I first engaged with the Penguin Classics imprint in the second half of my teens when I started reading Thomas Hardy, as a result of an English lesson that used a passage from The Woodlanders, describing fallen leaves - thanks, Mr. Bray! (He was one of those teachers who was better the more enthusiasm or talent you displayed - no good for the recalcitrant or below average.) Anyway, I was delighted one day when I saw a flimsy paperback that turned out to be a catalogue for the series, including the Modern Classics, too - being handed out for free! Of course I took one and used it for reading inspiration. I still have it, decades later!
Now, the imprint has a new print catalogue - a large format hardback of over 400p, with the Modern Classics to get their own separate volume - costing £30. The lsit has expanded an enormous amount since the '80s! Is it worth it? After all, a constantly updated listing is available online for free.
Well, for me the answer is a resounding, yes! This isn't simply a list of books in print. As well as short descriptions of each book, there are micro-biographies of the authors and sidebars about the history of Penguin Classics and biographies and anecdotes about editors and translators who have worked on the series. There's even a page explaining ISBNs and their origins. Did you know that the first three digits of a bar code are a geographical origin code? Since books are fundamentally international, they have their own code, known as "bookland" - which is why ISBN13s all start "978" or "979." I love that books have their own country! It's probably more peaceful than the human occupied ones.
The Penguin Classics remit is gigantic; the classics of world literature up to and including WWI - thousands of years. The book therefore stands as a guide to the world of books that are still considered important/great/interesting/entertaining after at least 100 years. It shows up some of the impacts of world history just by charting how much (or little) material came from where and when. The list has not been sniffy about genre, at least as far back as the '80s, by the way. It has changed constantly (not just growing) - books have gone out of print, been replaced with new translations, expanded, split up into multiple volumes, conflated into fewer volumes, so I expect this volume was out of date by the time it went on sale, but that in no way detracts from its value to me as a ready reference and source of inspiration.