The first thing you will see in the Classics section of any decent bookstore is a long shelf of black-spine books with the logo of a flightless bird on a bright orange background: the Penguin Classics. The books under its label are the most popular and accessible editions for students, professors, and general book lovers like me. I discovered only recently that one of the people behind my favourite publishing house is a Filipina based in New York. Elda Rotor is a Penguin Classics publisher who had made it her professional commitment to making sure Homer is still being read in the age of Wattpad and Kindle. Aside from her impressive contribution to the prestigious brand, Rotor is also an advocate of Filipino literature as she was the strong voice that made it possible for now five Filipino authors to receive the Penguin treatment. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal, Doveglion: Collected Poems by Jose Garcia Villa, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin, and America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan are now part of the vast roster of Penguin’s world literature editions.
As a Filipino bookworm who loves devouring classics more than any other genre, I knew meeting a person like Rotor and hearing her knowledge on the publishing business is an opportunity I simply cannot miss. So when I discovered that National Bookstore organised a forum with her, I had to drop everything and be in the front row.
A Conversation with Elda Rotor was a pretty intimate discussion which focused on understanding the aspects of a Penguin Classics edition and the commerce involved in making one. Rotor started by explaining the interesting logo of the company through an anecdote. Penguin Classics founder Allen Lane, who is a good friend of Rotor, asked an office staff by the name of Edward Young in 1935 to head to the London Zoo and sketch an animal that can serve as the logo of his business. Young returned with a drawing of a penguin which he claimed was a ‘dignified but flippant’ creature.
Rotor shared interesting facts about the brand only a publisher like her can be privy to. She discussed how some of their translators would use only the words available at the time the original text was published, which sounds both intricate and laborious for me, while others use fairly modern words in order to make their books a lot more accessible for contemporary readers. The translation is a crucial process which allows literary works to remain relevant and timeless. As a consumer, I am glad to know that the Penguin Classics team takes their job seriously.
With close to 3,000 titles under the Penguin Classics brand, it is difficult to think what else the company can offer in the years to come. According to Rotor, the company continues to explore growth areas so that the evolution of the Penguin Classics does not come to a halt. They recently launched titles under sci-fi fantasy and African American literature categories to show that they can still offer something new out from beloved, and sometimes unheard of, literary masterpieces.
I am impressed by the commitment of Penguin Classics to artistic design and how they support emerging artists. The Penguin Drop Caps Series featuring the art of Jessica Hische and The Pelican Shakespeare with cover design by Manuja Waldia show that Penguin wants our shelves to look fascinating. Rotor said it was a conscious decision by the company to support budding artists, which is why they commission more artworks now instead of using pieces from museums for their book covers.
Aside from reading the novel itself, I also find fulfilment in thoroughly understanding the Introduction of whatever edition I have. It is a necessary part of a classic that I think other genres do not have. And even if they do, it is not as cerebral or scholarly. During the open forum, I asked Rotor about how the process is like in choosing the person who will write the Introduction for a certain Penguin Classics edition. She said they tend to choose someone who is not expected by the readers, but at the same time, someone who is cognizant of the literary work in question.
Rotor ended her presentation by answering the rather controversial question of what makes a literary work classic. Looking at a group of students sitting just across from me, Rotor said ‘Not all classics are meant to be read in high school. But you cannot tell that to your teacher.’ And I cannot agree more with every word of that statement. I believe some classic books require the reader to experience the grief, disappointment, loss, and anguish of life before he can fully grasp the moral code of the narrative. A high school student might not be necessarily familiar with all of these things, at least just yet. I read my first classic novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, when I was in third-year college and I was not required to do so. I thought I fully understand the story back then. But every time I decide to reread the book, the story constantly takes a fresh identity as if I am reading it for the first time. And that for me is the definition of a classic: the story is so alive it matures with you.