Monday, 26 December 2011

Penguin reading & collecting 2011

I tend to find these old books interesting irrespective of whether I enjoy them; all I require is that they give me something to think about. In general this makes sampling from a collection of vintage Penguins a wonderful way to choose something to read: you can randomly choose any book published before 1970 with an orange spine, and be almost certain it will be worth reading. (So far I have found only two which failed this test: Red Queen White Queen, which I consider to have been a waste of time, and Mute Witness, which I could enjoy only for the insights it gave into the film Bullitt).

And so rather than attempting a top ten of Penguins read in 2011, I thought I would simply highlight a favourite book from each of the colour-coded series.

  • Orange: No. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M Stewart: I loved everything about this novel by the Oxford academic more widely known as Michael Innes: the locations, the characterisations, the discussions on art, the story, the prose, and the creative ways in which ideas were expressed.

  • Cerise: No. 139: Flying Dutchman by Anthony Fokker: The autobiography of the Dutch aviation pioneer who taught himself to fly, and then repeatedly risked his life experimenting with aeroplane design, before building the planes used by Germany during the First World War.

  • Blue: No. 291: The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A Symons: A fascinating biography of the self-styled Baron Corvo, Frederick Rolfe, who struggled financially throughout his life, relying on friends and benefactors for support, ultimately quarrelling with every one. He wasted whatever talent he possessed in the compulsive nursing of grudges, and settling of scores. Daniel Skipton in The Unspeakable Skipton is immediately recognisable as a fictional portrayal of Fr. Rolfe.

  • Green: No. 1581: Green for Danger by Christianna Brand: I read a number of wonderful green Penguins this year, and it is almost impossible to choose a favourite when also considering The Moving Toyshop, Hamlet Revenge!, The Dying Alderman, and the books by Simenon, but there was something about the structure of Green for Danger which was particularly appealing.

And the collecting:

My personal search for the vintage Penguins I don't yet own has been hampered lately by too many other commitments and a lack of spare time, although I managed to find quite a few at the two Save the Children's charity book sales which are held in Perth each year.

Today's purchases - Penguins Today's book haul 23/9/2011

However, the collection has continued to grow, and in part that has been due to assistance from people I only know online, so I wanted to take this opportunity to mention and thank a few of them.

First there is Pam who lives on the other side of Australia, on the picturesque island state of Tasmania, and regularly travels about on a scooter in search of numbered Penguins. When she stumbled across the photo of my collection and learned of my quest, she added it to her own, and now she searches for us both. I intermittently receive packages in the mail bearing books I have longed to own, and send as many surplus books as I can in her direction, but there is never any reckoning.

And I have to thank Adam for this wonderful photo of the window of Black Gull, a bookshop in East Finchley in London.

Black Gull's Christmas window - for Karyn

And also for visiting the shop several times during the hectic week before Christmas in order to transcribe the title of every old Penguin they had for sale, and then buy about twenty on my behalf, and then hold them for me until I get to London in late February.

And also to Flavia, who sent me this wonderful collection of Penguins in the mail:

More Penguins

And thank you to everyone who has contacted me with suggestions of where I might find Penguins when I head to the UK in February.

I also wanted to also mention a few non-Penguin pages I have enjoyed during 2011: the wonderful flickr page of John McNab, this review of Gilead by Simon, and my nomination for the best blog post of 2011 (by Kevin).

Wishing everyone a wonderful New Year,


  1. What an interesting list. Before he died A. J. A. Symons was known as Julian Symons elder, more promising brother, which is saying something!

    I came across some Corvo correspondence recently while researching another writer and it was...unusual, let us say.

    I agree, Green for Danger is a wonderful book. I was also glad to see your praise for Henry Wade's The Dying Alderman, another wonderful book. I wrote a 110 page section on Wade for my humdrums book, which unfortunately was cut for space limitations and evidently because my argument that he was not really a "Humdrum" was quite convincing! He did take great interest in local government and policing, hence the authority with which he wrote about those subjects.

  2. Aww, thanks for the mention, Karyn! Your blog is my favourite that I discovered this year (I think I first found it this year) and I'm looking forward to meeting you in 2012.

  3. Thanks Curt,

    Will you publish your section on Henry Wade somewhere else? I'd certainly be interested. I am very keen to read more of Henry Wade as I was so impressed by The Dying Alderman, but I'm yet to find the other three titles published as numbered Penguins.

    And Simon,

    Thank you for your comment; what a nice thing to write. Yes, you found it this year - I started the blog in the last few months of 2010, and no one other than Jane from Fleur Fisher knew of it earlier than 2011.

  4. Dear Karyn, thank you for the generous nomination! I appreciate it a lot. It's funny, my relationship to book blogging has evolved over the months. When I first started, the idea of an audience, of building a big readership, was important to me. Fortunately I've given that up, a silly quest. Now I'm happy if only a handful of people visit my blog and find something useful or interesting there. So thank you - I'm always honored when you drop by. I hope you have a great New Year. I'm eager to read your blog and see what Penguins you unearth! Best, Kevin

  5. You've inspired me to read the sole vintage Penguin in my collection: The Bad Seed (green cover). Thanks for creating this blog; I love it!



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