Wednesday 16 June 2010

The Power of Penguin

My introduction to the classics of world literature came through Penguin Books. I must have been about ten when I read their editions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, moving on from my reading of Robert Graves' book on the Greek Myths. Over the years I’ve covered so much more, with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France lodged as favourites, books to which I return repeatedly for reassurance on some point or other.

I never really thought about the publishers themselves, never really thought about Penguin Books, not until now. The latest issue of History Today has drawn my attention to this publishing institution, launched by one Allen Lane almost seventy-five years ago.

Lane joined the publishing company of Bodley Head, founded by John Lane, his mother’s cousin, in 1919 when he was sixteen years old. He took up a fairly humble position, the intention being that he should learn the trade from the bottom up. Gifted with natural ability, his rise was swift. He became a director when John died in 1925 and chairman five years later though still only in his twenties.

In 1934 on returning to London by train from Devon he was annoyed to find that there was nothing in the Exeter station worth reading for the trip back. With nothing else to do he reflected on the possibility of publishing high-quality fiction and non-fiction at an affordable price, sixpence in pre-decimal money being the amount he alighted on, which I think is about a penny or so in present values.

When he put his idea to the other directors of Bodley Head they were unenthusiastic because paperbacks at the time had a low reputation, generally considered to be ‘dirty rubbish’, but they agreed to let him go ahead, though only in his own time. With the help of his brothers Dick and John he went about the project with enthusiasm. After toying with the names of Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books they eventually settled on Penguin.

The aim was to get away completely from the image of the paperback format that had so unsettled the directors of Bodley Head. There were to be no bosoms and bottoms on the covers, just some simple colours – green for crime stories, orange for other fiction and blue for non-fiction, with the title in plain lettering on a white band across the middle. Ten books were picked for the launch in July 1935, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Despite the reservations of his colleagues the venture was an immediate success, with most of the books selling out rapidly. Lane introduced more titles and on New Year’s Day 1936 Penguin was launched as a separate company with himself and his brothers as directors. The following year Penguin was joined by Pelican, specialising in non-fiction, with George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism being the first on the list. After the war came Penguin Classics, beginning with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

In 1950 a leader in The Times saluted Lane, who died in 1970, for making up for the loss of the British Empire by using the English language and affordable books to spread British influence across the world. I don’t suppose there is a better accolade than that.


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  2. Of that I have little doubt. I suppose the other thing about Penguin books is that they are largely manageable; I can even fit them into my shoulder bag, excepting William Trevor's The Collected Stories, which I'm reading at the present, almost as tome-like as Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. :-)

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  5. thank you ana, for this interesting story of publisher. you just induced my interest of collection penguin books - for my love of paperback and small sized books. and i am so glad to know the agatha christie's books were within the first published books of this remarkable publisher. she truly was one of the most brilliant authors of all the time.

  6. Yunyi, I love her books, her lovely little puzzles set in a much more civilized England, the murders notwithstamding!