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June 1, 2015 | by  | in Books |
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80 Years of Penguin

Whether you regard them as an essential component of your library, or merely a trendy hipster staple, Penguin paperbacks—especially in their ubiquitous orange form—are an integral part of the reading experience.

This year marks 80 years since the very first Penguin paperbacks were published. Allen Lane, of the publishing company Bodley Head, founded Penguin Books as a subsidiary in 1935, driven by the ethos that good literature should be available cheaply and to all. While paperbacks had been around since the mid-nineteenth century, Penguin’s initial publication of ten titles, colour coded by genre, the perfect size for travel and costing only sixpence, were an enormous success with the reading public.

The following year, Penguin became a company in its own right, and the publishing industry was revolutionised. Not only did Lane and his team want to bring great literature to the masses, they weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Penguin was the first to openly publish the uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, and their subsequent prosecution and trial tested the new Obscene Publications Act 1959, which decreed that publishers could avoid a conviction for publishing obscene material if they could prove the work had literary merit. Penguin was also the publisher of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a controversial novel which led to a fatwa being issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on the author and anybody associated with the book.

Much has changed in the publishing world since 1935, and today Penguin Books is an imprint of the worldwide Penguin Random House. Despite their expansion, they remain dedicated to publishing good literature, at good prices; their central ethos hasn’t changed. The Popular Penguins range, released in 2008 by Penguin’s Australian branch, harks back to the early years of Penguin, and is an eponymous aspect of all bookshops and libraries. With the iconic cream and orange covers, the range now boasts 200 titles in both fiction and non-fiction and is a favourite with readers. To celebrate 80 years in the book business, Penguin has released 80 Little Black Classics—small, stylish volumes excerpted from the Penguin Classics range, around 60 pages each and costing a mere 80p (or $2.99 for us, which is still bloody good). However, the appeal is not just in the price—for those of us who struggle to find time to read for pleasure around thick slabs of course notes, and the essay production lines, the Little Black Classics are a literary blessing. They’re the perfect size for a study break, or to unwind with after a long day. They’re also a great way to discover different authors without committing to a large tome, and they’re so small you can carry a few with you at a time.

The Little Black Classics range also raises the importance of celebrating literature and reading in general. In a time when our attention is demanded by the latest iPhone model, or the new Jurassic Park film, reading as entertainment has never had so much competition. Anything that serves to remind us of the power and permanence of literature should be emphasised, and the Little Black Classics are positively crying out “Hey! You do have time to read!” Plus, you just can’t beat the satisfaction of reading a book, however small.

Little Reviews

Katherine Mansfield—Miss Brill
The only New Zealand entry to the Little Black Classics, the three short stories in this volume prove once again that Miss Mansfield is worth her weight in words, and is one of our finest literary exports. Miss Brill itself is both picturesque and haunting, a true example of Mansfield’s brilliance. This is the perfect place to start if you haven’t read Mansfield before—aficionados will want to add this to their collection.

Charles Dickens—The Great Winglebury Duel
Dickens is not only regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, but is also a masterful purveyor of comedy (not to mention tragedy). Acquaint yourself with him with this two-tale volume, or if you’re already converted, quench your thirst for Dickens in between classes.

Hafez—The Nightingales Are Drunk
It doesn’t get much more romantic than a fourteenth-century Persian poet. Try this: “Life’s garden flourishes when your / Bright countenance is here. / Come back! Without your face’s bloom / The spring has left the year.” That’s sure to impress that guy or gal in your tutorial that you’ve been incessantly Facebook stalking. Knowing a bit of obscure poetry also boosts your literary cred.

Mary Kingsley—A Hippo Banquet
Mary Kingsley was a trailblazing Victorian woman, travelling throughout West Africa without a husband to accompany her (gasp) and writing about the people and cultures she encountered. Intelligent and outspoken, she openly criticised Christian missionaries for attempting to convert the African people and corrupt their religion. In this volume you can read about some of her exciting encounters with wild animals. A must for lovers of natural history.

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