CBJ PantheonCasey Blue James is a publishing assistant in the president’s office at Penguin. She’s a native Chicagoan and a proud resident of Jackson Heights, Queens. When her nose isn’t buried in a book on the subway, chances are you can find her in the park, on the beach, or somewhere else where the vitamin D is plentiful. (If you’re reading this bio in the winter, she’s probably eating pasta somewhere or snuggled in bed watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with a puppy named Pickles.)

 

the-best-of-everything-by-rona-jaffe

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

Half a decade before Mary McCarthy published The Group, and fifty years before Peggy and Joan became the past-tense idols of twenty-something women working in corporate offices everywhere, Rona Jaffe wrote the original portrayal of mid-century office life that didn’t entirely relegate women to the reception desk and the coffee cart. I’ll admit it’s hard to find a true heroine in this woefully outdated storyline, but even a thoroughly 21st-century lady may find herself sympathetically nodding along with a young editorial assistant’s travails in the big office and the bigger city.  In fact, I think The Best of Everything makes a fun read for anyone who works in publishing. Remember when the whole company used to take the Jitney out to the publisher’s Hamptons house for summer soirees? Man, those were the days!

 

fear-of-flying-by-erica-jongFear of Flying by Erica Jong

Isadora Wing travels with her psychoanalyst husband to a conference of psychoanalysts in Vienna and hilarious trouble ensues. If you haven’t read this one yet, you’re depriving yourself. With a narrator who is witty and candid and utterly unabashed re: sex, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is frequently alluded to as a precursor to Sex and the City. Behind the veneer of sarcasm and snides, there’s a whipsmart woman who isn’t sure what she wants from love or sex or art or work. You don’t have to be Carrie Bradshaw, or a woman, to relate to that kind of honest vulnerability. Also, this scandalous new cover art makes for a fun subway ride. After one too many questionable glances from strangers, I may or may not have made myself one of those brown paper bag book-covers kids make for textbooks in grade school. (Don’t worry; the brilliant design is displayed in all its glory on my bookshelf at home!)

 

the-lost-honor-of-katharina-blum-by-heinrich-boll

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

Heinrich Boll, the Nobel Prize-winning German author famous for flaunting his liberal views in his fiction, delivers a fun and thinly-veiled allegory about yellow journalism in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. This sharp little novel turns the thriller/police-procedural genre on its head, telling us on page three what crime has been committed, and by whom. The rest of the story is a nimble account of why the crime took place. An admirable economy of language, the ruthlessness of Boll’s wit, and a swoon-worthy use of lists (nerd alert!) have endeared this book to me forever. Also, at 103 pages, it’s a dream-read: the kind you can finish in one sitting (or two or three short subway rides).

 

The Bar on the Seine by Georges Simenon

Ever wonder what the solemn and stony-faced literary heroes of yore read for sheer, escapist pleasure? William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, T. S. Eliot, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all agreed on one author: Georges Simenon. I think that group is recommendation plenty, but since I’m meant to give you mine: This book is a treat for those who enjoy a good old-fashioned whodunit. The plot is no-frills and the writing is elegant and deadpan (you really will be able to see why Hemingway in particular appreciated Simenon). In this new-fangled age of psychological thrillers and unreliable narrators, it’s refreshing to go back and read a pared-down, unfussy classic. Plus, this is set on the banks of the Seine in summertime, and the cast of characters are fashionable artists, moneyed elite, and deplorable philanderers—fun! This is another short read (did I mention I love pithy books more than anything?) in a petite trim size. Perfect for tucking in your pocket and reading on the banks of the Hudson during your lunch break. Bonne lecture!

 

the-declaration-of-independence-and-the-united-states-constitution

 

Civic Classics, Vol. 1: The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, edited by Richard Beeman

I won’t belabor this recommendation: SCOTUS has had a productive 2015, and we should all brush up on our constitutional knowledge. Plus, this is yet another gorgeous edition from our friends at Penguin Classics.

Find more books on the Penguin Classics page!

See Staff Picks for all our categories!


