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One Hundred Penguin Books

February 8, 2010
by the gentle author

I found these first hundred Penguin books in my attic over the weekend, as 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 three, 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.

45 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    February 8, 2010

    I’ve never heard of most of these. Is it because I’m American or because of the few authors who achieve the spotlight, fewer still retain it decades later. But I so love the title “Lolly Willowes,” I’ll have to see if I can track down a dusty copy in one of our libraries.

  2. February 8, 2010

    Wonderful post as always!

  3. mcneill permalink
    February 8, 2010

    I will curl up and die if all books in the future are passed around in electronic files. No more travelling to bookshops all over the UK then!

    It’s striking that they’re all roughly the same size. Was that a criterion for their selection by the publisher?

  4. the gentle author permalink*
    February 8, 2010

    Dear Susan, I know you would love Lolly Willowes.

  5. February 8, 2010

    My friend Barbara sent me the link to this – what a wonderful post! And how lovely to see Lolly Willowes and Mr. Weston’s Good Wine mentioned together, not to mention the wonderful Vita Sackville-West (have you read her book The Heir? It’s brilliant).

  6. February 8, 2010

    Great post. There is a bookshop in Colchester where I live, which has boxes of these and I have spent many a happy hour in there having a rummage and a read. This love of Penguins is obviously widespread as the recent box of Postcards using the old penguin covers sold out so quickly before Christmas they were well nigh impossible to get hold of. I managed to get a set and spent a nostalgic trip looking through them all and remembering the books.

    Thank you for a lovely post

  7. February 8, 2010

    Really enjoyed reading this. We have about 20 of the first 100 and enjoy collecting them in a very slow and haphazard way. We could probably buy them all from the internet in a day – but that would be no fun at all.

  8. February 8, 2010

    tremendous, as usual.

    BTW, thanks ever so much for the recommendation of Gav. never remembered to post afterward, but what a great bloke. (my hair thanks you, too.)

  9. daphne Sayed permalink
    February 9, 2010

    what an interesting post and how interestingly you use friend Barbara sent me the link to you so now I have ‘bookmarked you’ and shall visit often.
    I, too, have some old penguins but not collected in as orderly fashion as you. I have a penchant for the blue history series.

  10. Anne permalink
    February 9, 2010

    A lovely read, also there was my other ‘lovely read’ on the shelf too. Anna of the five Towns by Arnold Bennett is one of my very favourite books . I have to leave it a few years between reads so it’s fresh again.
    Must be about time now, thanks for reminding me.

  11. February 11, 2010

    These are so beautiful I want to take them to dinner and keep pouring them wine until they leave you for ME.

  12. February 12, 2010

    This is beautiful — the books and your story both!!!

  13. February 13, 2010

    What a lovely post! And such beautiful pictures! I love old Penguins too but there are so many of them that I’ve only been looking for favourite books or books I do want to read. I only have a handful so far as I just started last year. The idea of doing it by the numbers is a great one. I wonder if there’s a list of titles by numbers somewhere on the internet?

  14. February 13, 2010

    Lovely post and lovely books. I pick up old Penguins in a desultory way but had not realised about the numberings — I shall be on the look out more seriously now.

  15. February 13, 2010

    this is no yet another blog post, this is literature. is on my bookmarks list now. thank you !

  16. February 13, 2010

    My favourite Penguin Classic was also the first I ever bought. I loved the cover and the fact it was in mint condition, so I didn’t really mind about the content. Titled, The Social Life of Insects, I always thought it would be fairly dire to read. So I when I did actually pick it up I was amazed to find it a totally addictive read. It’s now definitely one of my re-reads that I m looking forward too!

    Lovely pics and post by the way!

  17. February 14, 2010

    Reminded by this lovely post to look more closely at my own library, I noticed, seemingly for the first time, that Penguins have spines in different colours denoting the genre. Mine are mostly green, for crime (being a great fan of Margery Allingham) . What a simple and clever idea.

    There is an interesting article about Penguin on the website of the Design Museum here

  18. Nella permalink
    February 18, 2010

    I was directed to this blog from Persephone Books. Each day I visit Persephone Books blog where I always find a little treat to cheer me. Today I found the wonderful photo of your Penguin books with a link to your blog.
    Your article was so interesting and informative. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed reading it. I too, like others who have commented, will be visiting again!

  19. February 18, 2010

    I found you via Persephone as well – what a beautiful collection and a wonderful story to go with it. Books are the best souvenirs of life’s experiences!

    You have a terrific blog!

  20. Robbie Kendall permalink
    February 18, 2010

    Using the Persephone Books blog as my home page, I discover quite a lot about Britain of which I am otherwise unaware having been born and raised in the States, now living in Chicago – in this case that the early editions of Penguin were numbered. Are they still? The copy of Hazlitt recently sent to me by John Sandoe Books doesn’t seem to be. My two collections of British books are the Persephone series (now up to #86 – and which, should you choose to start reading them in order, might be best beginning with #3, then 2, then 1 before returning to 4, 5, 6, etc.) and the Agatha Christie first edition facsimiles. With the Penguin, I now have a new series to try and find and read. Thank you for the introduction.

  21. February 18, 2010

    As a dedicated reader, I am very glad to have this site via Persephone Books.

    I look forward to visiting hereabouts again soon.

  22. February 28, 2010

    What an excellent collection, rather reminds me of the second hand department of Waterstone’s on Gower Street…have spent many a happy hour lost over there!

