March of the Penguins

Click here to see a slide show. In America, we have self-storage. In Britain, they have the Victoria & Albert Museum, a vast storehouse for the detritus of empire—agateware teapots, Victorian ankle boots, Mughal caskets, and biscuit tins. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. Thanks to decades of seemingly perpetual renovation, much of the museum’s collection is now beautifully curated and presented. That is certainly true of the exhibition I’ve come to see on the history of Penguin paperbacks.

To me, there is no greater story about the social impact of design than the Penguin series. Beginning in 1935, these were the first really portable and cheap books published in English—originally costing sixpence (about 70 cents today, adjusted for inflation). Various claims have been advanced for the influence of Penguins, from electing a Labor government in 1945 to midwifing the birth of graphic design as a profession. But their most important legacy may be the robust literary culture that survives in contemporary Britain, where the Man Booker Prize is treated like the World Series, and the black-and-orange Penguin logo is a hieroglyph for the nation’s literature.

The V&A exhibit, which is all in one large hall, explains how Penguins came to predominate throughout the English-speaking world. Allen Lane, who with his brothers had taken over a venerable, decaying publishing house called the Bodley Head, had the inspiration—based, according to legend, on the lack of suitable reading material at the Exeter train station on his return from a visit to Agatha Christie—that what Britain needed was cheap reprints of good books. A secretary came up with the name “Penguin,” and a 21-year-old office assistant named Edward Young was sent to the London Zoo to make sketches. It was Lane himself who devised the color scheme: orange for literature, blue for biography, pink for travel and adventure, red for plays, and green for mysteries. Lane was a shrewd promoter of his company, and by creating a uniform line of books, he defied the conventional wisdom that readers don’t care who publishes what they read. The well-designed series advertised itself far more than it advertised its writers. The matched volumes also lent order, or at least the potential for order, to the shelves of readers.

The first 10 titles issued in 1935 included André Maurois, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. It was a risky venture. Because they were so cheap, Penguin needed to sell a lot of books to make a profit. What no one at the firm anticipated was that they’d sell 3 million copies within a year. New lines debuted annually, including various literary magazines (Penguin Parade and Penguin New Writing), and left-leaning political tracts by the likes of H.G. Wells and Harold Nicholson (Penguin Specials). The Penguin Specials went from manuscript to shelf in four weeks, something no American publisher seems capable of doing with topical books today. The firm even designed a special paperback bookshelf that is still manufactured—the Isokon Penguin Donkey.

Allen Lane went on, over the next 10 years, to add Penguin Poets, Penguin Modern Painters, Penguin Classics, Puffin Picture Books, and the illustrated King Penguins, which were issued as small-format hardbacks. All these colorful books, examples of which you find everywhere used books pile up in Britain, have a visual impact and consistent quality that has yet to be matched in mass commercial publishing on either side of the Atlantic. Though the old uniform look is gone, the Penguin tradition of good design and cheap manufacture in the service of spreading literature continues to the present day.

Bernard Shapero says the most undervalued area of collecting right now is English books from the 18th century and earlier. But if you’re looking for something to collect that isn’t so expensive, consider original Penguins from the 1930s and ‘40s. Today, I’m visiting someone who does collect them, Nick Dennys, who happens to run another of the best bookshops in London—the Gloucester Road Bookshop in South Kensington. In his office-cum-flat above his shop, he gives me a tour of them, in their original dust jackets. This little collection is one I truly admire, not only because it expresses a great deal about literary history and book design, but because Dennys started assembling old Penguins when they were considered nearly worthless. It’s an illustration of how you can be a great book collector by wit alone, if you don’t happen to have the resources of the duke of Devonshire.

Dennys is a gentle giant, probably 6-foot-4, with a gray ponytail and the laid-back manner of an unreconstructed hippie. I’ve been browsing in his store since the time I lived in England in the late 1980s. It isn’t really a collector’s place at all, more a straightforward used-book store. But in his modest way, Dennys is, like James Tindley, one of the conservators of London’s literary fabric. His shop is a refuge for book browsing, an amenity that all cities need but increasingly lack.

Dennys grew up in a kind of undercover literary family. His mother and father met while working for MI6, the British Secret Service, in the 1930s. Even his nanny was a secret agent when the family lived in the Middle East. So, at one point, was his uncle, Graham Greene, hired on the recommendation of his sister, Nick’s mother.

Dennys wasn’t close to Greene growing up, but when he began selling books at London markets in Camden Town and Portobello Road in the mid-1970s, his uncle took a shine to him. Greene, who was living in France, would give Nick books to sell. When he died in 1991, Dennys handled the cataloging and multimillion-dollar sale of Greene’s own library—3,000 books by contemporaries including Waugh and Nabokov, filled with Greene’s copious marginalia—to the John J. Burns Library at Boston College.

Despite doing high-end trade by catalog, Nick’s heart is really in the bookshop and the question of what makes it work. It’s important to him that it be on regular public transportation routes, near cafes and restaurants, and in a part of London where people stroll and wander in. Though theft-prevention studies recommend having the sales desk near the front door, Dennys thinks that arrangement intimidates shy customers, so he takes his chances with the register in back. “Books are scary to some people, so I try to have a welcoming shop,” he explains. The Gloucester Road Bookshop is the kind of place where you are liable to see V.S. Naipaul browsing the modern literature section alongside a possibly homeless person laden with plastic carrier bags.

The store is open until 10:30 in the evening to catch the after-dinner crowd, and he would keep going until after the pubs close at 11 if he didn’t think it was too risky for his employees to deal with rowdy drunks. My friend Robert McCrum, who introduced me to Dennys, told me a wonderful story about him. One of his regular customers moved, which meant he could only visit early in the morning, before opening time. So Nick gave him a key to the front door. The customer would come by once a week before work and leave a check for his books on the table. 

After lunch, I quickly amass an armload of reasonably priced books—including a volume from the Penguin Poets series. The day’s prize, for £15 ($27), is something I take to be some kind of freak or mistake when I first notice it. It’s a second printing of Auden’s The Dance of Death in a flawless mauve dust jacket. I’ve collected Auden for years and have a copy of the first printing in its original green jacket. This book looks like its Martian twin. Although I love Auden, this is not a work to cherish—it’s an experimental verse play that is basically incomprehensible. But it’s a gorgeous version that I didn’t know existed of a hard-to-find early work selling for much less than it should—see Thrills 1-4.