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The First Hundred Penguin Books

January 8, 2016
by the gentle author

I came across this set of the first hundred Penguin books in my attic when I was unpacking a box that has been sealed since I moved in. With their faded orange, indigo, green, violet and pink spines they make a fine display and I am fond of this collection that took me so many years to amass.

When I left college, I wrote to companies all over the country seeking work and asking if they would give me an interview if I came to see them. Then I travelled around on the cheap, through a combination of buses, trains and hitchhiking, to visit all these places – the industrial towns of the North and the Cathedral cities of the South – staying in bus stations, youth hostels and seedy B&Bs, and going along filled with hope to interviews that were almost all fruitless. It was the first time I encountered the distinctive regional qualities of Britain and in each city, to ameliorate the day of my interview, I took the opportunity to visit the museums, civic art galleries, cathedrals and castles that distinguish these places. Arriving at each destination, I would consult the directory and make a list of the second-hand booksellers, then mark them on a tourist map and, after the job interview, I would visit every one. There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer. Many were simply junk shops with a few books piled in disorder on some shelves in the back or stacked in cardboard boxes on the pavement outside.

In these shabby old shops, I sometimes came upon Penguin books with a podgy penguin on the cover, quite in contrast to the streamlined bird familiar from modern editions. These early titles, dating from 1935 had a clean bold typography using Eric Gill’s classic sans typeface and could be bought for just twenty or thirty pence. So, in the manner of those cards you get in bubblegum packets, I began to collect any with numbers up to one hundred. In doing so, I discovered a whole library of novelists from the nineteen thirties and reading these copies passed the time pleasantly on my endless journeys. In particular, I liked the work of Eric Linklater whose playful novel “Poet’s Pub” was number two, Compton Mackenzie whose novel of the Edwardian vaudeville “Carnival” was ten, Vita Sackville-West whose novel “The Edwardians” was sixteen, T.F.Powys whose “Mr Weston’s Good Wine” was seventy-three and Sylvia Townsend Warner whose novel “Lolly Willowes” was eighty-four. After these, I read all the other works of these skillful and unjustly neglected novelists.

Eventually I found a job in Perthshire and then subsequently in Inverness, and from here I made frequent trips to Glasgow, which has the best second-hand bookshops in Scotland, to continue my collection. And whenever I made the long rail journey down South, I commonly stopped off to spend a day wandering round Liverpool or Durham or any of the places I had never been, all for the purpose of seeking old Penguins.

The collection was finally completed when I moved back to London and discovered that my next door neighbour Christine was the daughter of Allen Lane who founded Penguin books. She was astonished to see my collection and I was amazed to see the same editions scattered around her house. From Christine, I learnt how her father Allen was bored one day on Exeter St David’s Station (a place familiar to me), changing trains on the way to visit his godmother Agatha Christie. When he searched the bookstall, he could not find anything to read and decided to start his own company publishing cheap editions of good quality books. I presume he did not know that, if he had been there half a century earlier, he could have bought a copy of Thomas Hardy’s first published novel “Desperate Remedies”, because Exeter St David’s was where Hardy experienced that moment no writer can ever forget, of first seeing their book on sale.

I do not think my collection of Penguins is of any great value because they are of highly variable condition and not all are first editions, though every one predates World War II and they are of the uniform early design before the bird slimmed down. While I was collecting these, I thought that I was on a quest to build my career – a fancy that I walked away from, years later. Now these hundred Penguin books are the only evidence of my innocent tenacity to create a life for myself at that time.

Allen Lane’s idealistic conception, to use the mass market to promulgate good writing to the widest readership in cheap editions that anyone could afford, is one that I admire. And these first hundred are a fascinating range of titles, a snapshot of the British public’s reading tastes in the late thirties. Looking back, the search for all these books led me on a wonderful journey through Britain. If you bear in mind that I only found a couple in each city, then you will realise that my complete collection represents a ridiculously large number of failed job interviews in every corner of these islands. It was a job search than became a cultural tour and resulted in a stack of lovely old paperbacks. Now they sit on my shelf here in Spitalfields as souvenirs of all the curious places I never would have visited if it were not my wayward notion to scour the entire country to collect all the first hundred Penguins.

37 Responses leave one →
  1. nightsmusic permalink
    January 8, 2016

    I think that’s so cool how things worked out. Moving next door to Lane’s daughter and all. And it doesn’t matter whether those books are worth thousands or just a dollar, it’s the whole thing!

  2. January 8, 2016

    Lovely collection.

  3. Glenn permalink
    January 8, 2016

    Another great read. Interesting and touching. Thanks.

  4. Sandra permalink
    January 8, 2016

    It seems You were not so much going for interviews as serving an apprenticeship to become the Master Blogger that you are. Love your writing and photos.

