Why I Love Penguin Books and You Should Too

Like most who live, work, and play in academe, I love books. I have long been interested in them. I love them objectively. I love the way they smell and absolutely understand why the French created a scratch and sniff sticker with that new book smell so one could attach it to their e-reader and thus blend the new technology with at least something of the old sensory experience. I love the weight of books, the way a well broken in paperback sits in my hand and they way its pages furl under my thumb. And I of course love their contents, the worlds they open up, and the way they so often blow my mind and part my hair.

When I got to university it did not take long for these affections to foster an interest in the history of books, which ultimately resulted in an undergraduate thesis exploring the relationship between literacy and book consciousness and heresy in late medieval Europe. As my studies continued my research veered in other directions, but I have remained interested in the history of books and their production and impact. This on-going interest has been fuelled by the so-called “crisis of the codex” and the shifting patterns and prospects of publishing that have shaken the industry in the last thirty years or so.[1] These revolutionary developments have spurred a remarkable proliferation of interest in the history of books and book production.

This is a very welcome development but attention has been overwhelmingly focused on the early modern era. Given the embattled state of early modern studies these days I believe this too is a welcome development. But things are becoming unbalanced and we still know relatively little about the history and socio-cultural impact of publishing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recently, while thinking about this imbalance my thoughts turned to Penguin Books. Hence this indulgent entry, which I fear may be more love letter than serious dip into the history of Sir Allen Lane and the legacy of his remarkable creation, Penguin Books.

Penguin books have always figured prominently in my library. Looking back it seems as if they have always been with me. Certainly they always grabbed me. I have never given much credence to the claim that “you cannot judge a book by its cover.” I understand and even accept the basic point but it is rather limited, because of course one can tell quite a lot about a book by its cover—author, genre, what it is about, possibly when it was published, and in the case of second-hand books, its condition and something of the life it has lived. When you factor in aesthetics and the baser impact of marketing forces then a cover can sink a book’s hooks deep into you.

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Take, for example, the Penguin book cover on the above UMIH title header. The wee Penguin is awesome; and historical—while also unfortunately being topical again; and fierce. Note the squinted eye, and the bat being wielded, to say nothing of the reference to “smashing” fascism. I love this cover. I do not even know to which Penguin book it belongs, and still it has sunk its hooks deep. I might be alone in this, but I doubt it. This is something Penguin books have always done to me. I came of age when many Penguin books had sage green spines and black and white photos on the cover. When I think of Orwell I still picture the lamplighter that graced the cover of my first copy of Penguin’s Complete Novels of George Orwell. When I think of Joyce I first see his young face on the cover of my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, before I imagine striding across Ha’penny bridge and the River Liffey as depicted on the cover Ulysses. Meanwhile, A Clockwork Orange conjures the unsettling Penguin cover image of cogs and close-up of an eye clamped open and locked in a full Ludovico gaze, and only then do I think of Malcolm McDowell and Kubrick. These covers were all done in distinctly a Penguin style and they made a deep impression and helped shape my relationship with many authors and their works.

But obviously it was not all about the covers (I ain’t no dilettante, after all). It was also about the quality, and the affordability, and the sheer choice of titles, topics, and genres.  These are the real reasons why I love Penguin. Penguin’s founder Allen Lane (subsequently Sir Allen Lane) did something bold, something generous, something profound and transformative for what is by now several generations of readers.  He opened worlds.   He published affordable, high quality books and did so with breathtaking scope, offering works of current fiction; detective fiction; modern classics and ancient classics; poetry, plays and Shakespeare; translated world literature; biography; history, economics and politics; art and architecture; religion and science; and music; and education; and cookery.  In so doing, as David Cannadine rightly observes, Lane created nothing less than a new intellectual environment of ideas, voices, perspectives, and values—and it was largely accessible to all.[2]

Founded in England in 1936 Penguin Books was a success from the start. Indeed, when the war broke out in 1939 the government introduced paper rationing, and because the amount allotted to each publisher was based on sales from the two previous years, Penguin’s great early success meant that it secured a significantly more generous paper allowance than many other houses.  Lane certainly shifted units, as we say today, and Penguin was highly profitable, but Lane’s triumph was principally a cultural accomplishment rather than an economic one.  This is something the Times Literary Supplement neatly identified in 1960 when it described Penguin Books as the publishing equivalent of the BBC because both advanced a public mission to entertain, to educate, and to enlighten.[3]

Between the 1930s and the 1960s Penguin created an entirely new intellectual environment that was accessible to all, not just in Britain but also throughout the entire English-speaking world. In many ways it anticipated the Open University and the open access ethos of the Internet Age. While Penguin’s influence has waned some in the face of changes in the publishing industry in the last thirty years, or so, it continues to open worlds. This is why I love Penguin books, and you should too.

Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

[1] Anthony Grafton, Codex in Crisis (New York: Crumpled Press, 2008). Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: Public Affairs, 2009).

[2] D. Cannadine, “Growing Up with Penguin,” in William Wooton and George Donaldson eds., Reading Penguin: A Critical Anthology (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 91-110.

[3] Cannadine, “Growing Up with Penguin,” 100-01, 104.

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