Pick out a Penguin

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.

20 thoughts on “Pick out a Penguin

  1. The original Penguinhead office was at Harmondsworth, established before Heathrow became a huge near neighbour. I have just looked it up and sadly head office moved to london in the nineties. We lived in Harlington nearby when the children were young in the 80s/ 90s. Chatting to a Mum at the school gates one day she mentioned she had a part time job, I asked where. When she said Penguin Books I was thrilled, gabbling on about how I loved books. Then I asked her what she did – ‘I’m a cleaner.’
    Ironically, as well as Penguin boooks not being that cheap now, you can also buy exoensive Penguin merchandise, mugs etc!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have a mug – Pride & Prejudice!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Great story. I’ve always thought working at a publisher must be so exciting, but it probably isn’t any more so than a lot of jobs – the eye for what is marketable must stifle a lot of the creativity.


  2. Penguin Classics was always a favorite of mine, too. Such greast reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Penguin books do still appear to be pretty discerning in what they’ll publish, at least!


  3. I must have a look on my shelves for some of those ‘investment’ books. Not that I’d probably part with them. Book collecting is my special vice 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too, I cannot pass a bookshop by, second hand or otherwise, even though I now use a Kindle half the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi. Lane did a public service, in a sense, when he founded Penguin. I’m glad to learn that the company is still going strong.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, even though no longer especially cheap, they are trusted for a certain quality.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A wonderfully nostalgic post

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You just cannot beat a Penguin cover for timeless style.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Penguin’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ jumps out the photo, now I’m curious wondering what all the legal fuss was about?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On I don’t know, some parts of the book are fairly frank. And at least it showed the Lady C having a good time! Reminds me of the Larkin quote about sex being invented in 1963.


  7. Very interesting article, I think I have 4-5 orange penguins 🐧 too :)) 🤸‍♂️🤸‍♂️🤸‍♂️


  8. Some titles in your Penguin collection. Orwell? Sagan? Lawrence? 🙂
    I too have a few Maugham’s. Though his collected short stories I like better than “the moon…”
    Also have the complete works of Durrell. Gerry, not Larry. I tried the latter, Justine I think. It’s grown old.
    Long live the Penguin.


  9. PS, actually I find that a lot of 20th century literature has grown “old.” In French more so than in English, maybe? The relationships between the people have changed drastically.


  10. I grew up reading them and the best part was Pearson was my client for a while. I used to work out of the London office for almost a year off and on


  11. That’s a nice background story on Penguin. I never wondered that back on how and why. I guess I believed they’re successful because they started long ago and back then competition was small. Obviously that no longer holds true, but again, never wondered about their background. And, go on and keep buying those books. In another forty, fifty years, those very cheap books will cost a fortune.


  12. Quite interesting history. Thank you for sharing.


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