out – as any scientist, or artist, will tell you – that the more you learn, the less you know; but that means you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice in, the relentless conundrum of your life.

In these essays it’s easy to see Baldwin’s influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose We Were Eight Years in Power was one of the best books I read last year. Here’s Baldwin in the final essay, ‘The White Man’s Guilt’:

I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.

What about the authors I didn’t already know? I liked Yuko Tsushima’s stories in Of Dogs and Walls (the title story taking its inspiration from Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls). Both are hybrid pieces, which start in one way – gentle, familial, pastoral even – and become much sharper and tougher. Tsushima is one of the writers here who isn’t actually in Penguin Modern Classics yet: her novel Territory of Light is published in English for the first time in April, and this is the first translation of these stories too. Something to look forward to.

Also new to Penguin is prolific Nigerian Igbo writer Cyprian Ekwensi. “Five decades or more of writing have brought me world fame but not fortune,” he said in 1999. “If I were an American living in America or Europe, I would be floating in a foam bath in my own private yacht off the coast of Florida.” Penguin will reissue his most popular novel Jagua Nana later this year, and his contribution to this series is a standalone story first published in 1966. ‘Glittering City’ shows us the life and times – and women – of Fussy Joe, a musician and chancer in Lagos, a “bed-bug of a man” according to one of those women, who “didn’t seem to have one serious thought in his life,” and whose “interest in any girl became more intense if he knew that she was engaged to a good friend of his.” Of course such luck cannot last long. Even when the ending turns sober, though, Ekwensi’s telling never loses its liveliness, and that lack of fortune he bemoaned seems truly unjust.


One of the most interesting of the titles I read is Wendell Berry’s Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which starts with the very short title piece from Harper’s Magazine where the farmer and prolific novelist, ecological essayist and poet explains why he doesn’t want a word processor. Not having a computer in 1987 was a less notable stance than it is now, and the piece would hardly be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for the way Berry gets his dander up in response to readers’ letters to Harper’s after the piece appeared. Most of the readers are good-humoured in their letters, whereas Berry’s response is frankly, as Marge Gunderson would put it, snippy. Even worse, the other essay here, ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, from two years later, begins: “Some time ago, Harper’s reprinted a short essay of mine in which I gave some of my reasons for refusing to buy a computer…”

Oh Wendell! Let it go! But he’s back, with more points to make after stewing on it for a couple of years. In fact this piece is much more interesting and wider-ranging than the first, though sets standards for others no less unrealistic (“I do not believe that ’employment outside the home’ is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women”, which is easy for you to say if you’ve got your own farmland and a hotline to Harper’s). He does admit that “one cannot construct an adequate public defence of a private life” and, as the essay moves from thought to thought, his anti-consumerist rhetoric and warnings about technology “replac[ing] ourselves” sound more timely now than ever. He acknowledges that even he cannot live as he recommends, and when he writes “I still fly on aeroplanes” despite them being “inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky and scary,” it’s hard not to wonder if, writing a year after even Margaret Thatcher was warning of the perils of climate change, he isn’t overlooking a more obvious problem with air travel. He does write very engagingly, however, and I was driven to find an interview with Berry from 2012, where – for what this is worth in a writer – he comes across as much more human than he does here, and with greater understanding of how his lifestyle won’t work for most (“Don’t do it”). Oh, and these days “I do have a bit of commerce with a computer that belongs to a friend of mine, who does a lot of my typing for me.”

Similarly uncompromising is Audre Lorde, who has a handful of short pieces, mostly originating as lectures, collected in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. (All are taken from Silver Press’s recent publication Your Silence Will Not Protect You, ahead of the Penguin reissue of her ‘biomythography’ Zami later this year.) Lorde, who described herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” makes it clear from the start that she is speaking to us from outside the establishment, with her self-definition of poetry as

the revelation of distillation of experience, not the sterile word-play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.

As a white father myself, I’d say sterility is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s no more fruitful to attack – who did she mean? – Eliot, say, than it is to denigrate the poetry of Rupi Kaur to those who love it. But she packs a punch on the value of poetry, however you define it. “Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Or, later: “Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible or frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems.” Elsewhere, in the title essay, she is an early proponent of intersectionality. “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” She ends with Simone de Beauvoir: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”

This Penguin Modern series overall gives Penguin an opportunity to recast the character of its Modern Classics range. It’s a list which has traditionally been dominated by early-20C English language writers – the Woolfs and Fitzgeralds, Greenes and Waughs I mentioned earlier – and even now, when you search the list by ‘Relevance’ on Penguin’s website, top hits are the likes of George Orwell, James Joyce and Kingsley Amis. But in recent years it has expanded into more crime, more SF and more diverse voices, which has worked only because the quality of the writing has always been paramount. (And then there’s John Christopher.) These 50 mini-books strongly foreground the newer stuff, with only a few traditional Modern Classics authors: Steinbeck, Nabokov, Bellow … and Orwell.

