Alan was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his work with Penguin and the process of putting these videos together.
To Be Shelved: For myself, and I'm assuming many other people as well, "Penguin Classics" are such a well-known, trusted collection that somehow seems to be more part of the past than the present. And to me, video is very much a present and future medium. How did you bring that beloved spirit of Penguin into the videos?
Alan Trotter: It's hard, for me anyway and my guess is for other people like me, to imagine a cultural landscape without Penguin Classics, and I think (I hope) that's what you mean when you say it's 'part of the past'. It's such an institution at this point that it's easy to take it for granted. But so much care and attention goes into good publishing, and a lot of it not immediately obvious to readers, that making the videos seemed like a good way to draw out all that hard behind-the-scenes work, all the thought and rigour that goes into everything from the blurb to the selection of author photograph and from the design of the series to the proofreading...
So for example there's an artworker who had to adjust by hand the letter-spacing of each of the fifty quotes that are on page one of the fifty books, because the typeface they're set in looks better when it's tightly kerned. So there's a willingness to do a lot of work on every last detail because the books deserve it.
And I think the 'spirit of Penguin' comes from that kind of dedication, and the videos are hopefully capturing some of that dedication, as well as the pleasure everyone involved feels in getting to work with truly great books.
TBS: How did you decide what to include and what not to include in these videos?
AT: Really it was just a case of speaking to everyone I could who was working on them in Penguin, and going out to the printers to film the books being printed, and then the editing process is largely a matter of condensing everything down in a coherent way.
TBS: I love the music you've placed with the videos. How did you choose that?
AT: The band's called Good Old Neon and I stumbled on them online and immediately developed these grand plans for how perfect their music would be for the videos (this is before filming had even started). The only downside was that they might not have been interested.
But they're named after a great David Foster Wallace short story, so I took that was a sign they might have some affinity for the Mini Modern Classics, which include a lot of the best short story writers of the last 100 years (though no DFW, sadly), and be willing to help out.
I'm just lucky that as well as making great music they're also well-read individuals of discerning literary taste. You can download their music, including everything in the videos from their website http://goodoldneon.com/.
TBS: Do you have a favorite video so far from this series? Why that video?
AT: So far I like the second video, on the origins of the series, but I'm both really looking forward to (and dreading a little bit) the editing of the video on the series' design. The designer was Jim Stoddart, who's also responsible for the design of the Modern Classics, on which the littler books are based.
I'm endlessly interested in Penguin's design history and Jim is an endlessly nice guy, so we talked for a long time – longer than it would have taken most people to tell me to screw off because they had more important things to do. I hope the end result manages to convey all that went into these apparently very simple designs.
TBS: Anything you'd like to add about the process of creating these videos?
AT: I don't think so. I will say that the none of the work's diminished my enthusiasm for the books, which are an absolute treat to read and I can't recommend highly enough. My favourite's probably the Barthelme, though he's not to everyone's tastes (I will never understand why). Though the Borges includes two of the greatest short stories ever written, so that's right up there too.
To view the rest of Alan's videos for Penguin, CLICK HERE. And, Alan's website is pretty wonderful so I suggest heading over there and clicking around.
By the way, that quote up at the top is from the second video, said by Penguin Classics Publisher Adam Freudenheim. Good stuff.