  23. Nell permalink
    March 9, 2010

    What a lovely collection! I have lots of paperbacks but am very fond of Penguins. I often buy second-hand ones and have all of Margery Allingham’s novels in Penguin.

    I inherited a “Penguin bookcase” sold in Heals, from my uncle, which was designed to hold Penguin paperbacks.

    I am also acquiring the lovely Penguin mugs which are so bright and cheerful.

    They are a cultural icon of 20th century.

  24. November 8, 2010

    Enjoyed reading your story. Small point but Poet’s Pub is number 3 in the series. Number 2 was ‘a farewell to arms’.
    regards GT

  25. chris permalink
    January 29, 2011

    Hi ther, lovely collection. I myself am a big colelctor,I have about 500 of the first 1000 publications, all first editions. There is so much charm in these old penguin books, and they look great all lined up. If you ever decide to sell any of these please get in contact with me. I’d love to add some to my collection.

  26. K A Howlett permalink
    October 29, 2011

    Lolly Willows was the first Book of the Month selection –

  27. Daniela permalink
    March 4, 2012

    Googling “antique penguin books” I stumbled on this most beautiful site. I once had an old Penguin book that was the Letters of Vincent van Gogh, with a foreward by Johanna van Gogh, the book was yellowed, quiet, and, unopened, when I read it. I lent it. What was I thinking?! Unlike you, I barely ever see an old Penguin book anywhere here in Australia, so it is like a balm to stumble onto this site.

  28. May 5, 2012

    What a wonderful collection. Reminds me of my parents collections year ago. I don’t know what happened to them all.
    Books to read

  29. Claud permalink
    July 3, 2012

    I’m so glad my googling of ‘second hand penguin classics’ brought me to this blog post. Your books are beautiful, as is your story of their acquisition. Your collection has inspired me to expand my own. Thank you!

  30. February 6, 2013

    You have a wonderful collection and I really liked reading your story. I started my own after finding a £1 copy of DH Lawrence’s The Lost Girl in near-perfect condition – there’s something so satisfying about scanning through shelves and seeing one of those spines. It’s been great for opening my horizons to different genres and authors, too – though many of the stories have been forgotten, the appeal of Penguins lives on and preserves them.

  31. Eric permalink
    May 31, 2013

    Beautiful. Someday someone (would love it if it was me) can show off a collection of slightly later penguins, when they started allowing illustrations on the cover but kept the three-color bars. I am proud of a Wodehouse that I have and a CP Snow also… Each with a monochromatic drawing that strikes the mood perfectly. I guess I am waving a flag for the 40s or 50s penguins.

  32. Doug Shadwell permalink
    August 5, 2013

    I’ve just stumbled across his site. I, too, am trying to amass the first 100 Penguin books without modern reprints, buying only the earliest editions I can find. At present I have 67 of the 100, and am stuck looking for No. 40 (Dodo). Good to see someone has managed the full set. The search continues.

  33. December 2, 2013

    Gorgeous! I’m a total Penguin addict.

    In fact, I’m writing a blog entry on Penguin and Puffin right now: would it be OK to use your gorgeous pictures here, (with a link to this page), in my blog? If not, no problem, I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask!

  34. Nicky shepherd permalink
    January 12, 2014

    we have just wallpapered our downstairs loo with a penguin book wallpaper, have vowed to collect all the books depicted in it. HAdnt realised there were others like us.

  35. May 14, 2014

    Like you, Gentle Author, I’m a collector of old Penguin paperbacks and I have about 50 Penguin books ranging from Selected Modern Short Stories printed in 1938, Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover printed in 1960 (when everyone was talking about it in that year), The Time Machine printed to celebrate H G Wells’ 80th birthday in 1946 , Cornwall Penguin Guides costing 6d printed 1939, Plato The Symposium printed in 1951 and one of my favourite authors, Guy De Maupassant’ book, Miss Harriet and other Stories printed in 1951. And like you I’m an anorak of Penguin books!

  36. May 14, 2014

    Oh, oh, oh! I. Love. This. Post. LOVE it! And how beautifully these books must look, resting peacefully on a shelf in Spitalfields. This post from the ole archives has made my day. Just lovely. ☺️

  37. August 3, 2014

    Can I use one of these images of the Penguin books in a post? I will link back to this blog.



  38. the gentle author permalink*
    August 3, 2014

    Be my guest, Gary!

  39. September 5, 2014

    OMG!! Love love love! I wish you could send me some to India .. I have a fondness for all things Penguin 🙂

  40. Martin permalink
    February 7, 2015

    It started with King Penguins. They were slim volumes with often very striking and individually designed covers. Took a while, but I eventually gathered them all up. Next came Puffin Picture Books. This is still a work in progress, but they match the KP’s for beautifully illustrated covers and interiors. This led to early Puffin Story Books, and subsequently Early Penguins.
    I think I am quite possibly beyond help.

  41. Phil B permalink
    February 22, 2015

    Wow, what a collection. But please, swap Farewell to Arms and Poets Pub around in that top picture. 🙂

  42. July 13, 2015

    This has to be my favourite Gentle Author post to date. In my head, I can imagine you flunking an interview with an ultra efficient, unimaginative office manager, who cannot see further than the end of his provincial nose.

  43. Sophie permalink
    September 2, 2015

    Great post! Would you mind if I used these images on my blog (with a link here of course)?

  44. David permalink
    February 12, 2016

    Nice post. I would think you’d mention Jan Tschichold with all he did for Penguin Books.

  45. May 11, 2019

    What a lovely and evocative piece of writing. I felt like I took the journeys with you! 🙂

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