Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Marching On: How Penguin Became a British Institution
By Matthew Price. Bookforum, April/May 2006

Penguin Special, by Jeremy Lewis, and Penguin by Design, by Phil BainesMy favorite Penguins don’t have feathers or beaks. What they do have are nifty orange spines, and they perch among a messy clutter of Picadors, Flamingos, and the odd Anchor. My favorite Penguins are paperbacks, and for me they are the gold standard, even if I prefer the old mass-market size of my splendid (but incomplete) set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time to the spiffed-up, trade-size Penguins of the past few decades. Compared with the fancy-pants standards of today’s paperback design—all those French flaps, deluxe editions, and matte finishes—my Penguin Powells are austere little things. The paper is just a notch above newsprint quality, and the typeface—Monotype Garamond—is plain, solid, and readable. The cover art, by British cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, is demure yet wonderfully evocative, sketching an urbane tapestry of London life from the low, dishonest years of the ’30s to the Swinging ’60s. (Maybe one day I’ll actually get around to reading Powell’s vast roman-fleuve, but that’s another story.)

Like the BBC or George Galloway, Penguin is a peculiarly British institution, even if it is now just one subsidiary of the Pearson media conglomerate, which also owns The Economist and the Financial Times. Poor Penguin, you might think— but not quite. Among other things, Jeremy Lewis’s clubbable biography of Allen Lane, the man who founded Penguin back in the ’30s, is a cure for nostalgia about the supposedly good ole days of publishing. Lane was a literary entrepreneur through and through, a bookman with his eye on the bottom line. He didn’t invent the paperback, but he perfected the format at a time when other publishers frowned on such editions for purportedly dulling the luster of the book trade. Lane was a marketing visionary, and a central part of his vision included making a pound—lots of them.

Lewis is a veteran British publishing hand, and there’s a lot of insider history in Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane that won’t mean much to the uninitiated, but this biography shines light on a vital chapter in the social history of the book. Lane knew there was an underserved reading public to be tapped, one that was put off by the snootiness of bookshops and the expense of hardback editions. This was the middle England of industrial estates and suburban pubs, a world of self-improvers recently up from the working class who had a hunger for culture and a bit of spare change in their pockets. “We … believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price,” Lane remarked in 1938, “and [we] staked everything on it.”

Born in 1902, Lane was a dapper yet unpretentious bon vivant—he made cocktails “like dynamite”—with a strong allergy to snobbery. Unlike today’s polished publishing professionals, Lane had no university degree. But bookselling was in the family DNA—his uncle John was proprietor of the Bodley Head, a bookshop and publishing outfit in London, where Lane went to work at sixteen. He got to know all aspects of the book biz, from the counter on up the production chain, experience that would later stand him in good stead. After his uncle’s death, Lane became the majority shareholder in Bodley Head, and when the firm went belly-up in the early ’30s, he started musing on plans for a new imprint.

There is some debate over what motivated Lane to start Penguin, but, according to the standard version, he was traveling by train and became dismayed at the lack of good books on sale. His decision, writes Lewis, was to “remedy matters by producing a line of paperbacks that cost no more each than a pack of cigarettes, looked bright and elegant rather than garish, and included worthwhile works of literature instead of lightweight ephemera.” Lane assembled a small team of like-minded editors in 1934, and right away tackled an important question: What were they to call the new imprint? Dolphin? Phoenix? When someone suggested Penguin, Lane took to it immediately—it had a “certain dignified flippancy,” he said, which is a perfect gloss on one of publishing’s most familiar icons.

When other publishers got wind of Lane’s scheme, they fumed and tried to thwart him; there were battles over rights and royalties, but Lane was able to secure Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles for the first series, which rolled off the presses and into stores in July 1935. A crucial deal with the Woolworth chain gave Penguin a national presence. Its books were an immediate hit: one newspaper blared A PUBLISHING TRIUMPH. By 1936, some three million copies had sold. Still, there were grumbles from one future Penguin author, who carped, “It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade.” Then again, George Orwell never was satisfied, was he?

