Monday, 12 September 2011
March of the Penguins
My fingers run over stacked spines in my grandma’s flat. Book spines, that is. Titles, authors and publishers all piled together. Here and there a logo: a small black penguin - usually on an orange background.
The older copies have the white stripe across the middle like a debutante’s sash. These are now considered iconic; the book world’s equivalent of a discreet designer label sewn into the back of a vintage dress. I am talking, of course, about Penguin books.
On a recent trip to the library I pulled out ‘Front Cover – Great Book Jacket and Cover Design’ by Alan Powers, which details the fashions, fads and relevance of book designs throughout the twentieth century. It was fascinating, proving the importance of the book jacket as much as the work inside (even though I've always been told 'not to judge a book by its cover'). Among the reflections on the impact of twenties modernism and design in the digital age, there were several spreads devoted to Penguin. The history is simple...
It was set up as a company in 1935, producing very cheap, high-quality paperback reprints of books. It was initially supported by ‘The Bodley Head’ and other publishers. The colour coded system was in fact inspired by Albatross (another publisher), and the books were first stocked by Woolworths - one of the first UK high street victims of the current recession.
Although looked down on by other established publishers, under the guidance of Allen Lane, Penguin went from strength to strength, especially post World War II. They are still highly successful today, with many illustrious authors (if you’ll excuse the pun) tucked under their wing.
It is impossible to have a favourite publisher – my most beloved books have sprung from all over the world. However, what can’t be disputed is the sheer aesthetic appeal of an original Penguin book cover. They are immediately recognizable, adding not just classic design to any bookshelf – but innovative ideas too. The dust jacket can cradle anything, from acidic and witty observations on class to tales of overcoming adversity. They are culturally significant.
Someone who completely understands this is Tony Davis, who founded 'Art Meets Matter' alongside Angela Lambert in 2002. I’m sure many will recognize his designs – the brightly coloured Penguin mugs, tea-towels and deckchairs.
I was lucky enough to meet him at the Hay Book Festival a few months ago, in a tent dedicated to Penguin (and Faber – another favourite) paraphernalia. By that point I had drunk two very strong mocha coffees, and was wandering around on a bit of a caffeine overload. Therefore, my memories seem quite vibrant; the purples, yellows, oranges and greens of the stacked mugs particularly bright. When I remarked on what a clever business idea it was, the stallholder said, “Oh, you should tell that to Tony” – which I did, enthusiastically, when he materialised seemingly from nowhere.
He was obviously incredibly passionate about his work, demonstrating ideas by picking up a pack of penguin pencils that were “exactly the same size” as book spines. And although I didn’t buy them, I was terribly tempted.
I walked away from the stall feeling unusually inspired. What was it about these objects, these useful items that made them so desirable? Was it, as some suggested, that they simply represented an aspirational lifestyle choice?
But maybe it’s more than that. As Davis himself said in an excellent Guardian article, he thinks of these creations as “Celebrating the essence of books”. I can definitely agree. Of the four Penguin mugs we own, I have read and enjoyed three of the titles emblazoned around them – The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. I am yet to tackle Virginia Woolf, but I can tell you that when I do, it will be with my purple ‘A Room of One’s Own’ penguin mug in hand.
I hope that Davis is right in assuming that items could inspire people to pick up books, something sorely needed in an increasingly internet-driven society (she says while writing on a blog).
I am a firm advocate for books as physical objects. While I can appreciate the utility of Kindles or ipads, it's not possible to replicate the joy of discovering soft grey lines of pencil underlining favourite sections or making observations in a classic; the markings over fifty years old. Neither will there ever be an app that releases the musty, biscuit-y tang of cream pages from a screen. In fact, at another stall at Hay Festival advertising the London Library (which I seriously want to move into/ work at full time), one of the staff said that a specialist perfumer had been called in to create a scent inspired by old books. That strikes me as just a little bit amazing.
From my point of view as a consumer, I appreciate the Penguin products because they integrate what books stand for into other parts of my life. Someone who loves cars might also own calendars, key-rings, photos and other household objects that relate to that automobile obsession. So why not do the same for books? Especially if it helps to combat the vapid, ghost-written 'celeb' memoirs that often invade the best seller lists like armies of ants.
So, my mugs, my book spine wrapping paper and a set of Penguin postcards showing 100 iconic covers serve to show the impact that books can, and do still have on the world. They rejoice in the written word – quite rightly celebrating the cerebral.
As you may be able to tell, I am dressed as a Penguin book cover. This would definitely be a fancy dress outfit of choice. I achieved my ‘literary look’ with an orange skirt and shirt from a charity shop, vintage hat and gloves that used to belong to my great-grandma, and a vintage white silk sash.
Finally, those affected by 9/11 were very much in my thoughts yesterday - those who died, as well as the relatives and friends who live with the consequences of that day, every day. Polka Dot Jill wrote an immensely powerful post recalling and reflecting on her responses at the time.