The people at Penguin might be overstating things when they insist that their Little Black Classics â€œsparked a reading revolutionâ€. All the same, sales of these pocket-sized books, launched in February last year, are pretty gasp-inducing. Worldwide, theyâ€™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, theyâ€™ve added another 46 titles to the series. The selection is fantastic: someone atÂ Penguin has inspiritingly quirky taste (Iâ€™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 OroonokoÂ by Aphra Behn, one of the first English novels; Green Tea, a ghostÂ story by Sheridan Le Fanu; and Lady Susan, Jane Austenâ€™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 itâ€™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 youâ€™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 â€œTo start your new libraryâ€); an account of the force-feeding endured by suffragette prisoners (â€œThe doctor said, â€˜After all, it is only an india rubber tubeâ€™, but to me it felt more like a crowbarâ€); and Emmeline Pankhurstâ€™s famous â€œFreedom or Deathâ€ speech from 1913 (â€œI am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the battlefield in order to explainâ€¦ what civil war is like when civil war is waged by womenâ€). For context, some anti-suffrage propagandaÂ is also included: blood-boiling stuff, even now. A brilliant, timely idea. Iâ€™ll be buying this in bulkÂ for all the women in my life; my own copy, I will stow, talisman-like, atÂ the bottom of my handbag.