Thank you to everyone who participated in Week 4 of our #Penguin80Sweepstakes in celebration of Penguin Books 80th Anniversary!

This weeks mystery location was South Street Seaport, which we selected in honor of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, one of the 80 all-time bestsellers from Penguin Books. Check out the full #Penguin80 Bestsellers list.

moby-dick-by-herman-melville 2

Moby-Dick is Herman Melville’s masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. Over a century and a half after its publication, Moby-Dick still stands as an indisputable literary classic. It is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with several of the most unforgettable and enduring characters in literature. Written with wonderfully redemptive humor, Moby-Dick is a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

Congratulations to the winner of Week 4!

 

 

Follow along on Instagram and see if you can figure out Week 4s mystery location!

To Enter:

  1. Follow @penguinusa on Instagram
  2. Decipher clues posted to the Penguin Instagram
  3. Post a photo of the mystery location on your Instagram account
  4. Geo-tag the location, use the hashtag #penguin80sweepstakes, and tag @penguinusa
  5. Repeat each week all summer long!

Can’t wait to get started? Sign-Up for our Newsletter to receive all 3 clues at once rather than waiting for them to be posted each day on Instagram!


Penguin 80th Anniversary Sweepstakes Official Rules

Enter for a chance to win: A copy of one of the following books, or the Grand Prize of all eight books, including A Discovery of WitchesThe Omnivore’s DilemmaThe Lords of FinanceDeath of a Salesman;The Rules of CivilityIn the WoodsMoby-Dick andThe Boys in the Boat(ARV = $14.00-$26.00 each or $145.00 for all). No purchase necessary. Entry is limited to U.S. or DC residents aged 18 and above and who have a public Instagram profile. Sweepstakes begins July 6, 2015 and ends at 11:59:59 PM Eastern Time on August 31, 2015. Winners will be selected at random weekly and on September 3, 2015 for the Grand Prize. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited by law. For the Full Rules click here.


When Dennis is not at work, he spends his time cooking classic recipes, making classic cocktails, listening to classical music, and studying classical languages—and reading classics, of course. (Yes, he’s involved in an array of non-classical activities as well, but we’re not interested in those right now.) He likes to read novels in which you learn things.

 

the-saga-of-gosta-berling-by-selma-lagerlofThe Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf

Right away, let me also recommend that you see the silent film of this novel, starring Greta Garbo—if you have any interest at all in the silent screen, this is a must-see. This early twentieth-century novel, for which the author won a Nobel Prize in Literature, is told in episodes yet has an overarching sweep to it as well. Set in 1820s Sweden, it follows a handsome defrocked minister of singular character as he teams up with a bunch of veterans, cavaliers, eccentrics, and raffish fellows. I can’t quite put my hand on what exactly it was that made this novel so endearing. It’s melodramatic in the best sense of the word and does a good job of capturing the human heart—both in the ways it can stay true despite everything as well as the ways it can constantly shift and change.

• You will learn about rural Sweden, the price of vengeance, what it means to follow your own path.

 

moby-dick-by-herman-melvilleMoby-Dick by Herman Melville

Yes, we know, you read it in high school. But let’s be honest: You didn’t understand anything about anything back then, and if I were a betting man I’d wager that you didn’t really take this book in properly. Moby-Dick has everything: philosophy, adventure, existential dread, beautiful writing, sailors, the age-old thrill of the hunt, humor, cetacean taxonomy, obsession, the mystic bonds of friendship, peg-legs, and so much more. Just do yourself a favor and read it—and when you do, be sure to savor every line.

• You will learn about whales, human nature, existence itself.

 

 

the-red-and-the-black-by-stendhalThe Red and the Black by Stendhal

Ah, Julien Sorel—he’s one of those characters that you can’t decide if you love or hate. Despite his scheming and self-interest, there’s something about Julien that somehow pulls you in as he works his way up the rungs of post-Napoleonic Parisian society. To my eye, he is such a strange mixture of earnestness, even naïveté, and power-playing hypocrisy, someone who (thinks he) knows his own mind and stands apart from the crowd yet who is all too aware of the importance of what others think of him. Most charmingly he has the honesty to be shocked at the changes that happen within himself even as he boldly moves ahead on a new path. And one last thing: Stendhal is a master of tempo and pacing, so give yourself the pleasure of reading The Red and the Black.

