ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine owning hundreds of the books you always promised yourself that you would read someday, from Aeschylus to Fitzgerald to Melville to Shakespeare to whomever. Well, now they're available as a whopping set from Penguin Classics, 1,082 books, available exclusively through Amazon.com. And it'll only set you back $8,000 or so. I asked the president and publisher of Penguin Books, Kathryn Court, how a classic makes the list of the Penguin Complete Classics.
Ms. KATHRYN COURT (President and Publisher, Penguin Books): I work with two young editors on Penguin Classics, and we decide what we want to put into the classics. Obviously, there are some books that we can't include because of copyright issues. So Faulkner, for instance, is still in copyright, and we can't include those things, or Fitzgerald, some of Fitzgerald and so forth. So not every book we would love to be in this classics collection can be there because of copyright law.
BLOCK: Let's talk about what you get among these 1,082 titles. What's the oldest book in the list?
Ms. COURT: The oldest book on the list is "The Epic of Gilgamesh," which was written 15 centuries before Homer, so that is the very oldest book on the list.
BLOCK: I don't remember seeing the Bible on the list. Did I miss it?
Ms. COURT: You didn't miss it. It is only going to be published for the first time in classics next year.
BLOCK: So it's not yet a classic?
Ms. COURT: Not yet in the collection.
BLOCK: Not at least a Penguin Classic.
Ms. COURT: Right, exactly.
BLOCK: There are the obvious titles in here that you would expect to find. There were also a number that just really had me stumped. "Castle Rackrent and Ennui" by Maria Edgeworth.
Ms. COURT: Right.
BLOCK: A classic?
Ms. COURT: A minor classic.
BLOCK: A minor classic.
Ms. COURT: A minor classic, yes. I mean, it's hard--Isn't it?--to compare these books.
Ms. COURT: You have, on the one hand, Shakespeare, and what do you compare to him? I think there are books on the list that are important for what they tell us about the time in which they were written and for social reasons and so forth, but there are surprises on the list.
BLOCK: I was a big chagrinned, actually, going through this list. I did a quick count, and I think I've read maybe 75 out of these 1,082 titles, and an awful lot of those 75 were individual Shakespeare plays, I have to confess.
Ms. COURT: Well, I'm sure that would be true for all of us. I mean, sometimes, one thinks one ought to just retire and work one's way through the classics, which would be a wonderful treat. But it's interesting also what it says about our education and how people are educated now.
BLOCK: Well, yeah, 'cause actually a lot of these books were books that I didn't choose to read on my own. They were books I read maybe in high school or in college.
Ms. COURT: So I suppose one of the things we'd love to do is to make people aware that there are so many books in this list that are just wonderful to read and shouldn't be thought of as just things that they do in school.
BLOCK: Do you have a favorite, Ms. Court, on this list?
Ms. COURT: Gosh, I have a lot of books on the list that I really love. I have to say, I think, that "The Odyssey," only read it recently, having read it in college, and was just--just loved reading it.
BLOCK: And I hear that's a classic.
Ms. COURT: I hear it is. Happened to be the first one we ever published in Penguin Classics.
BLOCK: So "The Odyssey," you figure, has stood the test of time?
Ms. COURT: Definitely.
BLOCK: It'll be on the classic collection if I go to buy it six months from now?
Ms. COURT: It definitely will. I think it will always be there. There are certain books, right, that will always be there.
BLOCK: Kathryn Court is president and publisher of Penguin Books.
The man who came up with the idea of selling the collection as one big set is Tim McCall. He's the associate director of online sales and marketing for Penguin.
Mr. TIM McCALL (Associate Director of Online Sales and Marketing, Penguin Books): We've been trying to figure out how to bring this to readers for years, and there were always particulars in the way that kept us from doing it. How do you display 700 pounds of books in bookstores? How do you get them to create the space for that? And now, in my current role, selling books online, it's suddenly possible. You can now display books on the Internet in such a way that you can actually get a feeling for this complete set.
BLOCK: Well, is anybody actually buying all 1,082 books at a cost of $7,989.99 with free shipping from Amazon?
Mr. McCALL: I'm very happy to say that they are.
Mr. McCALL: Yes.
BLOCK: Well, give me a sense. I mean, I know Amazon is very secretive about their numbers, but how many people have signed up for this?
Mr. McCALL: Less than 10.
BLOCK: So right now, fewer than 10 people or institutions--I guess there's no way of knowing whether it's an individual or a library, say?
Mr. McCALL: Well, initially, I thought it would be institutions. I mean, it is a high-priced item. But it's starting to look like there are individuals out there who are buying it for their personal libraries as well.
BLOCK: I take it that one benefit is that if you do order all, whatever it is, 700 pounds, a third of a ton of books in this collection, they will get delivered, they will get unwrapped and, I think, put on a shelf. Is that right?
Mr. McCALL: You know, yes, they do get delivered inside. They do get opened. I'm not sure they put them on the shelf. I think that might be left up to you. But you get all of that, and you get it for free.
BLOCK: If you pay almost $8,000 for the books.
Mr. McCALL: Well, that's true.
Mr. McCALL: Yes.
BLOCK: There is that.
Mr. McCALL: But when was the last time you got 700 pounds of anything delivered free?
BLOCK: Or just got 700 pounds of anything delivered, period?
Mr. McCALL: Exactly. They may put them on--for all I know, they turn out the lights and tuck you in before you go to bed.
BLOCK: If you do sign on for this, you would be getting Plato, you would be getting Aristotle, you would be getting a lot of things that you might really want to read, but you would also be getting things that just probably would sit on the shelf for a long, long time, I'm guessing: "The History of Mary Prince" by Mary Prince. Maybe I'm going to offend some Mary Prince fans out there, but I'm betting that that one would be filling up space and not getting read. I don't know. What do you think?
Mr. McCALL: It might. You know, of course, very few people are going to read every one of these, but there's this interesting side benefit to the publication of this complete set that I wasn't counting on, and that is, at various times, it has been the most blogged about thing on the Web. And what I have seen are young people online talking about the value of literature and about this collection in particular. If we can get them all to put a Penguin Classic in their right pocket along with that digital media player in their left pocket, this is corny, but the world would be a much better place.
BLOCK: Well, let me ask you a skeptical question along that line. How much of this really is about selling complete collections of Penguin Classics, and how much is about getting Penguin's name out there, getting some attention, as we're doing now?
Mr. McCALL: Well, I think anything that gets people to read is worth doing. Let's face it. The consumer, for a giant collection like this, has its limitations. But as a marketer, these are great books, and it's a wonderful project to be involved in.
BLOCK: Tim McCall, and earlier Kathryn Court, of Penguin Books. They're offering 1,082 Penguin Classics for sale as a set on Amazon.com at a 40 percent savings of $5,326.34.
SIEGEL: And you can find a list of all of those titles at our Web site, npr.org.
BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.