Some 150 plus of them line the shelves—the shelves, that is, of the glass-fronted wood ‘Minty of Oxford’ bookcase reserved specially for the purpose, now full, with a couple of volumes needing to be balanced horizontally atop their mates. Orange Penguins – orange spines, anyway. Most of them are not especially old, though many are from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, so perhaps we can politely say ‘vintage’. Nor are many in great condition, some fuzzy pages here and there, some front covers bulging out a little past their spines. The early copy of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View looks particularly sorry, a slash of black crayon dragged across it—but then, I see it was re-sold for only 5p.
They give something of a life map of the reading fads I have gone through for certain authors, such as W. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Drabble. There are the same copies of George Orwell that I had as a student. Also some books that came travelling with me, such as Gerrard Brennan’s South from Grenada, which I read on a journey from Aragon in northern Spain to Madrid then on to the south of the country; then Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin that I read on a trip to—yes—Lublin in Poland, and the nearby town of Kazimierz Dolny (it’s a habit I like, finding fiction related to places I am travelling to).
Have I read them all? Almost, but not quite. Unfairly, some have been read and re-read, such as Monica Dickens’s Mariana, and Maugham’s TheMoonandSixpence, or BlackNarcissus by Rumer Godden (on my list of “forgotten” women writers. On the other hand, several are unread, including a translation of Alberto Moravia’s Two Women and Love Among the Haystacks by DH Lawrence—though it’s a collection of shorts and I may have read some of the stories. Confession: I probably bought that latter copy because of its age and for under a pound, though it originally retailed at a mighty two shillings and sixpence, says the cover (in pre-1971 British currency). I have blogged before about the lure second hand books have for me, for instance here and here. And I can rarely resist the design of an old Penguin.
Penguin Books was founded in 1935 with the aim of producing inexpensive paperback editions of quality books. The (possibly true) story behind the house is that in 1934, publisher Allen Lane was combing Exeter Lane Station (?? I can only find a reference to that Station in connection with this story; can it be right or does it just keep getting copied?!) for a cheap contemporary read, but came across only reprints of 19th century novels. Hence, Lane founded a publishing house to produce good quality fiction in paperback form, to be sold at “the same price as a packet of cigarettes” (that reference alone gives an interesting historical context, doesn’t it?) Authors got a royalty per copy of one farthing – i.e. a quarter of a penny, again, in ‘old money’.
Sadly, Penguin books today are no cheaper, in the main, than those from any other publisher. But the publishing house is still going strong, and remains much respected. The penguin logo, apparently, was the work of Edward Young, the first production manager at Penguin Books, who copied on of the birds at London Zoo. Young was also responsible for the tri-coloured bands on the covers.
In fact, whilst the orange ‘general fiction’ books are the largest genre, there are others, and they’re colour-coded, including the green crime fiction section, and the pink (or magenta) ‘travel and adventure’ section. There’s an explanation and examples here on Abe Books.
Early Penguin classics can, apparently, be a good investment—the second Penguin published, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms in 1935 is said to sell for around £100 a copy. I don’t think I’d get much for my own battered and undistinguished collection. Though perhaps I need to keep to a resolution of not to buy another second-hand book unless I intend fully to read it.