• You will learn about France after Napoleon, French society in general, the mysteries of character and the human heart.

 

strange-tales-from-a-chinese-studio-by-pu-songlingStrange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling

This collection of Chinese short tales is one of the great collections of fantastic literature in the world, bar none. Written in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and filled with fox-spirits, ghosts, otherworldly bureaucratic offices, metamorphosing family members, magical animals, erotic peccadilloes, haunted temples, enchanted musical instruments, and more, the stories ranges from the supernatural through various gradations of “the extraordinary.” Witty, funny, chilling, enlightening, bawdy, moralizing—this collection covers a lot of ground, but the effect is absolutely one of being charmed and entertained.

• You will learn about China in the early Qing dynasty, the effects of karma, and the many nuances of the human psyche.

 

 

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Christine DonougherLes Misérables is a novel whose themes have a universal and very topical resonance, but they are themes that emerge from a narrative that is very specifically related to a particular time and place –post Revolutionary France. My translation attempts to preserve that specificity of time and place, so I was anxious not to contaminate the text, as it were, with a vocabulary or with expressions freighted with connotations from a later era or a radically different environment that would sound inappropriate or jarring.

I was also anxious not to adopt a style that was unduly mannered or artificial, not to create any sense of the ‘costume drama’. I wanted the text to read as if it was written in a living language, but not in an aggressively twenty-first-century idiom.

My approach was to view Les Misérables not from the perspective of the present, as a nineteenth-century classic, but rather to see it as the modern phenomenon that it once was, reflecting, as it did when it was published in 1862, a modern view of recent history, written by an author who was regarded–in literary terms, in his political views, in his own private life–as something of an iconoclast, a radical, a rule-breaker, a trail-blazer, but who also respected more conservative views and values, and who had contrived by the end of his life to become an establishment figure par excellence.

Hugo had a seemingly effortless mastery of French versification and had published a huge body of poetic work by the time that he was revising and completing Les Misérables in the early 1860s. He was steeped in the classics, and he knew his La Fontaine inside out. He lived in a world of political upheaval, of scientific inquiry and technological innovation, and his writing reflects all these elements.

To bring out these aspects of his writing I relied not only on translation but also on footnotes to illuminate textual features of a linguistic nature–puns, quotations in foreign languages, literary allusions etc–and endnotes to explain factual and historical references, and my hope is that this editorial apparatus is not intrusive but supportive. (While I was working on the translation I became aware of the internet community of fans of Les Misérables whose detailed knowledge of Hugo’s text and their readiness to exchange information about it are remarkable.)

I was intrigued, for instance, by Marius’s tribute to Monsieur Maboeuf, to whom he is indebted for telling him about his father: “He removed my cataracts.” The more clichéd expression would be, “He opened my eyes,” but in 1752 the French surgeon Jacques Deviel published an account of his revolutionary procedure of cataract removal, which laid the foundations for the method used right up until modern times.

I was also struck by how Les Misérables seems to have anticipated so many of the now familiar elements of later novels, thrillers and films, from the literary–there are strong echoes of Jean Valjean’s dream in the South American writer Juan Rulfo’s ghost town in his short novel Pedro Paramo, which Garcia Marquez and Borges revered as a masterpiece–to the mass market bestseller–the long, so-called digressions being not very far removed from the detailed background research incorporated into the modern techno-thriller. The chase through the sewers is memorably reprised in Carol Reed’s film noir The Third Man, based on Graham Greene’s screenplay, and the Champmathieu Affair is a forerunner of many later court room dramas.

les-miserables-by-victor-hugoSo, bearing all these considerations in mind, this translation aims to convey as directly and as unobtrusively as possibly the enduring and timeless appeal of Hugo’s great novel.

