24th May 1996 at 01:00
It was, my high master told us, one of the glories of postwar civilisation. He was exhorting his sixth form to buy and read E V Rieu's translation of Homer's Odyssey, which had been published 10 years previously as the first Penguin Classic. A facsimile of the first edition of that translation has just been issued (Penguin Pounds 5) to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the series. I was extremely grateful for the advice. Not only had Rieu made Homer "easy reading for those unfamiliar with the Greek world", but I discovered that the same series by then included translations of Moliere and Balzac. French A-level was suddenly very much easier.

The decision to launch the series in 1946 was typical of Allen Lane, the begetter of Penguin Books: quixotic, idealistic and intuitive - and highly successful. The Odyssey was Penguin's best seller until toppled by Lady Chatterley's Lover.

In 1963 the distinctive black covers were introduced while the series has since incorporated other lists such as the Penguin English Library. It now includes over 900 titles and is paying increased attention to non-European literature.

So, for example, this year sees the publication of The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated from the Japanese by Richard Bowring (Pounds 6.99).Lady Murasaki (circa 973-1020) was tutor to the Empress and this is a fascinating, intimate and conversational description of court life and ritual from a female standpoint.

Another text deserving to be more widely known is The Interesting Narrative and other writings by Olaudah Equiano (Pounds 6.99). This often hair-raising autobiography tells of his kidnapping at the age of 10 in Africa, service as a British naval officer's slave and his labours on slave ships until he was able to purchase his freedom. He came to England in 1774, worked for Black resettlement and the abolition of slavery. He offended some by his marriage to a white woman but pleased others with his adoption of British (and Christian) values. At the same time, he retained his perspective as an African, albeit one who had been deracinated.

This process of "filling in the gaps" in the list permits the inclusion of more women writers. Thus we have Aphra Behn's 1684 bonkbuster Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (Pounds 6.99), a novel (told in letters) which is a thinly disguised picture of real-life aristocratic political and sexual scandals.

But Penguin Classics are not lost in the byways of literature. New editions and new translations of established titles are appearing with up-to-date critical apparatus. These vary from a new edition of Charlotte Bront 's Jane Eyre (Pounds 2.50) to a new translation by John Davie of Euripides' Alcestis and Other Plays (Pounds 6.99) which supplements Philip Vellacott's 1953 version.

Supreme in this area of the list is a lucid and indeed thrilling new translation by Robin Buss of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, which makes you realise why it has proved so enduringly popular and how lacklustre are some of the Victorian translations from other publishers. At Pounds 6. 99 for 1,000 pages, entertainment comes well priced.

Another wonderful recent addition to the list is a new three-volume, 3, 000 page edition of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Pounds 15 each). If life is less than empty and you're happy to bluff your way to erudition, there's a bite-sized extract Reflections on the Fall of Rome (60p) in that series of baby Penguin 60s Classics. Or you could simply celebrate with the Penguin Classic brushed cotton baseball cap at Pounds 9.99.

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