A word about the cover designs for this series. The typeface is Avant Garde, named after the New York magazine for which it was created, and it comes with numerous bespoke and playful ligatures to join certain letter combinations, which the Penguin design team has made full use of – adding, I suppose, to the air of radicalism the series seeks to project. When I first saw these designs in the Penguin catalogue last year, I hated them. Now I love them. And that is why I will never be a designer.


James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain

This is one of those books which has been in the to-be-read pile for some time. Often those titles end up flattened beneath strata of newer acquisitions, as for me the lure of a new new book is always stronger than that of an old new one. But I had read and enjoyed Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country some years ago, and with the imminent avalanche of new books for 2008 coming ever closer,
I plucked it bravely from the depths of the pile. It’s now or never.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

In truth, one of the reasons I hadn’t read Go Tell It on the Mountain before was because it was Baldwin’s debut novel, published in 1953 when he was 29, and I thought How good can it be? And the answer is … good enough, and far more assured than a first book has any right to be.

The key is in Baldwin’s full-blooded style, which immerses us from the beginning in a flood of biblical language. The setting is Harlem, where fourteen-year-old John Grimes is following in his father’s footsteps to become a preacher at the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The only problem is that John hates his father Gabriel (who is anyway not really his father) and as a consequence everything he stands for. “His father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.” He half-envies his brother Roy, whose reputation as a black sheep and a lost cause at least affords him freedom:

Roy never knew his Sunday school lesson either, but it was different with Roy – no one really expected of Roy what was expected of John. Everyone was always praying that the Lord would change Roy’s heart, but it was John who was expected to be good, and to be a good example.

John, meanwhile, must look down on the “sinners” that the family passes on the way to church, and not think too hard about whether a little sin might have something to recommend it. In rejection of his father, John instead clings to his mother, whom he fears losing as he goes from being her only son to just one among a family of children:

He remembered only enough to be afraid each time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger. Each time this happened she became a little more of a stranger herself.

Baldwin excels in moments like this, where the feelings of a child are rendered into elegant adult observations without stripping them of their raw truth. He also gives us a classic monstrous father in Gabriel, who of course turns out to be the most interesting character in the book, and not without a little sin of his own. In the central sections Baldwin takes Gabriel, his wife and his sister and opens up their pasts to the reader. The resulting effect, of wanting to forgive what we know, is not original but nonetheless highly effective. Forgiveness in fact is one Christian trait which Gabriel notably lacks (“Your Daddy beats you because he loves you”), and in his own past we see that his inflexible anger is really directed against himself – “he saw his guilt in everybody’s eyes” – and that his rejection of John’s independence of mind comes from a knowledge of what he himself might have had. John too knows that despite his father’s nominal position as “head deacon” in the Temple of the Fire Baptized, he’s really little more than “a holy handyman.”

With the central flashbacks, Go Tell It on the Mountain goes into wider society, and touches on less obvious issues like self-limiting behaviour by disadvantaged minorities. Florence, Gabriel’s sister and the only one who will stand up to him, remembers her husband:

‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right.’ To ‘come along’ meant he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had travelled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom ‘coming along’ is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive. For ten years he came along, but when he left her he was the same man she had married. He had not changed at all.

The word “fire” recurs throughout the book, and sure enough the pages burn through with Baldwin’s anger at racism, religion, and broken communities. He also is brave enough to give the book not much direct plot – John’s struggle with his family and ‘his’ faith and how we got here, about sums it up – and an ending which chillingly recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four. At one point in the story John reflects upon a course of action, fearing that he might be going too far: “I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.” Later, in his aunt Florence’s past, we see her do the same as she buys a ticket to leave her home town: “she held like a talisman at the back of her mind the thought, ‘I can give it back, I can sell it. This don’t mean I got to go.'” This understanding, not only of the way we hold ourselves back as much as others do, but also of how one generation’s weaknesses trickle down to inhibit the next, is immensely powerful and sums up the essence of the book beautifully.