August 29, 2010

Clever old penguin!

Penguin Books is 75 years old 

From the Penguin website’s “Company history” page
Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour-coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun.
There's a Penguin 75th anniversary minisite about all the ways that decisive moment is being remembered this year. If all you can spare is a glance, do it just to see the banner with all the penguins from the last 75 years: skinnier ones, fatter ones, one that looks almost The New Yorkerish, and in 1945 a happy penguin executing a Fred Astaire dance step for Victory.

The famed orange covers are being honoured by Douglas Coupland in his “Speaking to the Past” project as a fantastic element of interior design for home or crack den, and oh yes, also something which communicates. He asks, “How would you speak to someone in the year 1935 from 2010, using a Penguin cover?” and shows some clever mock-covers he’s made with titles like Every book ever written fits into a shoebox, which surprises even modern me.

You download a Penguin cover template, add your title and image, and upload it to a group pool on Flickr. Of the ones uploaded so far, most seem to be about 2010 problems – energy wars, credit cards -- or inventions -- ipods, the internet -- rather than 1935 problems. Now, if you could speak to people in the past, wouldn't you be tempted to pass along some wisdom? I suggest a cover with an image of the first stretch of the German autobahn, in 1935 just completed and being sold as a "jobs creation programme", and the title The practical art of moving armies ( borrowed from the Baron de Jomini’s treatise on the art of war).

My favourite anniversary initiative is Penguin Decades. These are 5 books each from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, re-issued with new covers by famous designers from each period. The blurb says “Discover Penguin Decades. The scandalous, misunderstood, and most celebrated novels which have defined the post-war generations.” I definitely want to try them all. I might even re-read the ones I’ve already read, which are only three: From Russia with Love (50s), and A Clockwork Orange and The British Museum is falling down (both 60s). I’m not sure how I ever managed to define myself with such a poor track record, but this is definitely a chance to make up for lost time.

The Penguin decades pages on the minisite give thumbnail sketches of the decades and show all the new and old covers, including the very edition of A Clockwork Orange which my husband bought on a youthful trip to London (moving on from the more youthful still purchases of Health & Efficiency, a British magazine which lauded the salutory effects of sunbathing, even better if done naked) and which is still on our shelves. They’ve got it down as a 60s cover, but it’s actually the cover which David Pelham created in the 1970s for the movie tie-in edition. I vividly remember when the movie came out, because it quickly earned a reputation as a shocker, and doubly so for me, as my mother unexpectedly proposed that she and I go see it together, shooting us up a couple of notches in our evolving mother-daughter relationship.

Someone at Penguin should have reread the transcript of the talk David Pelham gave five years ago as part of their 70th anniversary celebrations. It's online on the Creative Review blog; it’s got lots of good anecdotes about book covers, from Lennon to Nabokov, if not Lenin.

Rest assured, a small error like this is not going to displace Penguin Books from its special place in my heart. I liked this part of the Company story about Allen Lane choosing a logo:

"He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin."

I couldn’t help thinking of the Edward Lear nonsense alphabet of my childhood.
A was an ape
Who stole some white tape
And tied up his toes
In four beautiful bows.

Funny old ape!
That's from Edward Lear. And here's from me:
P was a penguin
Dignified but flippant  (it’s assonance, okay?)
He turned seventy-five
Spry and alive.

Clever old penguin!

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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