84 km worth of books, anyone?
Fancy a little light reading? Planning on spending the summer months catching up with a few of the classics?
Well, if by "light" you mean about 318 kilograms in page weight, and by "a few" you mean 1,082 titles — give or take a couple of duplicate versions — then Amazon.com has got just the deal for you.
Laid down page by page and end to end, the Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection would stretch about 84 kilometres, or about the same distance as a morning commute to downtown Toronto from Kitchener.
And it can all be yours — all half a million pages of it — for the low price of $7,989.99 (all figures U.S.).
According to Amazon.com, the exclusive seller of the collection, the list price for the whole thing is $13,314.74. The online seller proudly states: "You save: $5,324.75."
Not too bad, but don't start frantically clicking just yet. After all, while this set is billed as a "Complete Collection" the most important word in the title is "Penguin" — as in, only Penguin titles are included.
However, most are true classics: The Iliad, Aesop's Fables, 47 works by Shakespeare and 10 titles by Honoré de Balzac to name but a few. They've been available for decades in the public domain. That is the reason just about every classic one could wish for is on the Penguin list.
As for the more modern classics, well, some are included — namely, those titles for which Penguin continues to hold the copyrights.
"Copyright law is what it is," said Tim McCall, associate director of online sales and marketing for Penguin Classics, when asked about omissions from the collection.
"We have a lot of authors in the collection who aren't available anywhere else because they've been published by Penguin for their entire careers."
That list includes such luminaries as John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac. But don't go looking for works by Jules Verne, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut or Ernest Hemingway, as well as many fathers of science fiction.
"The titles are in flux. That's been one of the reasons this has been hard to do. But what we decided was that we would pick this point in time and say, `This is
the complete list of Penguin Classics'"
Tim McCall, Penguin executive
These are authors "who have always been published by other (publishing houses) and they are not in public domain yet, so we can't have them," McCall says.
"For Hemingway and the like, no way ... there is just no way (the author's publisher) would ever make that deal."
But the Penguin collection does give you 1,082 solid reads, each of them transporting you to a different time, a different world.
Well, it's not quite 1,082 unique titles, either. There are a bunch of duplicates. Purchasing the set will net you four different translations of Homer's Iliad, three versions of Virgil's Aeneid, three translations of Beowulf, and the same for a few others.
"The titles are in flux," says McCall of the current collection. "That's been one of the reasons this has been hard to do. But what we decided was that we would pick this point in time and say, `This is the complete list of Penguin Classics.'"
He adds, a moment later, that the list will undoubtedly be updated for next year with new titles added and some subtracted.
But still, duplicates or not, the books are certain to look nice, uniform and identical, lined up in your bookcase, won't they?
Well, 90 per cent of them will, at least. The others will have different front and back cover designs from their brethren.
"We have repackaged about 90 per cent of the classics at this point," McCall says. "And we considered keeping the other 10 per cent out. But at that point, we wouldn't be really selling people a complete collection, and it was important to both us and Amazon that we give people as complete a collection as possible."
The variant book covers are "a minor question if you're talking about content," he adds. "But for someone who is buying them to put in their bookcases along the wall, that's going to matter."
Probably. Especially when you remember that, if one didn't care about a nice, neat, uniform collection, most of the titles in Penguin's library can be found and downloaded for free on public domain websites like http://www.gutenberg.org
But for the time being, the collection, which went on sale June 15, and has already had sales, is aimed primarily at libraries and institutions. Only the most unquenchable bibliophile is likely to be interested in dropping $8,000 on paperback texts of public domain works and other classics that can often be found at garage sales on any given weekend for about $1 each.
So maybe it's not the best deal on Earth, but it would surely make a unique gift (sadly, Amazon has disabled its gift-wrapping option on this purchase). It beats hunting through the World's Biggest Bookstore every week, you'll impress your English lit major friends, and hey, at least the shipping is free.