 Start Reading an Excerpt


Andrea-Lam-Penguin-Classics-Staff-Picks

 

 

Andrea Lam is a Publicity Assistant at Viking / Penguin Books / Penguin Classics, where she is the in-house champion for tall ships, world mythology and folklore, and Anne Brontë.

 

 

 

 

north-and-south-by-elizabeth-gaskellNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is one of my favorite Victorian novelists, and North and South is easily my favorite of her novels. Gaskell wrote candidly and compassionately about class differences in British society, particularly as they applied to the heavily industrial North of England. In North and South, Southern Margaret Hale is forced with her family to move up to Milton-Northern (modelled after Manchester), where she comes into repeated conflict with mill owner and native Northerner John Thornton. As Milton-Northern’s mill workers increasingly agitate for rights, Margaret and John must come to an understanding both personally and politically, but their path is far from smooth. A bonus: the 2004 BBC series based on the novel is a wonderful adaptation, and I recommend both to just about anyone who will stand still long enough to listen.

 

spunyarn-by-john-masefield

Spunyarn by John Masefield

I usually credit my deep love for tall ships and the Age of Sail to having read the entire 20-book Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian when I was twelve years old, but I’m sure that I encountered John Masefield’s poetry some time before then. Though I know intellectually that I’d not survive the physical toil of daily life on a merchant mariner or naval warship, Masefield’s ‘Sea-Fever’ makes me long for the far-ranging view from the bow of a ship running free, and moves me like few other poems do each time I read it.

 

 

 

the-turnip-princess-and-other-newly-discovered-fairy-tales-by-franz-xaver-von-schonwerthThe Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth and translated by Maria Tatar

I’ve been passionate about world mythology and folklore since I was very young, and when I read the news in 2012 that a cache of previously unseen German fairy tales had been discovered, I jumped to follow the story. Imagine my surprise two years later when, shortly after I started working for Penguin, I learned that not only was Penguin Classics publishing a selection of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s tales, the tales were to be translated by the inimitable Maria Tatar! I’ve long admired Tatar’s scholarship, and I’m so pleased that her translation of Schönwerth’s tales are now available to the reading public and fellow fairy tale enthusiasts like myself.

 

passing-by-nella-larsenPassing by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen’s short novel Passing is a poignant, painful exploration of race and racism in the Harlem Renaissance that deals with issues of racial identity formation, cultural assimilation, and self-presentation. Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry’s respective struggles with life as mixed-race women in a racist, male-dominated society still ring true today. Larsen’s other novel Quicksand, published a year before Passing, deals with related issues and is also well worth reading.

 

 

 

the-tenant-of-wildfell-hall-by-anne-bronteThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Jane and Emily are both well and good, but Anne is my favorite of the Brontë sisters and—I feel—the most under appreciated. Anne published only two novels, the other being Agnes Grey, and in both her straightforward depiction of casual male chauvinism stands in contrast to that of her sisters’ in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. For readers accustomed to the exploits of Edward Rochester and Heathcliff, Tenant’s Arthur Huntingdon may come as a shock. Given that popular culture through history has a deleterious tendency to gloss over abusive behavior, I appreciate Anne Brontë’s refusal to do the same.

 

 

the-penguin-book-of-witches-by-katherine-howe

The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe

If you thought you know about witches, think again. The Penguin Book of Witches is a well-selected collection of historical accounts (all primary-source documents) of accused witches and witch-hunters in North America and England that ably demonstrates that the history of witches is the history of legalized persecution of marginalized groups. Katherine Howe’s explanatory essays and notes are both intelligent and accessible, and help to contextualize the varying time periods in which the documents were written. Witches are a popular trope in fiction for good reason, and The Penguin Book of Witches is a great look at the history behind the fiction.

 

Find more books on the Penguin Classics page!