  5. January 8, 2016

    I absolutely love collections of old books – all uniform with the same fonts and colour schemes so adore these photos and the story behind your collection. You have given me my beautiful moment of the day – thank you :) Special Teaching at Pempi’s Palace

  6. Annie G permalink
    January 8, 2016

    Penguin books are sheer and simple beauty. I didn’t know that this was how they were conceived – just so everyone can have a good book at a reasonable price. And I think that was a great aim, to collect the first 100. Probably all worth another read. You are a lucky individual.

  7. January 8, 2016

    I am penguin collector and have over 3000 of them, mostly first editions. You can see part of my library on travellinpenguin.blogspot.com. I live in Tasmania. There is a new book out that has been published in 2105 about the Lane brothers. Richard Lanes daughter commissioned it bc her father was also a part of Penguin books and actually it states Allen Lane didn’t do half the work of the other brothers. John the 3rd brother was killed in WW2. Allen took most of the proceeds from the other 2 families and the story of the books developed on the train station turned out to be a myth. The book can be found here if you are interested. It would be interesting what Allen Lanes daughter thinks of it as it paints him in a very poor light. Your collection is lovely. I am sure you will hang on to it. And by the way Poets book is no 3, Hemingway Farewell to Arms is no 2.

  8. Jill permalink
    January 8, 2016

    What a wonderful collection, like sweets in a sweetshop, but far better for your health.

  9. Marco permalink
    January 8, 2016

    This collection is beautiful and most likely totally impossibile to replicate nowadays!

  10. January 8, 2016

    This story was a fabulous surprise this morning! Thank you.

  11. January 8, 2016

    A very nice book-story, indeed!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  12. January 8, 2016

    You’ve touched on a favorite topic……used book stores. Here in the Hudson River Valley, we have an absolute gem, “Rodger’s Book Barn” in Hillsdale, NY. It is a cobbled-together grouping of barns and annexed sheds, looking just as you would expect — cozy, inviting, and absolutely FULL of old volumes. Stools, piano benches, Windsor chairs, tucked everywhere. Just pull up and read.
    Outside, a hammock. The bargains are legendary, and the warm welcome by proprietress Maureen Rodgers is one of the best parts of the experience. In the whole wide world of used book stores, I am blessed to live near one of the absolute best. I loved your post about the Penguin editions, and the photos are especially wonderful — they really convey the feeling we have about books as long-time companions. Many thanks, as ever.

  13. January 8, 2016

    There’s no haven on Earth to compare in dusty welcome to a “used book” shop. They have a life of their own, all those doings and feelings and experiences trapped between flaps of paper, and the air swirls with the warmth of all those stories smouldering from the inside.

    Your collection is beyond, with each book a ticket and token of the travel, and I’m recognizing so many old friends—RAFFLES! TRENT’S LAST CASE! And LOLLY WILLOWES sent me immediately on a dusky stroll through Great Mop (though this elderly Peke at my feet is a pale shade of a familiar).

    I’d love to read them every one, but would never dare to turn those fragile pages. Just the keeping would be enough.

    rachel

  14. January 8, 2016

    This story is wonderful. Inspirational. Original. Compelling. Do you know if anyone else is doing this? Thank you.

  15. January 8, 2016

    What a lovely story, lovely piece of history, and lovely collection.

  16. Walter permalink
    January 8, 2016

    A fine story, some disappointment mellowed by time perhaps.
    When in Liverpool, I invariably end up in Henry Bohn’s second-hand bookshop around the corner from Lime Street Station. A seller of the Old School, books piled high, some shelved, many not, inaccessible and unseen in cardboard boxes, categorised in some rough manner, but chaotic enough that you live in hope! “Do you have anything on the Chemical Industry in the North-west”, I asked. “No” was the answer given so fast that I inverted it to mean “maybe”. So encouraged, I came away happy with a volume on a 30′s meeting of the British Association in the North-east. Such is the pleasure of serendipity and the second-hand bookshop. Long may Henry Bohn and his kind survive as landlords and developers squeeze the life out of cities.

  17. January 8, 2016

    Isn’t this the most wonderful, best ever, blog. A post like this is a perfect example of great information, used books that make my heart sing along with the bookstore crawl to find them. There are two things I covet….other people’s gardens and other book collections. My own books sit upon a shelf keeping me company as I read on. One thing leads to another and now I must be sure to read from this list of 100 starting with the favorites that are specifically mentioned here. Thank you for the time and talent it takes to create this ongoing success.

  18. Marion Elliot permalink
    January 8, 2016

    What a lovely collection, great to see it. I’ve been trying to collect the first 100 Puffin books for years – not quite there yet! My rule is never to spend more than £2,, but they are getting harder and harder to find…

  19. Kassie permalink
    January 8, 2016

    Thank you for yet another lyrical peek into your memories. Touching and compelling at the same time; one of the hallmarks of TGA that I always savor.

