Saturday, 26 May 2018

P...P...P...Pick Up A Penguin

Penguin Books was the brainchild of one Allen Lane who at the time was managing director of publishing house The Bodley Head, back in an era when books were almost invariably hard-back and expensive. Lane had been visiting the author Agatha Christie in Devon in 1935 and was struck by the dearth of cheap reading material as he whiled away time at Exeter railway station waiting for his train back to London.

The concept of the quality mass-publication paperback was born in that moment. Lane envisaged something that would be portable (could be slipped into a jacket pocket or handbag), reasonably priced (6d - the same as a pack of 10 cigarettes) and yet was attractively produced, widely available (not just in bookshops) and was clearly branded.

Step forward the penguin, one of the icons of the publishing world, making good books affordable to everyone and revolutionising the book trade (long print runs on low margins, depending on a mass take-up of popular titles).

In due course Allen Lane's Penguins (fiction titles) were joined by a host of ornithologies including Pelicans (factual titles), Puffins (children's fiction), Peacocks (teenage fiction) and Peregrines from the Harmondsworth publishing house. Of course eventually other major players brought out their own branded lists of paperback titles: Abacus, Corgi, Everyman, Pan, Picador, Virago et cetera but Penguin Books had established a reputation for quality and a catalogue-in-depth that has kept them at the forefront of the paperback business for 75 years and still commands unquestionable loyalty from readers such as myself even though the company insists on re-styling its classic formats every ten years or so.

Nowadays there are a-books (audio), e-books (digital) and i-books (online); there are probably o-books and u-books in the works as well (if only someone can think of what they might be), but I'm unashamedly retro and still prefer something I can hold in my hands and turn the pages on. For instance, I had never read any John Updike until this year but have just greatly enjoyed 'Rabbit, Run' (in its 2018 Penguin Modern Classics incarnation) and look forward to working my way through the other three novels in Updike's Rabbit tetraology.

This week's poem is something I've had knocking around for years but have substantially re-written for the purposes of the blog. It was originally called 'Pick Up A Penguin' - for obvious reasons - but I prefer the slightly more allusive title it has now.

that in your youth you stole.
From off the shelves of Books 'R' Us
you spirited a book
and thought
that no one gave a second look
because there was no fuss.
The irony appealed - quite droll -
that you should begin
your intellectual development
with a ripped-off 'Crime And Punishment'.
Liberating, it was labelled at the time,
sticking it to the capitalist pigs,
you rascal.
But conscience took its toll.
You slipped back alone
and to absolve your soul
you paid the cover price.
What would Raskolnikov have said?

Happy reading, S :-)



The Existentialist said...

Raskolnikov would probably have sneered and said "embrace your guilt" (only in Russian) - but then he was a classic study in the psychopathology of guilt.

I say well swerved.

Anonymous said...

I was raised by Penguins :-)

Steve Rowland said...

I was talking with one of my brothers about this on Monday - we calculated that a Penguin paperback now costs at least as much as 20 (not 10) cigarettes - so books have become over twice as expensive as cigarettes (relatively speaking) since the early days of paperbacks.

Willie McTell said...

Abbie Hoffman would have simply said: “Steal This Book” (ummm, guilty as charged, Your Honour), but on the purloining of reading matter, I have always liked the late great Ian Dury’s “Razzle as the second prize” approach. It’s on the B-side of “S&D&R’n’R”.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read. What was the cover price?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. Another great blog.

Steve Rowland said...

Ah - the wicked and rash approach requires an honest face. Did anybody EVER buy Razzle?

BTW, the cover price for 'Crime And Punishment' was 7/-

Anonymous said...

Books - greatest invention and source of happiness?

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this Steve - a great blog and poem.

Anonymous said...

Ace. I agree - physical books over e-books any day.