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Passion for Penguins

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I owe what passes for an education to a number of academic institutions, a small army of instructors (some none too patient), and a love for books, music, and the graphic arts. But as a friend has raised the subject of a secret passion, I will disclose my own irrational, downright unnatural attachment to Penguin paperbacks. Penguin, it seems, is much responsible for my education. Apparently it all goes back to a Allen Lane in 1937, standing on the station platform in Exeter looking for something to read on his train ride home and being disgusted with the rubbish that was offered. There is a market for serious books, attractively but very thriftily produced, he thought. And shortly Penguins were born.

I grew up spending a lot of time overseas where the Penguins dominated the market for English-speaking books, and I fell in love with them. The wonderful classic typography (from the Eric Gill-inspired early editions forward to the classics and modern classics, the Pelicans and other series), the art. They weren’t expensive (though much more than the price of a package of cigarettes, which was the original idea), but they had a feeling of being substantial. Coming back to the States and seeing stacks of prematurely yellow, garishly covered, foil stamped and embossed schlock novels, I’d get an instant sense of nostalgia.

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Hard to say what I liked most about the Penguins. I knew whatever I picked up, it would be worth reading. And I was most impressed with the covers, already prepared with a real esthetic sense, and frequently with great works of art. In fact, I remember picking up books purely because of the art: an amazing Max Ernst on the front of Karel ?apek’s Apocryphal Stories, for instance, a fabulous green fresco on a collection of Horace’s Odes. I would read the book and would come back to marvel about the choice of art. A lot of thought had always gone into the selection, and there was a link—not obvious at first, but always there on some reflection. It was a sort of clue to what was within. (And picking art to go with quotations and poetry here, I try to follow the same rules and approaches that I imagine the Penguin editors used. Perhaps I’m not quite so good at it, however.)

These days I can’t pass through an airport in the UK without sifting through the stock of Penguins. It’s a compulsion, and some day I’ll go for treatment. But not just yet. At the moment, Penguin has brought out 36 new titles printed up to echo the Penguins of the fifties. Not a book in the series that isn’t worth reading (though I’m only half way through.) The real winners are Claire Tomalin’s fabulous Jane Austen: A Life, Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy and finally Niall Ferguson’s Empire (indispensable for understanding how we got in our current mess, and a damned good read). These books remind me that good literature, which nourishes as it entertains, still has a marketplace.

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