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Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

By Alyssa O'connell

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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Preview "Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" book

By Jennifer Tisdale

Scheduled for release on November 1, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams) is the first book to explore the entire scope of American stage and industrial designer, urban planner, and futurist Norman Bel Geddes’s life, career, and projects. Edited by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America reveals the astonishing breadth of Bel Geddes’s work.

Enjoy a preview of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America through Albrecht’s introduction to the volume, which includes images of Bel Geddes’s varied work, from construction of the stage set for The Eternal Road to his design for an all-weather, all-purpose never-built stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Essays by more than 15 leading scholars explore Bel Geddes’s work in theater, housing, graphic design, and workplaces, as well as his famous Futurama installation and his working process. More than 400 illustrations from the Bel Geddes archive at the Harry Ransom Center reveal and showcase Bel Geddes’s extensive interests and talents. Essay contributors include Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Christina Cogdell, Christin Essin, Christopher Innes, Sandy Isenstadt, Christopher Long, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Lawrence Speck, and others.

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is available for purchase at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk during gallery hours, with members receiving a discount.

Complementing the book is the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Enter to win a signed copy of a T. C. Boyle book

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.
Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.

Novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has a new novel out today.

San Miguel (Viking, 2012) is a historical novel about three women’s lives on a windswept island off the California coast. Boyle is the author of 23 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, EsquireHarper’sMcSweeney’s, and The New Yorker.

The Ransom Center acquired Boyle’s papers in 2012, and Boyle wrote about packing up his archive for The New Yorker.

On the Ransom Center’s Facebook page, share which of these three T. C. Boyle books you like most: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, or Stories. By doing so, you will be entered into our drawing for a signed copy of your selection.

New book “Masterclass: Arnold Newman” is released today

By Jennifer Tisdale

In February 2013, the Harry Ransom Center will host the first U.S. showing of the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass, a posthumous retrospective of photographer Arnold Newman (1918–2006).

The exhibition was organized by the American nonprofit organization Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Ransom Center. The show, curated by FEP’s William Ewing, highlights 200 framed vintage prints spanning Newman’s career, selected from the privately held Arnold Newman Archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman archive are featured in the exhibition.

Newman’s subjects included world leaders, authors, artists, musicians, and scientists—Pablo Picasso in his studio; Igor Stravinsky sitting at the piano; Truman Capote lounging on his sofa; and Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, in the attic where his family hid from the Nazis for more than two years.

Complementing the exhibition is Ewing’s Masterclass: Arnold Newman (Thames & Hudson Inc., New York), which pays homage to Newman and includes more than 200 photographs, four essays, and short biographies of Newman’s sitters. Essay contributors include Ewing; David Coleman, director of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University and former curator of photography at the Ransom Center; and Arthur Ollman, professor at San Diego State University and curator of many exhibitions produced in collaboration with Newman.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal’sPhoto-Op: Chair Man” highlighted the book with Newman’s photo of Charles Eames in his studio.

Iain Sinclair’s "Ghost Milk" includes visit to Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.

Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.

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Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

By Jean Cannon

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According to popular mythology, the publisher Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, formulated his idea for a press dedicated exclusively to paperbacks while visiting a railway station. Having spent the weekend visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the famed author of Murder on the Orient Express, Lane arrived at the Exeter railway station and realized he had forgotten his book. Frustrated and facing the boredom of a long train trip, Lane tried to buy a novel at the station but found that there was nothing available that he felt worth reading. Bookless for the next few hours, he sat on the train and planned a new line of cheap, pocket-sized, and travel-worthy books, which could be sold at railway stations, grocers, and department stores. Penguin Books—and the paperback revolution—were born.

While this version of Allen Lane’s epiphany may be slightly romanticized, there is no doubt that Penguin Books, launched in 1935, sparked a new phase of publishing that would change the printing industry irrevocably. Mass marketing of paperbacks not only brought classics to a wider audience but also brought pulp fiction—previously published in magazines—to the forefront of the book trade.

The Ransom Center’s book collection is known for first editions, many of them lush volumes with elaborate bindings. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the Ransom Center also houses multiple volumes that illuminate the development of the paperback book trade in both America and Britain. Alongside important editions of Lane’s Penguins, the Center also houses Tauchnitz editions of paperbacks that pre-date Penguin, as well as the “penny dreadfuls” and dime novels that slowly developed into modern pulp fiction. This slideshow exhibits numerous items from the library’s collections that represent landmarks in the history of the paperback book trade.

"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.
"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.

Archivist seeks help in identifying manuscript waste material

By Micah Erwin

Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Because manuscript waste is particularly difficult to identify due to its fragmentary nature, I started early on to think of ways to harness the knowledge of other rare book and manuscript enthusiasts to help describe these objects. Inspired by individuals who had made extraordinary discoveries about historical photographs by sharing them on the popular image-hosting site Flickr, I hoped that something similar could be done with images of medieval manuscript waste. This served as the inspiration for posting quick, point-and-shoot digital camera images on Flickr and inviting members of the rare book community to examine and share insights they might have about the items.

The response has been promising. Out of the 65 images (from about 40 items) posted thus far, we’ve had a total of 2,422 views, 26 comments and–thanks to the work of some very diligent people–more than 16 partial or full identifications of the fragmentary texts. This page is a great example of how users have offered up expertise on transcribing and dating one fragment. It’s likely that a majority of all known fragments in our collections will have been identified by Flickr members by the time this project is complete. Notifications about new images are posted on a related Facebook page. But plenty of work remains, and there are many fragments to be commented on.

Crowdsourcing is a popular buzzword these days and for good reason. By placing images of these rather obscure, archaic objects on a popular image hosting site, a twenty-first-century technology brings together the skills of a highly specialized and niche community and opens up these medieval objects to interpretation by potentially anyone.

* The author would like to add that although digitization and image sharing has many benefits, nothing compares with up close physical examination of medieval manuscripts. It should also be noted that the images we are posting are primarily for identification and rapid dissemination and are not publication-quality, high-resolution photos. Researchers may request high-resolution images through the Ransom Center’s website.