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31st March 2022

Judging a book by its cover: Penguin clothbound classics

Are Penguin clothbound classics perpetuating a boring white canon?
Judging a book by its cover: Penguin clothbound classics
Photo: Aileen Loftus @ The Mancunion

Penguin’s Clothbound Classics are a much-loved collection of classic titles. The first editions were released in 2008, and there are currently a total of 93 novels in the series. Each year, a continuous stream of titles is issued, with the most recent being Ulysses by James Joyce and On the Road by Jack Kerouac, both of which will be released in 2022.

The covers are all designed by in-house designer at Penguin, Coralie Bickford-Smith. Bickford-Smith, who studied Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University, is also the author and illustrator of the children’s books The Fox & the Star, The Worm & the Bird, and The Song of the Tree.

The book covers are composed of colourful, tactile fabric with foil imprinted into the design, and they never have more than two colours on them. The books aim to evoke a rich heritage of bookbinding, looking back to the world of Victorian bindings, with what Bickford-Smith describes as a longevity appropriate to the contents. 

Each book highlights one moment or theme that is pivotal in the book, but something that is sometimes overlooked, meaning it can also create a bit of a riddle to figure out the significance of the image. For example, Little Women features a pair of scissors, making reference to the moment in which Jo cuts her hair, and Mansfield Park features a chain, or if you look closely, two chains, alluding to the gifts from her competing love interests.

The gorgeous covers mean that the clothbound classics are experiencing a wave of popularity on Instagram (‘Bookstagram’) and TikTok (‘BookTok’), with people sharing ‘shelfies’ featuring their collections of clothbound classics, often in colour order. 

The books are designed to be collectible, and hence serve as a mechanism for Penguin to sell more books, perhaps even resell the same book to the same customer, just with different packaging. At £20 a pop, it isn’t a bad business strategy. 

The series can be continued for a long time, as more and more classics are added to the collection. This raises the question of which books should be selected to become clothbound ‘classics’. Is the series perpetuating a traditional classical canon and republishing the same, often white, authors? Names like Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe are repeated again and again in clothbound editions.

The popularity of the series ensures high readership of the chosen works, and so could provide an opportunity to highlight less well-known works from interesting, sidelined authors. At the very least transparency about the selection process would help readers consider why each author was chosen, and an opportunity for reader input about which titles they would like to see bound seems like an obvious step forward for Penguin. 

I love the appearance of the Penguin clothbound classics as much as the next person, but applying a critical eye to book covers (and the publishing industry) is just as important as critical reading.

Aileen Loftus

Aileen Loftus

Books Editor

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