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Ryan Murphy noodles

When Ryan Murphy lived in California a barber told him he seemed like a New Yorker. So he moved there. If he’s not at Penguin or flogging literature at Three Lives & Company, he’s probably tucking away noodles in Flushing, samosas in Jackson Heights or banh mi in Elmhurst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

myantonia

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Is there a more beautiful writer in the English language than Willa Cather? Years after I first read My Antonia the storyline has become a jumble in my head, but Cather’s peerless vision of the American prairie remains. Pick any random page and you’ll find a gorgeous metaphor or crystalline phrase. Page 201 from the Drop Caps edition: “We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper…The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.” There is a subtle mastery to Cather’s words, a clear-eyed sense of rhythm and place that coalesces into a portrait of America that few writers of any era have matched.

 

flatlandFlatland, by Edwin A. Abbott

On the opposite side of the literary spectrum from My Antonia we have Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s spare satire of Victorian society. The story is told by a Square (a member of the privileged, all-male Polygon class), who describes his two-dimensional world and the hierarchies that spring from such inborn characteristics as the number of sides one possesses. Women are Lines, one-dimensional mathematical constructs without depth or importance and mainly notable for the danger they pose as sharp objects. Shapes with irregularities are either shunted into the working classes or, when an aberration is uncorrectable, euthanized. As Abbott said in a later preface, the narrator Square has identified closely with historians “in whose pages (until very recent times) the destinies of Women and of the masses of mankind have seldom been deemed worthy of mention and never of careful consideration.”

 

typee

Typee, by Herman Melville

Long before James Frey and David Sedaris, Herman Melville set a standard for pseudo-memoir with his rollicking South Pacific adventure tale. Expanded, exaggerated and embellished, Typee nonetheless is based on Melville’s real experiences as a captive on Nuku Hiva. Though simpler and far less philosophical than the later Moby-Dick, Typee shows clear strains of Melville’s genius for inquiry and narration, and even a few flashes of humanistic insight beyond the Noble Savage stereotypes. The book (and his next one, Omoo) is an exotic and exciting travelogue that clearly caught the attention of the American public—unlike the epic story of the White Whale, which sank like Ahab in the marketplace, Typee was snapped up by readers eager to read tales of a world entirely inaccessible to them.

logfromthesa

The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s books could almost fill my best-of list all by themselves, but for the purposes of this post I’m limiting my Steinbeck picks to one. The Log from the Sea of Cortez tells the story of the author and his friend, biologist Ed Ricketts (who might be familiar to fans of Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and several other works), traveling down Baja and into the Gulf of California on a scientific expedition. The book is as funny and thoughtful as Steinbeck’s acclaimed fiction, and his descriptions of life on the Gulf are as sumptuous as those of the Salinas Valley in East of Eden. Just as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay shaped my perception of New York City prior to living here, Steinbeck’s West Coast stories gave me a minds-eye view of the opposite side of the continent before I moved there myself.

songlinesThe Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

If I had my own country and wanted one person to write a book about it, I’d pick Bruce Chatwin. Sure, like Typee, some of the events and dialogue in The Songlines are invented. Yes, Chatwin was just as interested in self-mythologizing as in chronicling the places he visited. But I defy anyone with either an iota of artistic feeling or a restless soul to read Chatwin’s story of Aborigine Australia and not put it down exhilarated by the effortless prose and stunned by the complexity of the cultures he visits. Any attempt to chart the physical and spiritual landscape of Aborigine religion would be doomed to failure in lesser hands, but Chatwin’s words flow and entwine like the very Songlines trod by their master-creators during the Dreaming.

 

 

The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr

(Okay, it’s not technically a classic yet, but it’s close enough—Penguin Classics will release a Graphic Deluxe edition of The Liars’ Club in late 2015.) Notable not just for the quality of the work itself but also for its influence on countless memoirs in the following decades, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club is the story of a cracked childhood told with wit (but not snark) and feeling (but not schmaltz). Like most worthwhile memoirs, Karr’s life is both a pleasure and a pain to read, with cringe-worthy moments of youthful indiscretion, parental failures on a Child Protective Services scale, and moments of gritty, hard-won redemption.

 

Find more books on the Penguin Classics page!

See Staff Picks for all our categories! 


patricknolan

I’m Patrick Nolan, Vice President, Editor in Chief and Associate Publisher of Penguin Books and I never go on vacation without a few Penguin Classics in my suitcase.