Lane was finicky about the design of his hatchlings, and the first series sported a distinctive horizontal grid, bold typography, and the color scheme that would become famous—orange for fiction titles, green for crime, and dark blue for biography. As someone who learned his art history from the covers of Penguin Classics, I was surprised to find out that Lane hated picture covers, which he associated with American publishing, whose methods he despised. Though Lewis pays some attention to design and layout, Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 offers Penguin lovers and bibliophiles alike an invaluable survey of the house’s cover art. One amusing spread showcases the sundry versions of the Penguin icon over the years; early on, a penguin dancing a jig festooned Lane’s covers, and it wasn’t until a few years later that the stout, slightly bug-eyed little fellow who graces Penguin’s titles today emerged.

The coming of World War II transformed the once-pesky little imprint into a dominant force in British culture. Lane subsidized John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, which published Orwell, Auden, Isherwood, and V.S. Pritchett. In 1937, Lane hatched the blue-spined Pelicans, which offered social science titles to the “interested layman.” The firm further spread its wings with Penguin Specials, book-length polemics on global politics and current events; though Lane was instinctively left-leaning, the list was eclectic—one offering was Lord Londonderry’s pro-Hitler tract Ourselves and Germany, which described the Führer as a “kindly man with a receding chin and an impressive face.” One special became an all-time Penguin best seller (Penguin trivia buffs take note): R. A. Saville-Sneath’s Aircraft Recognition. Penguin also contributed to the war effort with the no-doubt-riveting Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps by Claude H. Goodchild. British servicemen went to war with Penguins in their pockets, and the Lane brand spread around the globe.

After the war, Penguin’s aviary exploded with new series, including the seminal Penguin Classics, edited by E.V. Rieu, and Kenneth Clark’s Penguin Modern Painters, plus the trade-size Peregrines, aimed at the growing academic market, and Puffins for children (you might want to keep an Audubon guide handy). Part of Lane’s brilliance was hiring the right editors and parceling out tasks to a devoted corps of designers: To help bring some order to his now-unruly brood, Lane brought in famed Bauhaus typographer Jan Tschichold, who gave the covers and type a needed face-lift. Tschichold was a perfectionist—he felt it was “more difficult to design a book than to draw a landscape.” For me, the postwar years are when things get really interesting, cover-wise. Lane’s conservatism on jacket art slowly gave way—there was fierce competition from competing imprints in Britain and America, and he had to go with the tide—and a horde of new designers gave Penguin covers a distinctive look and sensibility.

The first attempts were tentative, halfway between the old stripped-down grid and full-blown illustration. In 1960, graphic artist John Griffiths composed a spooky, nuclear-era cover for Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud (“Science Fiction by a Scientist”) that hints at apocalypse. The ’60s saw some of the most eye-catching Penguin covers in the brand’s history, from the stark, black-and-white plant imagery that graces Penguin Modern Poets to the abstract, Technicolor palette of Penguin Plays. Graphic-artist whiz Alan Aldridge, a favorite of the Beatles, designed a series of far-out grotesques for sci-fi novels from J.G. Ballard and Frank Herbert. Ross Cramer’s surreal artwork for Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its image of a graffito-covered face emerging from water, may be the most freakishly spectacular cover ever. And one series I’m determined to get my hands on is a nifty quartet of John Updike titles that feature the same sketch of the author, each flecked with different colors or in black-and-white, against a stark white background.

Flipping through Baines’s book—itself exquisitely designed and beautifully typeset—is like walking through a museum of twentieth-century design. This is part of the fun of tracking down Penguins: You feel that you’re holding a bit of a given moment’s zeitgeist in your hands. Allen Lane’s creations will be keeping this collector busy for a long time.


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Matthew Price, writer and book critic


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