I grew up in a house full of paperbacks. They filled bookcases in every room, in the corridor outside the bathroom and on shelves in the alcove of the spiral stair up to my attic bedroom. The only hardbacks were cookbooks and my grandmother’s Shorter OED and Roget’s Thesaurus, which sat by her daily as she did the Times crossword. Everything else was a paperback, and lining the living room shelves were row upon of striped orange spines, with a small bird at the bottom.
I can’t say that I read all the Penguins my parents had, but we had a lot. At university, I bought the Penguin Classics for classes, and you can tell my favourites by the state of the spines – but that wear to books is the same as we likely inflict on anything we love.
I’ve been buying books professionally for a decade now, but personal collecting has to be just that – personal. These volumes reflect the lives and beliefs of my parents and grandparents; that economic background and class status should not be barriers to the enjoyment of culture, art and literature. No book states that democratic impulse with more aesthetic clarity than the Penguin.
Andre Maurois. London: Penguin, 1935.
Penguin no. 1, with dustjacket, published in 1935 as an imprint of the Lane brother’s The Bodley Head. The earliest ten titles – published simultaneously – established the color code jacket scheme. The dark blue-purple cover here indicates the biographical subject matter, a study of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published under the pen name of French author Emile Herzog. The famous orange was reserved for novels, crime novels were green, with other colors added later.
George Orwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951.
No. 838, published six years after the novel’s first appearance, and fourteen years after the move of the offices from London to Harmondsworth. Other titles by Orwell had already appeared in Penguin, with the first being Down and Out in Paris and London (no. 297), but Animal Farm – along with 1984 – represent his most well-known and widest read titles, perhaps largely through their release in this affordable format.
Life in an English Village.
Noel Carrington. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949.
King Penguins represent the first appearance of hardcover titles and color images in the Penguin range. Issued between 1939 and 1959, and edited after 1941 by Nikolaus Pevsner, they retained the established pocket-sized format and eventually ran to 76 volumes. This edition, no. 51 in the series, features sixteen lithographs by Edward Bawden, a student of Paul Nash and colleague of Eric Ravilious, and was printed at the Curwen Press.