 

 

 

 

 

poetics

The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard

Be warned: this is the kind of book you can’t help but to sit around all day underlining every phrase (when you’re not staring off into… well, space). A book that speaks to those who love interior design and architecture like me, Gaston Bachelard’s musings on the spaces where we spend our lives and the worlds we create within them is rare among even the greatest thinkers: a work at once full of moments of dense philosophy as well as stunning insight into daily life.  This beautiful edition includes a foreword by Mark Z. Danielewski, who drew inspiration from Bachelard for his mind-and-page bending House of Leaves, and let’s just say he’s included some of his signature surprises – Penguin Classics forewords will never be the same.

 

tales

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons

The stories in this medieval Arab fantasy collection have had quite a trip before they made it to your bookshelf! Some date back over a millennium ago, and they have all spent centuries closed within a ragged old manuscript in a library in Istanbul. Now these tales of sword wielding, princes and princesses, monsters and prized jewels are finally available in English, in a beautiful translation by Malcolm C. Lyons, and gorgeous foil-stamped package.

 

 

 

decameron

Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

Fans of Edgar Allan Poe should drop everything and read this 14th century classic, the major influence for The Masque of the Red Death. Seven women and three men huddle in an abandoned villa outside Florence, hiding in fear of the Black Death. As the few survivors spin tales to pass the time, readers are introduced to the world of 14th century Italy and the endless imagination of master craftsman Boccaccio. Is it a precursor to post-apocalyptic fiction? Who cares – it’s great!

 

 

 

essays

The Essays, by Michel de Montaigne

One way of defining a classic is when someone writing centuries ago can so perfectly express exactly what I need to hear right now, today. For me, there’s no better example than the work of Michel de Montaigne, the French statesmen and writer who popularized the essay as a literary genre and influenced generations of thinkers to come, from Nietzsche to Hitchens. For almost five centuries readers have been turning to Montaigne for his thoughts on love, friendship, work, and just about anything else life has to throw at you.

 

 

 

autobiography

Autobiography, by Morrissey

What can I say about Morrissey he hasn’t said about himself? After decades of pouring his literature-loving genius into songwriting, we now have the story of Manchester’s Muse on the page, written in his own flowery prose. Take a trip back to a young Steven Morrissey’s childhood on the streets of 1960s working class England, and follow him in his own footsteps on his rise to becoming music’s pop darling. No pompadour required.

 

 

 

 

Find more books on the Penguin Classics page!

See Staff Picks for all our categories! 


emilyhartley

Emily Hartley still can’t believe she works at Penguin and moonlights at the best little bookshop in New York City. Thanks to these two gigs, her life mostly consists of books, food, and books, supplemented by other “activities” like volleyball, running, baking, and city exploration. She likes to think she is large and contains multitudes. Though recently deemed “an honorary New Yorker” by someone whose opinion matters a lot to her, she is still a Midwesterner at heart.

 

 

christmas

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

You’ve probably seen the movie, maybe even the play, but have you read the story? I hadn’t since middle school, and then a few Christmases ago, I decided to re-read it, aloud, with a few friends. And thus a new tradition was born. Beyond the story’s heartwarming ending and perfect holiday-season message, Dickens’ wit and ability to turn a sentence is absolutely unmatched. I’d suggest grabbing some hot cocoa,  a warm blanket, and a copy of Penguin’s festive new Christmas Classics edition and starting your own tradition this year.

 

 

 

emerson

The Portable Emerson, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are lots of quotes to live your life by, but for some reason, this one from Emerson’s “The American Scholar” has stuck with me: “Time shall teach him, that the scholar loses no hour which the man lives.” This is what I love about Emerson—the idea that knowledge and experience go hand in hand, that interacting with the world is one of the best ways to learn. For me, it means never turning down a chance to try something new and looking for positive points to take away from every situation. I’ve applied Emerson to deal with everything from my high school basketball team to teaching English abroad. Basically, THE PORTABLE EMERSON is the only self-help book I’ll admit to reading, with writing that’s just as inspirational as its message.

