There are lots of objects that have made me feel happier, safer, stronger and braver over the years. Grateful though I am, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them had changed my life, except for one – the Penguin paperback.
I have always loved reading, which is just as well given how sketchily my formal education started out. My family moved so often that I went to six schools, several of them chaotically new comprehensives, and I doubt that I’d have gone on to Cambridge and had such a rewarding career had I not learnt so much from the books I read for pleasure. Having found a cupboard of battered old Penguin Classics at my last school, I read them all, then ordered the other titles suggested in the ‘Further Reading’ section from a local bookshop.
In other words, I am precisely the type of person that Penguin founder Allen Lane had in mind when he devised a new series of high-quality yet inexpensive paperback books during the mid-1930s in the hope of making ‘knowledge... accessible to everyone.’
Not that he was the first publisher to have tried to make great literature affordable to the masses. Aldo Manuzio did so in early 16th century Venice when his Aldine Press introduced pocket editions of the Greek classics and new works by Erasmus and other contemporary thinkers. Lane himself was influenced by childhood memories of his father’s ‘continental editions’ of British and American literary classics published by Tauchnitz and distributed everywhere in Europe but Britain. More recently, he had admired another ‘continental edition’, Albatross, not least for its modern styling by the German typographer Hans Mardersteig.
Yet to most readers in the early 1930s, cheap books, paperbacks especially, were invariably trashy thrillers or slushy romances, which was all Lane could find at Exeter railway station after spending a weekend at Agatha Christie’s nearby home. Having failed to buy anything he considered readable for the journey back to London, he decided to publish his own series of paperbacks of impeccable literary quality, yet each costing no more than a packet of cigarettes.
Determined that his books should be designed as intelligently as they were written (‘I have never been able to understand why cheap books should not also be well-designed, for good design is no more expensive than bad,’ he said), Lane insisted that Penguin’s paperbacks be, ‘something pretty smart... modern enough not to offend the fastidious highbrow, and, yet, straightforward and unpretentious.’
The earliest Penguins were indeed ‘pretty smart’, but it was only after the German typographer Jan Tschichold joined the company in the late 1940s that Lane realised his design ambitions. Tschichold described his design vision for Penguin’s books in painstaking detail in the Penguin Composition Rules, then devoted himself to enforcing them. If a designer or printer presumed to challenge him, he’d exaggerate his German accent and pretend not to understand.
Tschichold’s legacy has defined Penguin’s design ever since. The most important aspect of the books is, of course, the text, but the reader’s experience is undoubtedly enriched by the deftly designed editorial templates — like the introductory essays, translators’ notes and further reading tips in Penguin Classics — and the adroit combination of type and images.
Design standards have, inevitably, fluctuated over the years, yet, at times, the design of Penguin’s paperbacks has been as inspired as in Tschichold’s day. Many of my own favourites were designed in the 1960s, such as Romek Marber’s work on the Penguin Crime series, Peter Barrett and Roger Mayne’s on Penguin Modern Poets and Germano Facetti’s on Penguin Classics. Equally compelling is Richard Hollis’ design of John Berger’s 1972 book of essays Ways of Seeing. Berger agreed to rewrite the text so Hollis could position each image beside the relevant passage. More recently, David Pearson created a stellar set of paperbacks for 2004’s Great Ideas series.
These days I read the pixelated text of iBooks, yet my dilapidated copies of Ways of Seeing, most (though sadly not all) of the Penguin Modern Poets books and hundreds of other Penguin paperbacks are still proudly displayed on my bookshelves. Devoted digital reader though I am, I can’t imagine another object having quite the same effect on my life, or that I might care more for it.
Photographs: University of Bristol Library Special Collections; Penguin Archive