Bird that broke barriers

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
The first iconic publisher is celebrating its 70th birthday with the release of Pocket Penguins. Easy on the eye, easy on the brain, and they make great greetings cards, is David Self's verdict

Pocket Penguins

pound;1.50 each; boxed set of 70 pound;105

A select few trade names pass into our language as generic terms. We are as likely to talk about Biros, Hoovers and Sellotape as ball-point pens, vacuum cleaners and sticky tape. There was a time when such names were joined by Penguin. For some years following the launch of the company in 1935, "Penguin" was synonymous with paperback. Indeed, the company can still fairly boast that it is the world's most recognisable book brand.

Penguin celebrated its 60th birthday 10 years ago with some panache and the publication of 60 shirt-pocket-sized mini-books (the Penguin 60s). It may be excused a similarly self-indulgent celebration for its 70th anniversary.

This event is being marked with the simultaneous publication of 70 slim Pocket Penguins, which need a slightly larger pocket since they are actually the same page size as a traditional paperback, although they are all of a uniform 64-page length.

One of the more succinct accounts of the founding of Penguin Books came from the opening speech of the defence counsel in the historic 1960 prosecution of the firm when it sought to publish an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover: "In 1935, there was a man called Lane, in his thirties, who had been in the publishing business and he thought it would be a good thing if the ordinary people were able to afford to buy good books. The ordinary book was expensive then as it is expensive now. He himself had not had the advantage of being at a university. He had a passion for books. He left school at the age of 16."

At first Allen Lane's Penguin list consisted entirely of reprints.

Gradually he expanded it to include new titles, notably the companion non-fiction series of Pelicans (now defunct), which was to prove one of the most important educational influences of the 20th century. There were also the Penguin Classics, Poets and Plays; the topical Penguin Specials; and the Puffin titles for younger readers.

Some of these series are represented in the new Pocket Penguins, a series we are told is "emblematic" of the Penguin list. So we have an extract (The Cave of the Cyclops) from the very first (and highly successful) Penguin Classic: EV Rieu's accessible prose translation of Homer's Odyssey. Other great names from the back list are similarly represented. There are short stories by HG Wells (The Country of the Blind), PG Wodehouse (Jeeves and the Impending Doom), John Steinbeck (Murder) and, yes, Roald Dahl (A Taste of the Unexpected). There are tempting extracts from novels that have long remained in print: Caligula, compiled from Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God; and Scenes of Academic Life. These clippings from David Lodge's various campus novels form a wry history of the way English universities have Americanised themselves, as they "abandon traditional tutorial teaching, and purge their faculties of amusing unproductive eccentrics".

There are plenty of famous writers in the mix: Albert Camus, Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf and, er, Jamie Oliver. Is it sheer opportunism and commercialism that leads Penguin to include Jamie's collection of recipes (Something for the Weekend), with its depressing opening sentence, "Me and this dish go back a long way"? We may not like Mr Oliver's grammar, but his suggestions for brekkie, sarnies and puds is perhaps the modern equivalent of a 1961 Penguin handbook I still use: Katherine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedsitter (sadly not one of the 70), with its sensible recipes for basics such as toast. "When you have scraped it, the answer is to bang the toast hard; and remember to wipe the cinders off the knife."

There is also more profound non-fiction. Extracts from Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins and JK Galbraith are all accessible introductions to authors we might feel we should have read but haven't. CH Rolph's account of Lady Chatterley's Trial is not only a tribute to Penguin's readiness to push at barriers, but is also, in retrospect, both inspiring and hilarious.

Michael Moore's Idiot Nation (taken from his controversial Stupid White Men, a book they tried to ban in the United States) is a devastating picture of a country with 44 million functionally illiterate adults, which blames this fact on teachers wanting wage hikes. Indeed it is titles such as this that make you feel it is worth investing in the complete set of Pocket Penguins, not just as an attractive artefact, but as a happy way of filling gaps in one's own education.

It is tempting to see Pocket Penguins as simply a promotional wheeze to seduce readers into buying full-length works, having first paid for a taster. Teachers, however, will find that many of them usefully introduce reluctant readers to otherwise daunting books. The Secret Annexe, taken from Anne Frank's diary, will appeal to the young reader put off by a longer paperback. Niall Ferguson's 1914: Why the World Went to War; The Assault on Jerusalem, taken from Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades; or Antony Beevor's Christmas at Stalingrad will each answer more than one history student's prayer. And, I suspect, most English teachers will find themselves repeatedly drawing on Roger McGough's collection of poems, The State of Poetry.

As I found with the Penguin 60s 10 years ago, the Pocket Penguins are also an admirable replacement for greeting cards. I know exactly to whom I will send India Knight's celebration of retail therapy, How to Shop, or Sigmund Freud's Forgetting Things, while Alain de Botton's meditation on sadness, On Seeing and Noticing, is more meaningful than any fatuous card promising to be "Thinking of You at this Time".

Penguin was once famous for its original banded covers: orange and white for novels, green and white for crime. Many years ago they embraced pictorial covers and the covers of these 70 books are themselves highly attractive. There are titles here that make you wonder just what is meant by "emblematic", but then the Penguin list has always been eclectic. And even if Penguin is now a thoroughly commercial institution, Allen Lane always was a shrewd bird. And the birthday of the bird he created is indeed an anniversary worthy of a celebration.

A free exhibition, 70 Years of Penguin Design, is at the Victoria and Albert museum, London, June 8-November 13. More information:020 7942 2000

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