The GBP – the Great British Public – is undergoing a historic change in its reading practices. The canary in the cage evidence is in the 2014 literary prizes. The Folio Prize went to a brilliant American writer, George Saunders. The Sunday Times Short Story winner was another brilliant (dammit) American. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize shortlist was entirely made up of writers of non-British residence or origin. Other prizes are still to come – but the trend is clear. Littérature Sans Frontières.
The Folio canon, so to call it, is one of the pulsating centres of this new literary landscape. A characterising feature of The Folio Society is that it is not a ‘library’ (in the Everyman sense), not a Classic Reprint Series (in the Penguin Classic sense), nor a ‘syllabus’ (in the National Curriculum sense) but, in essence, a ‘society’ – a community of book-lovers.
Cheapskates will find virtually all of the Folio international texts free of charge on Gutenberg.org. But admirable as that e-charity shop is, reading its wares is like literature in morse code. It’s the material richness of the Folio volume which dignifies the product and refines interpretation. ‘Folios’ are books which invite a whole-body response from the moment one slits the cellophane envelope to finger the embossed covers, scan the illustrations, relish the no-see-through paper and carefully selected fonts. And then read on.
I’ve enjoyed writing occasional companionable introductions to Folio novels. The one which left the deepest impression was that I was invited to do for Kafka’s The Castle in 2011. I literally ‘saw’ Kafka differently, through the eyes of the gifted illustrator Bill Bragg, and ‘heard’ it differently through Mark Harman’s newly authorised translation.
All of us make our own voyages of exploration in the Folio collection – it’s one of the pleasures of the reading life. I’m currently embarked on Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, starkly illustrated by Vladimir Zimakov. A ‘postmodernist before modernism’, Iain Sinclair tells us in his jaunty introduction to a writer who has clearly influenced Sinclair’s own fiction. And after shivering through Meyrink’s ghastly tale I think I really must get round to the Folio Master and Margarita. The cellophane wrapper awaits.