Why I Love Penguin Books and You Should Too

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

Like most who live, work, and play in academe, I love books. I have long been interested in them. I love them objectively. I love the way they smell and absolutely understand why the French created a scratch and sniff sticker with that new book smell so one could attach it to their e-reader and thus blend the new technology with at least something of the old sensory experience. I know this invention may be apocryphal, but I truly hope not. I love the weight of books, the way a well broken in paperback sits in my hand and they way its pages furl under my thumb. And I of course love their contents, the worlds they open up, and the way they so often blow my mind and part my hair.

When I got to university it did not take long for these affections to foster an ongoing interest in the history of books. Hence this indulgent entry into the history of Sir Allen Lane and the legacy of his remarkable creation, Penguin Books.

Penguin books have always figured prominently in my library. Looking back it seems as if they have always been with me. Certainly they always grabbed me. I have never given much credence to the claim that “you cannot judge a book by its cover.” I understand and even accept the basic point, but it has always seemed to me rather limited because of course one can tell quite a lot about a book by its cover—author, genre, what it is about, when it was published, and in the case of second-hand books, its condition and something of the life it has lived. When you factor in aesthetics and the baser impact of marketing forces then a cover can sink a book’s hooks deep into you.


Take, for example, the Penguin book cover pictured above. The wee Penguin is awesome; and historical (while also unfortunately being topical again), and fierce. Note the squinted eye, and the bat being wielded, to say nothing of the reference to “smashing” fascism. I love this cover. It has sunk its hooks deep. This is something Penguin books have always done to me. I came of age when many Penguin books had sage green spines and black and white photos on the cover. When I think of Orwell I still picture the lamplighter that graced the cover of my first copy of Penguin’s Complete Novels of George Orwell. When I think of Joyce I first see his young face on the cover of my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, before I imagine striding across Ha’penny bridge and the River Liffey as depicted on the cover Ulysses. Meanwhile, A Clockwork Orange conjures the unsettling Penguin cover image of cogs and close-up of an eye clamped open and locked in full Ludovico gaze, and only then do I think of Malcolm McDowell and Kubrick. These covers were all done in distinctly a Penguin style and they made a deep impression and helped shape my relationship with many authors and their works.

But obviously it was not all about the covers. It was also about the quality, and the affordability, and the sheer choice of titles, topics, and genres. These are the real reasons why I love Penguin. Penguin’s founder Allen Lane (subsequently Sir Allen Lane) did something bold, something generous, something profound and transformative for what is by now several generations of readers. He opened worlds. He published affordable, high quality books and did so with breathtaking scope, offering works of current fiction; detective fiction; modern classics and ancient classics; poetry, plays and Shakespeare; translated world literature; biography; history, economics and politics; art and architecture; religion and science; and music; and education; and cookery. In so doing, as David Cannadine rightly observes, Lane created nothing less than a new intellectual environment of ideas, voices, perspectives, and values—and it was largely accessible to all.

Founded in England in 1936, Penguin Books was a success from the start. Indeed, when the war broke out in 1939 the government introduced paper rationing, and because the amount allotted to each publisher was based on sales from the two previous years, Penguin’s great early success meant that it secured a significantly more generous paper allowance than many other houses. Lane certainly shifted units, as we say today, and Penguin was highly profitable, but Lane’s triumph was principally a cultural accomplishment rather than an economic one. As Cannadine observes, this is something the Times Literary Supplement neatly identified in 1960 when it described Penguin Books as the publishing equivalent of the BBC because both advanced a public mission to entertain, to educate, and to enlighten.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s Penguin created an entirely new intellectual environment that was accessible to all, not just in Britain but also throughout the entire English-speaking world. In many ways it anticipated the Open University and the open access ethos of the Internet Age. While Penguin’s influence has waned some in the face of changes in the publishing industry in the last thirty years, or so, it continues to open worlds. This is why I love Penguin books, and you should too.

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