Books & Print

Clothbound Classics: New Aesthetics and Old Assumptions

Image credit: Penguin UK

By Amy Farmer

2008 marked the official release of Penguin UK’s clothbound classics – a collection of 10 classic literary works, each wrapped in its own delicate, linen case, specially designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. 14 years later, the project’s popularity has grown exponentially, as too has its contents. Now comprising around 90 world-renowned titles, the series is revered as the perfect addition to any literary lover’s bookshelf. 

But what of those who don’t read classics? Or rather, more precisely, those who have tried, failed, and thus live day to day hiding their book covers on trains and in cafes, fearing that with each passerby someone will discover their failure to literary culture. Could these clothbound classics be their second chance? Can this aesthetic transformation conquer the past defeats of society’s most unrefined readers? 

Yes and no. The craftsmanship alone provides enough incentive for many to give the classics one more try. At most, they could transform prior opinion, and prove a surprisingly captivating read. At the least, they make a beautiful new ornament, and somewhere between, they are a box on one of many ‘lists of books you simply have to read before you die’ that can finally be ticked off.

But surely that can’t be all? Even if the classics aren’t adored, they have to inspire some degree of awe. After all, they are classics for a reason, so everyone should appreciate them at least a little.  

Again, yes and no. It’s true that not just any work becomes a classic. There are, of course, reasons – like the ability to meet “some common high standards for quality, appeal, longevity, and influence”. What there isn’t, is some strict rule that a classic’s public reception be immaculate. Though it is certainly understandable that with such high praise, disliking them can feel positively scandalous, and of course, entirely your own fault. 

Luckily, this shameful secret is not actually as rare as you may think. The internet is crawling with confessions like Classics Put Me Off and I Don’t Know What to Do About It, and it’s easier than ever to find self-help guides like Goodread’s conveniently named list of Classic Literature for Those Who Don’t Like Classics. Of course, there’s no guarantee that either will solve your problem. Is it possible that some people just aren’t meant to be part of society’s elite, literary circle?

Yes. Whilst you can certainly force yourself to read every classic cover to beautiful cover, you can’t force yourself to enjoy the process. It may seem tempting to trade countless hours of your life to impress on family game night but, shockingly, knowing that Stalin is the pig isn’t actually all that important. This is not to say that you will inevitably hate anything and everything with that all important, prestigious label. It’s merely a reminder to not feel so guilty next time you do. Readers who don’t like Classic literature are no more broken than those who adore them are superior.

That being said, those clothbounds certainly are pretty.