This week I've managed to read and watch The Great Gatsby. Suffice to say, one is significantly greater than the other.
I've had this Penguin Popular Classics edition sat on my shelf for a very long time, so three days before going to see the film seemed like good time to finally pick it up. I love these little things – cheap and simple and low-maintenance. You don't have to feel precious about the binding or the cover, you can just stuff it in your pocket and dip into it whenever, wherever. As much as I love a beautiful big hardback book, there's something liberating about reading something so basic – the printy equivalent of a simple text file. The design gets out of the way and just gives you the words. They are books purely for reading.
There's a great piece on the Independent about the peculiar challenge David Pearson was given when designing the series:
… a super-plain, type-only design featuring modern Gill Sans lettering, a doubled up logo featuring two dancing penguins (to denote, perhaps rather obliquely, the ‘popular’ aspect) and the £2 price tag, prominently, even proudly, displayed. The cover was an equally restrained maroon.
The office was, Pearson says, ecstatic about the design… until someone said, almost wistfully, that they preferred it to the ‘proper’ Penguin Classics. At which point everyone froze.
Why would anyone spend £6.99 on, say, Dracula, not to mention £14.99 for Coralie Bickford-Smith’s lovely cloth-covered hardback – both of which feature the full scholarly treatment of preface, chronology, introduction, further reading, a note on the text, plus 50 pages of appendices and notes, when the £2 version, containing just the novel, looks so good?
The Classics series is obviously where the money is to be made, and the reputation upheld, and that could not be put in jeopardy. Pearson was sent away with the brief – unique in his and probably many a designer’s career – to make the thing look worse.
Not wanting to mess with the type, or the layout, he decided on the colour, and after much deliberation settled on the lurid lime green that we have seen splashed across bookshops, a colour so uncommonly disgusting that none of the printer’s standard pigments came near it, and it had to be specially mixed.
Personally, I love the lurid green. And the way the Gill Sans "£2" forms an (accidental?) little heart symbol always catches my eye.
As for the film, the less said the better. It isn't terrible, it's just not very good. It's well cast, and is surprisingly faithful to the dialogue and structure of the book, but the whole thing is shot like a Harry Potter movie. Or rather, with all the unrestrained use of gimmicky 3D and swooping CGI, it looks like a two hour version of the Disney ident.
Two reviewers hit the nail on the head: om Sutcliffe tweeted "imagine if Fitzgerald had written the novel with an exclamation mark at the end of EVERY sentence"; and William Fowler compared it to "what might happen if David LaChapelle and Busby Berkeley had got together to recreate a battle from Lord of the Rings".
In summary: read the book. Grab the cheapest edition you can find and read the heck out of it, old sport.