Step inside a bookstore and ask anyone this question: Who’s your favorite literary hero? You’ll probably end up with a long list of answers, from Elizabeth Bennet and the March Sisters to Holden Caulfield and Harry Potter. To every book lover, the greatest heroes are the ones they meet in books, as well as the authors whose imagination and creativity fuel the stories they read. We hardly expect publishers to be mentioned in such conversations, even if they find ways for books to fill our shelves and pages touch our fingers. But we respect and admire them, especially if they’re as esteemed and accomplished as Elda Rotor.
Rotor is the vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics at Penguin Random House in New York. This Filipino has been in the publishing industry for 26 years, yet still finds fulfillment in her daily grind.
“It’s exciting to share classics to a new generation of readers. It’s also great to put together new editions where we have experts and writers share introductions with the text, and also work on a beautiful cover with an emerging artist,” said Rotor in an interview with Inquirer Super.
It’s her job to lead the team that creates special editions of classics like Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”—and admits that it can be challenging.
For one, people can now easily access e-books on mobile devices and this has direct effects on the publishing industry.
“It’s affected the way we market and advertise our books. It’s very much affected the way we write about our books in terms of the book descriptions because we’re very mindful that people are looking at their phones and they’re scrolling and we don’t want it to be too long of a text.”
“That also affects the vibrancy of our covers. We need to make sure that they look good in four inches and five inches as well as looking good across a bookstore, on a shelf,” she added.
She is aware of the competition, not just in e-books from other sources online. There are also movies, television, podcasts, and music to compete with.
“People are so hungry for storytelling. Basically our job is to guide people and say that if a song or movie makes you feel a certain way and you really enjoy it, you should try to discover these books because they’ll make you feel similarly.”
And then, there’s fan fiction, and also spoofs.
On fan fiction, Rotor has this to say: “I know that the origin of “Twilight” came from that and I really respect fan fiction.” On spoofs: “I think it’s fantastic when other publishers or writers try to play with a classic idea and then make it modern or with a twist. But I feel like it’s funnier if you know the original.”
Even if she lives and breathes an atmosphere filled with the prestige and privilege of working on prizewinning literary pieces, Rotor is not alien to the pleasure of reading lighter material, such as young adult fiction.
She loved reading Judy Blume pocketbooks as a teen and wrote a lot of poetry in her youth. And while her library has certainly expanded over the years, she remains a fan of paperbacks, as well as the experience of holding a book and taking the time to read it carefully, describing it as “deeply satisfying.”
She encourages everyone—young and old—to read.
“Your state of mind, your level of peace to commit to sitting down and reading a book, and also commit to that attention span of delving into another person’s world of storytelling; I think anyone who is used to reading very quick bits of content online will actually feel that physical difference when they sit down with a book. And they take time, not necessarily finish a book in one sitting but to return to it over and over again.”
“I feel also that if you commit to a long book, I think that’s a very special experience too, because you’re basically developing a relationship with a book. These are all characteristics that I feel we all need to strengthen and from that we also lower our stress levels, we connect better with the people in our lives, we embrace the sense of solitude that comes with reading a book,” she added.
Among the titles you’ll find in the Penguin Classics roster are the following Filipino masterpieces: Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”; José García Villa’s “Doveglion”; Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” and “Tales of the Tropical Gothic” (with a foreword by Gina Apostol); and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (with a foreword by Elaine Castillo).
As a reader, Rotor feels a personal connection to the work of Filipino writers. “It feels so good to be seen. Reading Elaine’s or Gina’s work or Patrick Rosal’s poetry feels so good because there are elements of their ethnic identity in their writing that I see, and I know immediately. It feels great because when I read other works, I don’t get that experience.”
“That reflects why I think it’s more important to have a more diverse collection of classics because if I can feel that from reading another contemporary Filipino writer, can you imagine the joy that people will have when they read the Noli and other Penguin Classics and they’re ‘I get it! I know where Vigan is!’”
Penguin Classics and National Bookstore runs Loving Pinoy Lit: A Penguin Classics Essay Writing Contest until August 31. Participants must choose from any of the five Filipino Penguin Classics and write an essay on why the book remains relevant to the current generation. The contest is open to high school and college students.