Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The glorious Everyman's Library marked its centenary this week with a glittering soirée at the Royal Academy. Much as I appreciate the gesture, and salute its century of classic books in classic designs, I can't avoid the feeling that an evening of pies and pints - or maybe balti and lassi - at some Mechanics' Institute in the shadow of the Pennines would have honoured their tradition just as nobly. Perennially stylish and sturdy, the Everyman hardbacks created by the bookbinder-turned-publisher Joseph Dent in February 1906 - and reinvented by David Campbell in 1991 - had roots in a radical culture of self-improvement.

The 10th child of a Darlington house-painter, Dent believed that for a total expenditure of £5 - 100 of his Everyman titles at a shilling each - "a man may be intellectually rich for life". The scholar-artisans who helped to make his elegant volumes a fixture in modest Edwardian homes took their inspiration from Morris and Ruskin, and had political as well as cultural aspirations. After all, February 1906 was also the month when a newly elected group of 29 Labour-movement MPs formed a parliamentary party of their own.

A century on, the party has changed more than the books. Everyman's nattily uniformed army of enduring works may now find a place for Isabel Allende or Toni Morrison, but its mission stays happily unmodernised. The volume that marks the centenary is a fine edition of John Evelyn's Diary (£14.99). Its presentation of the chronicler of 17th-century politics and people, and arts and sciences, boasts all Everyman's authority - and, it has to be said, a little of its austerity too. This is classics publishing at its most august: open to anyone with the price of a CD or DVD, but still standing proudly atop a flight of marble steps.

In contrast, Penguin Classics has just taken exactly the opposite route. Its new imprint of "Red Classics" launches with an inaugural list of mind-bending eclecticism: from Achebe's Things Fall Apart to Nabokov's Lolita; from Alice in Wonderland to Tartt's The Secret History. The decision to sprinkle some blockbusters among the canonical texts hints at the editorial strategy. These classics want both to hide and to show their pedigree. They come in bright, informal covers; and, in place of essays by academic taskmasters, the jackets gush with chatty plaudits from trendy writers. If the Everymans seem to emerge from a grand municipal library, Penguin's Reds aim for the brasher ambience of a Virgin Megastore.

Yet the choice of launch titles gives the lie to any fears of "dumbing-down". Not only does the opening batch of 30 include 10 translations; six (or 20 per cent of the total) come from German-language writers. Anthea Bell, for instance, supplies a riveting new version of Stefan Zweig's novella about a Nazi-defying master of the boards, Chess; and Michael Hofmann powerfully re-translates Kafka's Metamorphosis, with poor Gregor Samsa now waking up as a "monstrous cockroach". And, thanks to Red Classics, I have finally read Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs and no longer need rely on Lou Reed and Velvet Underground for my knowledge of this pioneering tale of transgressive desire.

Remarkably enough, the excruciating passion of submissive Severin for the fur-draped, crop-wielding Wanda turns out to be a feminist fable. Woman, concludes Severin at the close of his blissful punishments, "as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot... She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work."

It's quite amazing the discoveries that a little self-improving effort put into reading the classics will always bring. "No pain, no gain", as the whip-cracking Wanda would certainly say.