I’ve always thought of Penguin books as kind of elite books, or at least the sort of things that university students and intellectuals would buy. I had no idea that they actually started out as books designed to provide inexpensive, good quality fiction for the masses.
Penguin tweeted a link to their company history today, so I started reading. I didn’t know that in the beginning, they carried three genres: biography, fiction, and crime writing, with each genre having its own colour in a band on the cover. (Biography=dark blue, crime=green, fiction=orange)
I love some of the reactions to this new publishing venture, that they’ve quoted on the page. Take George Orwell, for example, in 1936:
if other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries and check the output of new novels
Isn’t that a scream? The advent of Penguin was going to stop new novels! Of course, that was because the company was simply reprinting previously issued books, in the beginning. It wasn’t long, though, before the Pelican imprint appeared, which published books on important issues of the day, as well as original books.
And then came the line that I myself first associated with the publisher: Penguin Classics. I squealed when I read that the first title in this line was The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu. I have that book! Not with that first cover, but I do have it. This gives me goosebumps.
Meanwhile, you don’t really think of Penguin as the poster boy for defying the authorities, do you? Yet in the 1960s, the publisher’s acquittal under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act, after they published an unabridged version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, helped alter censorship laws. Those rebels!
Give the article a read, if you’re interested in the history. I’d had no idea just how innovative Penguin really was over the years.