6 September 2005

Penguin 70: happy birthday to a democratic institution

Stepping into any decent bookshop at the moment, you should come across a display stand holding an amazing array of little books like this:

This is one of the Penguin 70s, a range of small paperbacks released by Penguin to celebrate their 70th anniversary year this year. There are, of course, 70 of them.

Fitting the occasion, they have gathered widely across the whole history of the Penguin paperback, from 1935 to now, featuring everything from Jorge Luis Borges to Jamie Oliver.

It’s only fitting that the first book in the series is “Lady Chatterley’s Trial”, an account of the landmark prosecution for obscenity in 1960 that many cite as a pivotal moment in British social history. Penguin were active participants in this process as defendants in the case.

This is nothing less than a celebration of a revolution in democray, not just in reading and literacy. For the first time, Allen Lane ensured literature was available to almost everyone in cheap, good quality editions (the same cost as a pack of cigarettes), which didn’t have to be borrowed from a library. This in 1935, at the height (or is it the depth) of the Great Depression.

While there have certainly been some periods of stagnation over its long history, the company has had a tradition of hiring some of the great graphic designers like Jan Tschichold, Hans Schmoller, Alan Aldridge and David Pelham to oversee design of the covers. The history of Penguin covers were featured in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in June this year.

If these specially commissioned titles are any indication, the company is in rude health. They’re increadibly eclectic, and collectively might represent a little snap-shot of the state of graphic design at the turn of our century. A full boxed set will be available in October.

These are a few of my favourites, but you can basically take your pick.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for this good news--I will be looking for these when I hit the bookstores this weekend. (I hope they're here in the States.)

Penguin had a similar series ten years ago--Penguin 60s. I just found on a shelf, against all odds, my little paperback of the Tao Te Ching from that series.

The care that goes into Penguin book design is really exceptional. There's a book about (or by?) Tschichold that reproduces some of his corrected page layouts for Penguin--he had an incredible eye for what was right. Very instructive stuff.

Crritic! said...

I didn't know about Penguin 60s, I'll have to do some investigatin'. You're a treasure chest, Michael.