Little Black Classics – In search of the quintessential classic

Or: Some statistics on a Saturday

Recently I finished the last of the 127 books from the Little Black Classics collection, which were all published by Penguin in 2015-2016. Small bites of Classics, to try them out and discover new authors. Or that was what I thought. In a couple of posts I will be looking back at the multi-year reading project, sharing with you the ups and downs and also some recommendations. Last week I discussed how getting all the books was a small project on itself (you can find the post here), this week I take a dive into the meta data that a series this large provides. What will the included works tell us about what classics are, how we view them and finally, can we use it to find the quintessential classic?

The Data

I was very excited for this part of the project. As a scientist I like working with data sets to see what they might be able to tell us. Book series seldom present a large enough data set to work with, but at 127 books, there might be some hidden insights here. I took the entire set and looked at the author, the gender of the author, when it was published and in which language, and finally what the genre was (fiction, non fiction, philosophy, poetry or play). The information came from a combination of GoodReads, the books themselves and Google.

From Aesop to Yeats

Since the format of the Little Black Classics prescribed all the volumes to be short or a fragment from something longer, I didn’t particularly looked into that aspect. However, deciding which authors to include certainly gives an idea of what we consider to be classics. Many of the authors were familiar to me (even if I hadn’t read them previously) and I am quite sure that for people growing up in an English speaking country this number would be much higher still. Excluding books that were written anonymously – like Sindbad the Sailor and the Dhammapada – and books written by many authors – like The Yellow Book or The Constitution of the United States – there were 105 different authors collected in this edition. Obviously, most of these had a single work in the collection, but there were 12 authors with a book both in the original 80 and the additional 46 books (Austen, Chekhov, Conrad, Dante, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Nietzsche, Poe, Tolstoy, Wells and Wilde). Two out of three Brontรซ sisters were included. Shakespeare was only added in the later 46 works.

Interestingly, Penguin seemed unable to settle for a single spelling of the name Fyodor Dostoevsky/Dostoyesky.

What’s in a name? Is it Dostoevsky (as published in 2015) or Dostoyevsky (2016)?

I knew going in that the gender balance would not be good. Historically, there have been little opportunities to write/publish for women, and many of these writings have not survived to this day since they were considered less important to conserve. However, as I was looking at the data it was still worse than I had expected. Only 19 of the 127 books were written by women (I added The Suffragettes collection here). But more shockingly the first book by a female author doesn’t appear before #32, where Mary Kingsley describes her travels in A Hippo Banquet. I know Penguin is not to blame for the low amount of available ‘female classics’ but they could have at least mixed them better?

Around the world

Next, I wanted to take a look at the original language these works were published in – in order to gain an idea of how well world literature was represented in the general idea of Classics. For me, being from Continental Europe, this is a topic I find particularly interesting – although it pains me to say not a single originally-Dutch work was included in the collection.

It turned out that roughly half of the collection was originally printed in English (less than I had expected, more than I had hoped), with Greek and Russian completing the Top 3. There’s also French, German, Latin, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and a couple of others which feature only once or twice. In total, no less than 15 languages were featured in the Little Black Classics (though unfortunately, Dutch was not among them). While I like the diversity, I did notice that quite often books from a certain language were positioned close together in the collection (based on #); I would have suggested to spread them more evenly for people who – like me – were reading the collection from #1 to #127.

I also took a look by gender and it was quite saddening for Women in Translation. With the notable exception of Sappho, there were none included in the collection. Shout out for more women in translation!

On the right there is a zoom onto the lower part of the graph, for clarity. The other (grey) category in the pie chart contains the languages: Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, Icelandic, Persian and Spanish.

Through the ages

The collection contains works from as early as Homer to as late as Virginia Woolf, and many centuries in between. When I plotted them out, it became immediately clear that 19th century publications are the ones that are mostly considered the typical classics. Also 20th and 18th century scored well, as well as (maybe surprisingly) 5th century BCE – those were busy times in Athens for sure.

In this graph, only 18th/19th/20th century really stand out. In the pie-chart, other centuries are 14th (purple) /17th (red) /5th(BCE; yellow) /16th (green), the others (grey) collects all other centuries starting with 9th (BCE)

What is between the covers?

Finally I wanted to take a look at the genres that were present in the collection. I kept the categories very big (e.g. fiction/non fiction/poetry) because if you look at genre for these books the first thing you will find is ‘classic’ which does not tell anything. When I was reading it sometimes felt like I was reading poetry all the time – although that was a slight exaggeration because only 22% was in fact poetry. Half was fiction and another quarter non fiction. There is quite some variation in the reads (which is great!) but as I have mentioned before I felt like there still were similar books very closely together which I would have spaced out better, had I been the editor of this collection.

Mixing together the quintessential classic

Having collected all these different aspects, it is time to take a closer look and determine what it actually says. From these data, we view a classic as a 19th century work of fiction that was written by a man and published in English. When I come to think of it – that is pretty much what I thought of as a classic in high school. But is this really THE classic, or do we just FEEL it is, considering it is what we have been taught at school? I will leave you to ponder on that one.

Taking it a little bit further, I went in search of the one novel which fits all these instructions to find, in the end, the quintessential classic – since people often tell me they want to read classics but where to start? The median of the publication dates prescribes that this classic should have been published in 1844 – so I did a quick search for books that were published that year (my knowledge of 19th century best seller lists is a little bit rusty).