 

oncetherewasawar

Once There Was a War, by John Steinbeck

Few people think of John Steinbeck as a war correspondent, due mostly to the fact that Once There Was a War—his collected WWII dispatches—wasn’t published until 15 years after he wrote the stories. Had this not been the case, I’m convinced you couldn’t mention Ernie Pyle’s work without bringing up Steinbeck’s, as well. The accounts in Once There Was a War are wonderfully diverse, from eerie, layered descriptions of  landing on the English shore to tongue-and-cheek stories about drunken war correspondents and soldiers’ superstitions. Together, they capture the unreality of war, the inability to describe anything but one’s own experience, and the uncertainty of calling anything the “truth.” I can say it no better than Steinbeck does in his beautifully reflective Introduction to the collection, written in 1958:

“For what they are worth, or for what they may recapture, here they are, period pieces, fairy tales, half-meaningless memories of a time and of attitudes which have gone forever from the world, a sad and jocular recording of a little part of a war I saw and do not believe, unreal with trumped-up pageantry.”

letters

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

I read this book twice in one evening, and still I don’t know how Rainer Maria Rilke manages to say so much about life, love, and creativity in such a brief set of writings. Rilke’s prose is every bit as lovely as his poetry, sweeping you up in its perfect pacing and making you wonder if, in the age of emails and text messages, there will ever be another set of letters written so beautifully. I was astonished by Rilke’s progressive stance on sexuality, and by the time I was done reading, I felt like one big mass of humanity, neither man nor woman, just human, full of a Whitman-esque appreciation for the interconnectedness of the world. That’s not bad for a couple of hours’ reading.

 

 

middlemarch

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Honestly, MIDDLEMARCH has it all: politics, love, deception, redemption. I love the way the novel weaves between its comedy-of-manners romance and England’s political and social climate. It somehow feels expansive and intelligent, cozy and indulgent, all at the same time. The characters that fill this world are so complex. They are flawed, morally unsteady, and quite unreliable; or, to look at it another way, they are us, and that’s what makes them so relatable. No other book has drawn me in to Victorian England quite like this one. Here’s a proposition: you tell me you don’t like Victorian literature, and I’ll give you MIDDLEMARCH. Case closed.

 

 

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daniel

Daniel Ridge is the Director of Advertising and Promotion for the Academic and Library Marketing department. He can be spotted at the hippest playgrounds throughout Williamsburg.

 

 

 

 

 

power

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

There are few writers whose books I enjoy starting quite as much as Graham Greene. His writing is crisp, cinematic, and hooks one from the outset. His output was fairly staggering and covered quite a range, but The Power and the Glory is generally considered his masterpiece, and rightly so. A whisky priest, a fanatical police lieutenant, a fanged mestizo, a setting worthy of Orson Welles, and a narrative that never sags—with an insightful introduction by John Updike to boot. Sign me up.

 

 

 

fairy

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman

This collection of Pullman’s beautifully rendered retellings of the Grimms’ classic tales is truly wonderful—full of wonders—and has become a bedtime-story standby in my household. Reader beware: even tales with innocent titles such as The Goose-Girl can lead to some awkward questions from 4-year-olds about how a decapitated horse’s head could talk and whether being rolled to death in a nail-studded barrel is really a fitting punishment for any crime.

 

 

 

crime

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

And speaking of crime and punishment, Dostoyevsky’s novel of that name is one of my all-time favorites. Yes, it’s chock-full of big questions about justice, morality, and human nature, but what sticks with me is the vivid depiction of a sweltering, fetid, feverish Saint Petersburg in the days leading up to Raskolnikov’s foul deed. Anyone who has lived through an August heat-wave in New York City with no A/C, a job that doesn’t pay the bills, and a neighbor who blasts Seal’s 1991 hit “Crazy” every morning at 6:30 a.m. will know why Raskolnikov started thinking about that axe.

