Fill a five-foot shelf with the 51 books comprising the Harvard Classics, spend 15 minutes a day reading from them, and you’ll have a good substitute for all the elements of a liberal education, said Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909.
“What books would you choose for a twenty-first century Harvard Classics?,” the editors of Harvard Magazine asked readers in “The Five-Foot Shelf,” an article in the November-December 2001 issue of the magazine. “Your Harvard Classics” presented some intriguing answers.
Until I test that hypothesis — and answer that question — I think I’d be more tempted to fill a five-foot bookshelf with the distinctive paperbacks published by Persephone Books.
The story behind Persephone Books is as engaging as the 102 titles it offers for sale. The company has developed a reputation for its high-quality publishing, innovative design and targeted niche marketing efforts.
When Nicola Beauman founded the company in 1999, she wanted to revive the work of largely forgotten 20th century women writers by publishing their novels, short stories, diaries, and cookery books. She has been quoted as saying that she chose the name “Persephone” because it symbolized new beginnings, female creativity, and had a timeless quality. It also had a beautiful, feminine ring to it. The company’s logo, based on a painting on a Greek amphora, depicts a woman who is reading.
Beauman and her team thoughtfully select titles that appeal to women, pair them with informative introductions by contemporary writers, and swathe them in elegant dove-grey paper covers. While all Persephone books look the same from the outside, the endpapers inside are different. This design element is chosen to complement the original publication date of the book, usually originating from period fabric designs.
While the classic design of Persephone Books make them unique, the company has issued a small selection of Persephone Classics with illustrated covers that are distributed through bookstores. These include Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson’s 1938 story that was made into a movie in 2008.
In 2012, Persephone celebrated the release of its 100th title, The Persephone Book of Short Stories, a collection of 30 stories by female writers such as Edith Wharton and Dorothy Parker, first published between 1909 and 1986. The book’s endpapers have a 1909 pattern at the front and a 1980s design at the back. Ceramicist Emma Bridgewater also created a commemorative jug and bowl that featured pomegranates and an inscription referencing the book. Another way Beauman marked this milestone was by taking a 1957 Morris Traveller on a week-long trip through the Cotswolds and Herefordshire to visit bookshops, arts associations and a retirement village.
Persephone publishes about six titles a year, in April and October. It also sells a handful of titles as e-books and audiobooks. The company distributes a biannual printed catalogue for mail orders (which comprise 80 percent of its business), a fortnightly newsletter, a monthly forum for readers about a new book, and an online blog called the Persephone Post, all available from the website the company designed to engage its community of readers.
Another way Persephone interacts with its readers is by having a retail store in the same 18th-century building as its office, located at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street in London’s Bloomsbury district. Besides the complete range of Persephone books, the shop sells greeting cards, postcards, book bags, mugs, and some limited-edition aprons, dressing gowns and quilted jackets from fabric based on the same design as those used for the endpapers.
The company also organizes events for readers at the store, such as cream teas, informal readings, lunchtime talks by authors and artists, and film screenings. Persephone has even organized field trips to art galleries for its readers. On my next visit to London, I’m making a pilgrimage to Persephone’s store.
The first Persephone book I read was Greenery Street (Persephone Book No. 35, 2002), a novel by Denis Mackail about a London couple’s first year of marriage, with endpapers featuring a 1925 design for a block-printed cretonne fabric. Since then, I’ve learned that whenever I spot one of those dove-grey books, I know it will be a good read. Other Persephone books I’ve enjoyed include Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel; Miss Buncle’s Book, D.E. Stevenson’s tale of an unmarried woman who writes about life in a small village; and Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson, one of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s favorite books. Persephone’s latest books include Heat Lightning, by Helen Hull, and The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal.
For more about Persephone Books, see the case study on the publisher that concludes the chapter on marketing, sales and distribution in The Publishing Business: From P-Books to E-Books, by Kelvin Smith. You can access articles about Persephone, such as “Persephone Celebrates 100,” from the August 24, 2012 issue of The Bookseller, and “Brand Ideal,” from the April 15, 2011 issue of The Bookseller, through the Literature Resource Center database, available through some libraries.
What books would you choose for a 21st-century collection of Harvard Classics? What Persephone Books have you read? Leave a comment and let me know!