In the end it is not The Three Musketeers nor the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas which were published in French first, but rather when you combine English/male/1844/fiction the answer must be: Charles Dickens. He published Martin Chuzzlewit that year – so we have got a winner!

I haven’t read it. I have read little Dickens to be honest, and except for the title I don’t know much about this particular novel. I feel I should give Martin Chuzzlewit a try now. Although, 840 pages *sigh*.



While writing Martin Chuzzlewit – his sixth novel – Dickens declared it ‘immeasurably the best of my stories.’ He was already famous as the author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

Set partly in America, which Dickens had visited in 1842, the novel includes a searing satire on the United States. Martin Chuzzlewit is the story of two Chuzzlewits, Martin and Jonas, who have inherited the characteristic Chuzzlewit selfishness. It contrasts their diverse fates of moral redemption and worldly success for one, with increasingly desperate crime for the other. This powerful black comedy involves hypocrisy, greed and blackmail, as well as the most famous of Dickens’s grotesques, Mrs Gamp.

So, this was me having some fun with getting the stats out of the Little Black Classics. Please let me know in the comments what you thought of it, and if you have read Martin Chuzzlewit – is it in fact really this quintessential classic? Next week, I will finally get to discuss how I enjoyed reading the series.

21 thoughts on “Little Black Classics – In search of the quintessential classic

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  1. Seems like you put a lot of work into this. I had a laugh with the idea of you sneaking all those books into your house ๐Ÿ˜‚. Iโ€™d never thought about it but Dickens surely sounds like the quintessential classic.

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  2. Wow โ€” that is one impressive project … and collection of stats. Iโ€˜ve enjoyed following along with your individual reads (or your posts about them), and like you, Iโ€˜m a bit dismayed โ€” though not exactly surprised โ€” at the outcome in terms of gender balance and geographical / linguistic spread.

    Martin Chuzzlewit, huh? :). Whoโ€˜d have thought … (though as you said, it was almost *bound* to be SOMEthing by Dickens.) Well, enjoy if you should actually make up your mind to read it, brave soul that you are! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Yes, I don’t normally have the kind of data set from a single series that allows any kind of analysis. I had a lot of fun putting it together, and I finally got some real data on the collection. The gender balance I knew wasn’t good (but when reading I hadn’t realized it would be this bad). As for world literature – I actually thought there had been more English but it turns out there are just some bubbles of English which make you feel this way.

      I think I’ll give it a try. Was it not the book that was taken hostage in The Eyre Affair? It sounds rather familiar…

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      1. Incredible as it may sound, I havenโ€˜t read The Eyre Affair yet, so I wouldnโ€˜t know! ๐Ÿ™‚ (Been tempted a couple of times, but always found I wasnโ€˜t in the right headspace. One of these days …)

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  3. I love all the charts and stats; it looks like you had fun with the project overall, even if you didn’t enjoy all the books themselves.

    I have Martin Chuzzlewit, but haven’t read it. Frankly, as Dickens got paid by the word, I have a hard time embracing his writing. I love A Christmas Carol, but the only other work I tried was an essay he wrote on the Christmas Tree and I couldn’t get through it.

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    1. The project was a lot of fun indeed even if not all the books were great. I will be collecting my thoughts on the series over the next week, but I would immediately do it again. (Actually, since I also have the Little Modern Classics – I am going to do it again next year, but those are only fifty or so).

      I didn’t know he was paid by the word. My English lit teacher didn’t like Dickens so we didn’t see it in class and went straight from Austen to the WW1 poets. I have read the Christmas Carol afterwards but nothing else.

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  4. What a brilliant and unique way to examine a series! It’s more than a little disheartening to see the definition of a “classic” in incontrovetible figures that prove what many would have suspected, namely a strong gender/original language bias, but then maybe this result will be an inspiration to actively seek out authors of different origin and discover less conventional “classic” books. It certainly will be for me.

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  5. Wow, such a great project! Love what you’ve done with this and the statistics as well. I’m actually surprised to see Chinese and Hindi as part of the translated languages, I guess my assumption was that it would be from more Western authors. I also had no idea there were over 100 of these LBCs! That’s… Definitely some kind of interesting addition to TBR mountain ๐Ÿ˜‚ Do you plan to read all of them at some point?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It was still heavily focused on Western literature, but they tried by adding some. There is some poetry, short stories and Buddhist texts. Yes, there is a lot. I got the books back in 2015/2016 and I have recently finished reading them, which is another post here:

      For next year though, I also have Little Mint Classics (some 51 I think) from Penguin which are the Modern Classics. That will be my project for next year! ๐Ÿ˜‰


  6. That tickled my stats degree, thank you! I have to confess ‘classic’ makes me think boring. And I haven’t been able to go near Dickens since high school, so I’d be avoiding Chuzzle-wotsit like the plague!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I never really know what to do with the ‘classic’ term. It is a catch-all for anything that is old, but there is so much variety in there (even though most of it is written by white males in the 19C), it really ranges from captivating and surprisingly modern to utterly boring and everything in between as well. So I always find it a bit of a difficult genre. Hence the project. These were all short works, so if I didn’t like it, it was not like there was another 500 pages to go through.

      We never saw Dickens in class. Our teacher couldn’t stand his books so we went right from Jane Austen to the WW1 classics ๐Ÿ˜‚ I have only read what was in this collection and a Christmas carol, so I still have to try one of the massive works.

      Liked by 1 person

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