  20. January 8, 2016

    What a lovely piece! I’m also wondering whether the color of the cover was significant. I have a few Penguins from the 60s and early 70s, and while the novelists (including Compton Mackenzie for “Sinister Street”) are in orange, Margery Allingham and Michael Innes and John le Carre are in green, and I noticed Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and a few others on your shelves are in green, too.

    How is the paper holding up? My older paperbooks are starting to deteriorate.

  21. January 8, 2016

    Years ago before leaving for London I heard a writer (sadly cannot recall who) speak of discovering the little Penguin paperbacks as a student in Oxford. He bought them for the simple reason they were only 25p, then quickly became an avid collector like yourself. He described them with such love and awe that I was determined to search the dusty shelves of Russel Square on my arrival.

    And there they were! And still a bargain! Such an unusual collection of strange and unusual writers. Anyone lucky enough to still have used bookstores close by should give these little beauties a try. They will not disappoint.

    Thanks so much for your always interesting memories and discoveries.
    Happy 2016, Peggy

  22. Diane Reynolds permalink
    January 8, 2016

    I just loved reading this one and picturing you as you moved from city to city, book shop to book shop. What a wonderful adventure it was! Also, you have a great collection to show for it.

  23. pauline taylor permalink
    January 8, 2016

    Yes, my time to travel, the colour of the books is significant, green is detective fiction, blue non fiction, pink travel, and the orange fiction, and yes Jean, many people collect them and we, as booksellers, sell hundreds of them. They are great, and it is good to see your collection GA.

  24. January 9, 2016

    From collecting 100 Penguin books to writing 10,000 blog posts: a logical transition.

    I’m glad you didn’t give up on one and hope you complete the other.

  25. Kyle Michel Sullivan permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Penguin books are so great. I recently bought the new translation of “Kristen Lavransdatter” By Sigrid Undset to read, a large heavy volume dwarfing the little penguin on its spine. When I’m done with “My Antonia”, I will dive happily into that.

  26. Alexa permalink
    January 9, 2016

    The books may not be valuable, but the story that comes with them make them invaluable

  27. January 9, 2016

    Something that hadn’t occurred to me (after 37 years in publishing!): at what point did a book designer somewhere decide that we should start tilting our heads to the right instead of the left to read a book’s spine?

  28. Lee martin permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your lovely collection of penguin books and the accompanying story of your travels etc

  29. January 9, 2016

    I trust you are a member of the Penguin Collectors Society! Where would your older readers be today without growing up with Penguin books to educate and entertain us. I too am trying to assemble the first 100 Puffins, but the out of the way, and often damp basement corners of second hand bookshops are fast disappearing. I have added a lot in the past from Sarah Key’s Haunted Bookshop, which for years I called the Magic Bookshop, but they are less easy to find now. I have just been dipping into Puffin’s “A Woman among Savages” about Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa,; she appears in the Penguins 80 list. do you remember when you found your last of the 100?
    Thanks, Sarah Berris

  30. Suzy permalink
    January 9, 2016

    This was definitely one of my all time favourite posts. I’ve never forgotten it and in fact was reminded of it just recently when perusing the many penguin books at Waterloo bridge book market. A great story indeed.

    Thanks too to Lynne Perrella and the recommendation for Roger’s Book Barn. I have friends in Peekskill so should I visit any time soon, I’ll surely pay a visit to Hillsdale!

    Thank you TGA!

  31. gabrielle permalink
    January 10, 2016

    Beautiful story. Beautiful collection.
    I’m fascinated that you ‘find yourself living in Spitalfields’.
    It seems to me an ideal place for you to have settled, if indeed you have.

  32. Robert Brown permalink
    January 10, 2016

    The most difficult to find used to be no. 58, The Poisoned Chocolates Case!

  33. Flora permalink
    January 10, 2016

    How wonderful! I must admit to a bit of envy. When I went to college I discovered that the penguin meant interesting reading. At 66 I still thrill to see one on the shelf at used bookstores. And I am happy that they are publishing still.

  34. j.j permalink
    January 12, 2016

    a very poignant posting, which made me think of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”, specifically these lines: “…Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books….”

  35. j.j permalink
    January 12, 2016

    moved by Lynne Perrella’s remarks as I often visited Rodgers Book Barn in the mid 1970s to mid-1980s, often by hitchiking or by moped from a neighbouring state. At a time when many book barns in those parts were rather stodgy, she was unique for her excellent taste in literature – and her low prices – and of course her interesting backround [John Cowper Powys lived in Hillsdale, too, once upon a time]

  36. Nick D permalink
    January 12, 2016

    How lovely. I’ve read many of your blogs over the years, it’s nice to hear some of your personal
    experiences from the past.

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