In praise of little black numbers – The Guardian

The people at Penguin might be overstating things when they insist that their Little Black Classics “sparked a reading revolution”. All the same, sales of these pocket-sized books, launched in February last year, are pretty gasp-inducing. Worldwide, they’ve already hit more than 2.2m copies, a figure that equates to a pile of paperbacks seven miles high.

And now, to celebrate the first Penguin Classic in 1946, they’ve added another 46 titles to the series. The selection is fantastic: someone at Penguin has inspiritingly quirky taste (I’m guessing the person in question is Simon Winder, the publishing director of Penguin Classics and the author of Germania, a very good book about Germany and his love for it). The new titles include Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, one of the first English novels; Green Tea, a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu; and Lady Susan, Jane Austen’s early epistolary novella. One is also dedicated, more creatively, to a sprinkling of stories and illustrations from the (sometimes scandalous) Victorian magazine The Yellow Book.

But it’s No 94 that I want to pick out here: The Suffragettes, which gathers together a selection of documents relating to the struggle for the vote, and makes for a nicely bracing antidote to some of the more awful cod-feminist texts currently loitering perkily in our bookshops. Inside you’ll find, among other things, a photograph of the damage caused by arsonist suffragettes to Northfield Library in 1914 (the women left a book by Christabel Pankhurst at the scene, with a note that read “To start your new library”); an account of the force-feeding endured by suffragette prisoners (“The doctor said, ‘After all, it is only an india rubber tube’, but to me it felt more like a crowbar”); and Emmeline Pankhurst’s famous “Freedom or Death” speech from 1913 (“I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the battlefield in order to explain… what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women”). For context, some anti-suffrage propaganda is also included: blood-boiling stuff, even now. A brilliant, timely idea. I’ll be buying this in bulk for all the women in my life; my own copy, I will stow, talisman-like, at the bottom of my handbag.


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