 

 

new york stories

The New York Stories, by John O’Hara

As a New Yorker, reading stories from the city’s past is much like thumbing through childhood pictures of your lover (who may be losing interest in you). Reading John O’Hara’s The New York Stories is like finding out that all those birthdays, baths, and Christmas mornings were shot by Annie Leibovitz. Great characters and razor-sharp dialogue set amid streets and buildings that time has certainly changed, but still spark a flutter of recognition. And I love the cover.

 

 

 

metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka

Kafka is great. If this is news to you, read this book immediately. If you already know this, then you know these stories are well worth reading again. I still think of “The Penal Colony” every time I hear the word harrowing.

 

 

 

 

 

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walker

Alan Walker is the Director of Academic and Library Marketing and Sales for Penguin. He can also be found on occasion reading Penguin Classics in alphabetical order for his Penguin Classics Marathon.

 

 

 

ofhuman

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham 

W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece is my favorite novel, and I recommend it to everyone. It follows the life of Philip Carey at the beginning of the twentieth century. Born with a club foot and orphaned at a young age, Philip grows up with his dreary aunt and uncle, is packed off to boarding school in Germany, attempts to become an artist in Paris, and then returns to England to try his luck at medicine and various other careers. During that time he falls for Mildred, a waitress beneath his station, in what turns into a mutually destructive relationship (to say the least!). Maugham’s novel stands the test of time and is unique in how it makes us realize how much alike we are to those who came before us, in our hopes, ambitions, passions and most especially our deepest flaws. Three film adaptations have never come close to doing the novel justice, never capturing the heart and humor of the book. It would make a great HBO or BBC mini-series if done properly! (Michael Fassbender as Philip maybe?)

ageofinnocence

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s novel of the 1870s New York aristocracy is right up there as my all-time favorite read. Newland Archer’s tortured affair with the scandalized divorcee Countess Olenska set against the rigid morals of upper class society is the stuff of literary magic. How Wharton gets so deep into the very soul of Newland’s mind and heart is uncanny. If you’ve ever lived a lie for even a moment Newland is your man! The famous scene when our hero (or anti-hero?) sees Ellen (the Countess) from afar, and decides to go to her if she turns to him is one of the most heartbreaking scenes you’ll ever find in a book.

 

 

ethan

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s novels were mostly about high society New Yorkers, like The Age of Innocence, but she also wrote two books about the rural poor. The better known of these is Ethan Frome which takes place in a corner of Western Massachusetts and is one of literature’s great love stories. I read this when I was a teenager and plan to go back to it at some point to see how it reads a few years (OK, decades) later.  I admit a personal connection to this book as I too spent early years with friends and siblings sledding down the same steep Berkshire hills as Mattie and Ethan did in their fictional town of Starkfield. Luckily for me though, we did a better job of avoiding the trees.

 

 

a hero

A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov

Ah, the Russians. I think I could list any number of great Russian novels below in my top five black spine recommendations, but for the sake of brevity I have chosen one, which may not be as familiar as some from the long list of great 19th and 20th Century works, from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Zamyatin, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Gogol, Pushkin, etc. That book is Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time starring the dark and moody Pechorin who delights in the misery and downfall of those around him. Pechorin is one of my favorite characters in all of literature, and towards the end of the short novel there is a hilarious dual scene that is worth the price of admission! For anyone interested there is a 1992 French film entitled Un Coeur in Hiver (A Heart in Winter) which is a loosely based modern adaptation of the novel starring Daniel Auteuil.

 

a room

A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster

Speaking of great film adaptations, my last recommendation is E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View.  It’s hard to read this book without picturing all the actors from the great 1985 Merchant/Ivory production reading their lines as you stroll through this very amusing novel, and that is mostly due to E.M. Forster’s brilliant dialogue which was taken practically verbatim from the book for the movie. To quote from my own Classics Marathon Read (link above) I guess I am a sucker for a novel about repressed upper class Brits at the turn of the 20th Century, especially when juxtaposed against the raw passion and beauty of Italy. If you are like me, whether you’ve seen the movie a hundred times or not, Forster’s novel will make you want to ask the great questions and maybe on a future trip to Florence plan a day trip to a nearby Fiesole hillside!

 

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See Staff Picks for all our categories!