Monday, 5 March 2012

Penguins and the Bristol archive

Penguin Donkey Mark 2 (designed 1963)
It is always something of a surprise to find that I have one of the rarer Penguins on my bookshelf (such as No. 410 Artifex Intervenes). I tend to assume that if I own it it must be common, as my searching is usually on foot rather than via the internet, I live in an isolated city with very few book stores, and the amount I'm willing to pay for any individual book is quite limited. It has to be that way to feel worthwhile. The reading is always enjoyable, but the collecting must feel like a challenge: it is not only finding an unowned Penguin that brings joy, but finding it cheaply. If you can walk into a book store and buy yourself a vintage Penguin collection by simply handing over enough money, there hardly seems any point. The wall of books holds the memories of every hour spent searching.

6a, one of the harder to
find Penguins
Most of the vintage Penguins are reasonably common, but a few are much harder to come across. The rarer ones tend to be green and/or numbered around 400 - the more fragile ones from the war years when paper was relatively scarce. It is interesting to speculate on why the crime Penguins tend to be harder to find, and even when they aren't, why they are generally priced higher. It may be supply, or demand, or (as suggested to me by a member of the Penguin Collector's Society) a mixture of the two: perhaps because many of the authors are still known and widely read today, the books are still sought after, or perhaps crime novels were always more likely to be shared, and less likely to sit unread on shelves, and therefore fewer survived.

Either way, there are a number of vintage Penguins I have never seen at any price and it was this that brought me to Bristol during my recent trip to England. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, was born and raised in Bristol, and its University now houses the Penguin archive in a few small rooms in the basement of its Arts and Social Sciences Library. Visits are possible for 'bona-fide readers', and it took only a few emails and some ID to secure the necessary agreement of Penguin, and an appointment to browse the collection.

Image source: The Penguin
 June 2011
And it is such an interesting collection, including a copy of every book Penguin have published, with the early pre-1969 numbered titles taken from Allen Lane's personal collection of paperbacks signed by their authors. Perhaps the best known of these is the Peregrine The Common Pursuit which F.R. Leavis refused to sign, returning it with the note 'I do not think Sir Allen Lane did a service to literature, civilization or Lawrence in the business of Lady Chatterley's Lover.' (see here, p.309)

It was a lovely way to spend a morning. We were free to browse through all the books, boxes and boxes of original correspondence with the authors, old lists of Penguin publications, and original advertising. We only had to ask and it was placed before us.

The archive is currently preparing an exhibition, and some of its highlights will be on display at Bristol's Royal West of England Academy from 10 March 2012 as part of Penguin Parade. (Photos of the exhibition on flickr)

And photos of my favourite items are here.


  1. You've seen more of England than I have! The archive sounds fascinating... meanwhile you've got me pouncing on Penguins. I'm particularly pleased with a 1945 edition of Farewell Victoria (which is waiting to be read), where the logo is a lovely 'dancing' penguin - much nicer than the modern version!

    1. I have been there six times now, so I am starting to feel that I have seen quite a bit of it, and yet I still long to return. Hope you enjoy Farewell Victoria!

  2. I see what you mean about the collecting - it must be such a thrill to discover a rarity, far more exciting than if you just sat at your computer and money was no object. I had never heard of the Penguin archive at Bristol until you mentioned it, it sound fascinating.

    1. It's a feeling you would never be aware of in Perth, because there simply are no bookshops which specialise in Penguins to quite that extent, and so the challenge is integral to the process. But in the UK I saw bookshops in which, if you were unconstrained by money and a Qantas luggage allowance, you could just buy and buy, and it made me feel quite despondent. The archive is wonderful - if you are ever in Bristol (and it seemed to me a wonderfully vibrant city full of young people) it is well worth a visit.

  3. quite an enticing read, this post, and one longs to visit (if possible, as soon as possible). by the way, did you cover every place you wanted to visit on your posts? it is always fun, entertaining and exciting to see what bookshops have, and what you picked up.

    as a sidenote, being here in the states (even though in new york city), the availability of penguin paperbacks is dwindling rather fast and furiously due to time and collectability and many other factors i am sure you are aware of, and whatever can be had for cheap (less than a dollar, or a few dollars), looks like it has traveled around the world in one's back pocket.

    1. All the main towns, yes - I will write those up when I find time. I had a long list of places I intended to visit when I was in Liverpool, and around Llandudno, but the weather was so bitter on those days, that I had to abandon some of those plans.

      The early US Penguins were quite different to the English ones, do you see both types over there?

    2. both types do appear, yes, as New York is a cosmopolitan place where people from the continent used to bring their books along with them. I have often come across or bought penguins with english prices (those not meant to be sold in the states from second-hand bookshops. for example, I just picked up Roy Vicker's "The Department of Dead Ends" for 50 cents a month or so ago and it had a sticker (of 65 cents) affixed to the front, an official looking one, which may be concealing the original english price.

      whatever the case may be, they are becoming much harder to find- but i think that is just the nature of bookshops dwindling and people with less and less of an interest in books in general.

      look forward to reading your posts. -rj

  4. This seemed such a wonderful treat when you were telling me about it, and it seems even more wonderful now!

  5. Today I found a 1949 Kate O'Brien Without My Cloak - with a dust jacket!!! I've never seen a Penguin with a dust jacket before, and I am SO excited... and it's in really good condition, not torn or creased, good colour, and it has TWO penguins on it because it is a double edition...this is getting to be an addiction... I need a new shelf for them...

  6. What a treat for you to visit the archive, Karyn! It sounds fascinating. I've only ever found 1 vintage Penguin in my visits to bookshops here in Arizona and that was a suspense novel by Georges Simenon.

  7. How lovely to browse the archive in Bristol and interesting to know which books are rare. I look forward to reading the reviews of some of your finds.



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