Cheap, small, and perfectly formed cheap A short, sharp shock for writers

Authors may be angry, but the success of Penguin 60s books should be an inspiration to everyone

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As soon as Marcus Aurelius made his way on to the bestseller list, three hot weeks ago, an American publishing friend of mine saw the problem looming. "Surely authors are going to get angry if stuff like that is included in the list?" And I'm sure it is true. Yesterday the Sunday Times showed that the entire General Paperback bestseller list, and all but three of the Fiction Paperbacks, were Penguin 60s, the tiny series which Penguin is selling at 60p a copy, 60 titles, to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

These slim volumes of roughly 60 pages each have obliterated the rest of the visible market. The only authors who can hold their own against them are Patricia D Cornwell with The Body Farm, Maeve Binchy with The Glass Lake and Stephen King with Insomnia.

I think it would be fair to say that nothing like this has ever happened in publishing. The other day, Miles Kington was discussing on this page the ephemera that people collect which later becomes incredibly valuable, and it occurs to me that one really ought to buy a complete set of Penguin 60s, because they will prove ephemeral (I mean, they will fall to bits or be thrown away), although the idea they represent will not (it will be imitated). But if you are going to buy a complete set, you have to do so quickly, since it obviously has to be a complete set of first editions.

Well, I've bought about 30 of the titles so far, and read quite a lot of them, too, and look forward to re-reading Camus - one of the most popular - and many others. But am I really going to go out and buy James Herriot? Am I - innocent so far - going to fall under the spell of Kahlil Gibran? And, now I look closer at it, I see that my copy of Martin Amis's God's Dice is in fact a second edition. So it is already probably too late to get a full set. One would be reduced to begging for swaps.

The innovation these books represent is not one of format - Penguin has another series, called Syrens, selling at pounds 2.99, quite similar in dimensions - but price. The books are "samplers", the publishing equivalent of those CDs which give you, say, a compilation of tracks from the Hyperion label at a knock-down price. One can buy, for instance, the Camille Paglia volume, simply in order to see whether its author is as crazy as she comes across in interviews. It's not such an expensive way of satisfying one's curiosity.

Assuming, though, that the other publishing houses respond to Penguin's success, and suddenly there are loads of, for instance, tempting little Picadors on the counter and all over the shop, and assuming that there is nothing magic about the number 60, and that Penguin could go on adding to its list for a long time yet - then a new tier will have been added to British publishing. The bestseller lists will either have to accept that there is this new category of book, or they will settle down to being lists of samplers.

Well, I don't care about these lists. What I do very much like is this kind of publishing, this format of book which can be slipped into the shirt pocket and read over a solitary lunch, or in a queue, or dangling on the end of a rope waiting to be rescued from the Old Man of Hoy. It's a Continental tradition that I have always found enviable. Studying in Italy, I used to love buying the little grey classics in the BUR series, and Germany has a marvellous range of its literature available at low cost in reliable editions in the yellow Reclam editions. Both of these series were aimed at the requirements of students.

But there was another kind of small paperback series - on which Penguin based its Syrens - which was aimed at a certain kind of bibliophile, at lovers of the curious and unusual. I remember in Milan there was a series called La Memoria, which was simply a collection of short prose texts linked by the theme of memory, the choice of which obviously reflected nothing more (or less) than the taste of one genial intellectual - one reader's delights and discoveries, made into a beautiful little library.

The Syrens series has begun extremely well with, for instance, a volume called Essays on Dolls - three essays by Rilke, Baudelaire and (the best of them) Kleist. This last is called On the Marionette Theatre, and I think it the most wonderful short essay I know. A must for collectors is Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas, to which Julian Barnes provided the introduction in dictionary form. There are two poetry volumes so far, both of which are real items for the knapsack. The first was George Meredith's Modern Love, with a preface by Gillian Beer, and (very useful, this) a short summary of the narrative. Modern Love is a a beautiful sequence of 50 16-line 'sonnets', telling the story of the break-up of a marriage. I have read it many times but I have always been too shy to ask what exactly happens. Now I know.

The second poetry volume is Hardy's Poems of 1912-13, the elegaic sequence written after the death of his first wife, which contains many of Hardy's best poems and is definitely where you begin if you want to know whether you are going to like Hardy as a poet.

As soon as the Syrens series was published, I begged to be allowed to contribute a volume (I have to declare this interest), which I have just been writing. The first living author to have a Syren to himself is Karl Miller, whose essay Boswell and Hyde is a meditation on Boswell's divided character. This kind of essay is not academic, nor does it belong in any conventional journalistic genre. It is a genre that invents itself as it goes along - just as the Kleist essay I mentioned is quite unlike anything else I've ever read.

And the thing about this kind of production is that, of its nature, it has tended to baffle both publishers and booksellers in the past. Only once have we had a comparable series - the Cape paperbacks in the Sixties. Now suddenly we have two series - the massively popular Penguin 60s and the more elusive, but intensely desirable Syrens. Literature is full of small desirable objects which look well on their own. The Lord Chandos Letter, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is only 18 pages long in its Syrens edition (plus preface by Michael Hofmann). But it contains a book's worth of thought. There is so much that can be done with the very short book. I hope the craze for Penguin 60s proves an inspiration to Penguin's rivals.

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