Random Thursday: Pick Up A Penguin

In 1934 when a young Allen Lane was working for his cousins publishing company The Bodley Head, he attended a conference on ‘The New Reading Public’. After a weekend in Devon with his friend Agatha Christie he was at Exeter St. David’s station waiting for a train to Paddington when he realised that the only books on sale were ‘shabby reprints of shoddy novels’. What was needed for the ‘new reading public’ were good quality paperbacks, in a size that could fit into your pocket and at a price everyone could afford.

He took the idea back to the office and ideas were rattled out around the table. He wanted to sell a brand, publishing in batches of 10 books, each with a recognisable cover and with a name that was easy to say and remember. To sell them where people gathered and for sixpence, the price of a packet of 10 cigarettes. Allen’s secretary, Joan Coles suggested a penguin and Edward Young, a junior in the editorial department designed the logo. After much wrangling Lane was able to buy the rights for paperback editions of his first 10 books and by using the offices and imprint of The Bodley Head, in 1935 the first batch of 10 Penguins was published.

I’ve been familiar with this potted history of Penguin for ages but had never thought beyond it until I recently read The Mysterious Affair At Styles and saw that it was one of the first ten, which made me wonder about the other nine. They were:

  1. Ariel by Andre Maurois
  2. A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Poet’s Pub by Eric Linklater
  4. Madame Claire by Susan Ertz
  5. The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
  6. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie
  7. Twenty-Five by Beverly Nichols
  8. William by E.H. Young
  9. Gone To Earth by Mary Webb
  10. Carnival by Compton Mackenzie

What a remarkable first batch, brilliantly introducing the simple cover design in its first 3 colourways: blue for biography, orange for fiction and green for mystery. To begin with Ariel, a fictionalised biography of Shelley translated from its original French and then to include Hemingway and humour as well is really brave and perfectly encapsulates his belief that there was a large audience for serious books. Who wouldn’t want to collect all ten?

I do, and I see in this list a simple challenge – to read the ten titles in their 1935 editions (or as close as is affordable). A bookshop nearby has a good stock of vintage Penguins and is always helpful in tracking down titles, so that will be my first call for copies, but as I love rummaging in second hand book shops I don’t think I’m asking to much of myself!

26 thoughts on “Random Thursday: Pick Up A Penguin

  1. Great post Jane! Like you, I knew the story of how Penguin was set up, but I had no idea what the first ten books were – an impressive range. As you say, the design is fabulous, it’s really stood the test of time. Happy hunting in the bookshops!

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  2. What a great challenge! I’ve only read the Christie and the Sayers, but some of the others are very appealing. I have A Farewell to Arms on my list (!) though not in an original edition, and Mary Webb has been popping up recently in various anthologies of vintage horror, though really she seems to have been writing feminist folk horror rather than spooky stuff, as far as I can work out from the little I’ve read. I’d like to read one of her novels, which I believe are kind of rural angst-laden romance type things! I’ll be looking forward to hearing how you get on with these!

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    1. rural angst-laden romance – can’t wait! I’ve read the Hemingway so I just have to go shopping for that, I know you can buy them on line but then it’ll be over by tomorrow!

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  3. What a good project this will be. I scoured the bookshops in Hay on Wye years ago looking for all the titles in the Corridors of Power series in Penguin editions. (my husband got dragged into this adventure). They have a special place in the bookshelves….

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  4. I hadn’t heard of Corridors of Power and now I’ve had a quick look I see that’s where the phrase comes from, brilliant! What a lovely bookshelf that must be, and actually a weekend in Hay on Wye isn’t a bad idea!

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    1. I was thinking the same thing but then I thought in those old films women’s coats often did have big pockets, Kathryn Hepburn is often stuffing her hands into a pocket, maybe it’s to hold on to her book!

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    1. I know I think that’s an amazing first book, and just shows the respect he had for ordinary, average, everyday readers. It was his secretary who suggested a penguin as a good simple shape!

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