There is a particular pleasure to be had from reading other people's private correspondence. For that pleasure to be complete, one needs to know either writer or recipient. Never having met the Asquiths, Mitfords or the Waughs, I do not find The Letters of Evelyn Waugh (edited by Mark Amory, Phoenix Pounds 9.99) as exciting as might some people.
True, Auberon Waugh once paid me a few guineas for an article and (I've started name-dropping so I'll finish) I once sat next to Tom Driberg when he was implausibly invited to speak at a school where I was teaching - so I should have some curiosity about Waugh's letters to Bron and Tom. But despite his wit and bitchery, I can't help feeling this is a sanitised collection. Even so, it does contain some good laughs.
For almost everyone over 40, Penguin Books have been a leading educational influence, be it those pale blue Pelicans, the Classics or simply the paperback Lady Chatterley. To mark the firm's 60th birthday, Steve Hare has raided the many author files kept in the Penguin archives to produce Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970 (Penguin Pounds 12).
It is marvellous to discover that just as a precocious mob of us in the Modern Sixth back in 1956 were stumbling on the frank translations of Rabelais and Zola, down in Penguin HQ they were debating at length the morality of publishing such literature for the very first time "at a price which would make it readily available to an adolescent seeker after pornography".
More seriously, this somewhat dense anthology of letters does illustrate the cultural importance of the firm Allen Lane founded back in 1935 and provides interesting insights into the growth of the splendid Puffin and the sadly defunct Penguin Education lists.
Coincidental with the 60th anniversary, there appears the 50th edition of Granta (Penguin Pounds 7.99), the magazine that looks like a paperback and which I've always thought was for people younger and more macho than myself. This edition (the last to be edited by Bill Buford) contains some fine journalism on the aftermath of the Vietnam War and some equally acute travel writing by Julian Barnes and Germaine Greer.
Even more macho characters appear in Nigel Williams' play Class Enemy (Faber Pounds 6.99). Written in 1976, it features six anarchic South London 16-year-olds awaiting any teacher brave enough to tackle 5K. Despite almost every speech containing either (and often both) the f-- and c-- words, it is not exactly Rabelaisian but it has been produced by schools. It is raw, funny, utterly convincing and very humbling as the lads gradually reveal their desperate want of "knowledge".
In many ways, such precise social observation as Williams's renders sociologists redundant. But Professor A H Halsey in his Change in British Society (from 1900 to the present day) (Oxford Opus Paperbacks Pounds 8. 99), updated to include the effects of Thatcherism and the promise of Major's classless society, goes on to analyse such little matters as social breakdown and the demise of the family. Among his conclusions are the belief that education exists to transform "biological organisms into social personalities" and that we live in a century which has seen the motorway replace the church spire as the symbol of our aspirations.
Anyone still wanting to understand Christianity could turn to The Puzzle of the Gospels by Peter Vardy and Mary Mills (Fount Pounds 7.99). The authors' intention is to explain the purposes of the original writers of the Gospels and, in particular, to explain those passages which cause "problems" for the modern rationalist.
The latter may not be satisfied: those sympathetic to the Christian viewpoint will find this a clear introduction to what, after all, are cryptic first century texts written for specific audiences.