Seven Hundred Penguins, by Penguin Books

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Page numbers of covers mentioned are in brackets after the book’s title.

You might think that Seven Hundred Penguins is the name of an indie band until you look at the front of this weighty volume, a pastiche of the 1965 cover of To Kill a Mockingbird (533), one I know well and of which I have fond memories because that was the edition I read.  Looking inside you won’t see seven hundred Penguins precisely, rather seven hundred covers of Penguin (including a few Pelican, even the odd Peregrine) books, from 1935 to 2000.  For anybody with a deep connection to Penguin paperbacks, this is a wonderful experience, working through the selection made from Penguin’s vast archive, finding covers of books one has owned, and probably still does, feeling nostalgic for the ones now vanished from one’s collection, while wondering how it is possible to have gone through life, which must have involved hundreds of hours browsing in second-hand bookshops, without ever seeing some of them.

Mostly chosen by Penguin staff, they range from the early utilitarian three-section covers that have gained a second wind thanks to canny merchandising on mugs, flasks, bags and other paraphernalia, through to elaborate designs that are miniature works of art.  (I have always been pleased to see Germano Facetti’s name on the back cover as the designer, particularly of Penguin Classics, and it seems time he had his own tribute for his skill in enticing the reader to pick up a book with a well-chosen illustration.)  To ensure variety of design, the introduction by Jim Stoddart acknowledges that few prior to the early 1950s have been included.

As I turned the pages I totted up the number of books with these covers which I have owned (as far a I can remember).  It was in the region of 85, though there may have been others; some were familiar but I may not have had my own copy.  That is just counting the ones with those covers.  I have owned some published by Penguin with different covers, and classics that have been in print for a long time get the occasional make-over.  For example, I was surprised to see the version chosen for Nineteen Eighty-Four (694) because I had never come across it before, a 1989 design using a painting by C. R. W. Nevinson which is more appropriate than the earlier one I know, and which I was expecting to see.

Some will be unfamiliar to British eyes of any age because they, including the odd foreign-language ones, were designed for overseas territories.  If anybody has the idea of setting themselves the project of reading every book contained here they will struggle to source some of them, either because they were never on sale in Britain, or because print runs were low and surviving copies are now scarce.

Covers can be prosaic, but many are clever, such as Ted Honderich’s Punishment (404), showing an eye and a tooth.  Others are intriguing: the photograph on the front of Married Life in an African Tribe (336), depicting a woman holding a child with her face pressed to its navel, is guaranteed to make you want to find out what is going on.  Looking at the covers in isolation focuses the attention on the image, normally a part of the book one takes for granted – after all, it’s not the reason you buy the book – and the reader sees the design with fresh eyes.  I stared at E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (28) for a while, trying to work out if that was the precise cover on my shelf or a slightly different one, a conundrum I only solved by taking it down and comparing them.

A lot of these are definitely of their time, particularly those dating from the 1970s.  There are a surprising number of gratuitous nipples, and a fair amount of general sexism on display.  Some of the covers would definitely not pass muster today – the thick-lipped cartoon African woman on David Pownall’s The Raining Tree War (317) from 1977 is from an age when comedians could say the most outrageously racist and sexist things, and such values were unthinkingly absorbed to reappear in the unlikeliest of places.  The cover of the 1995 Lolita (219), featuring a detail from Balthus’s ‘Girl and Cat’, would probably be the subject of a Mumsnet campaign if it appeared now.

Seven hundred may seem a lot, but it is only a drop in the Penguin bucket, even leaving aside the early standardised design.  Favourites will be missing – I was certainly disappointed not to see either Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned or Harvest on the Don, with their inspired choice of Malevich’s paintings rather than more obvious Socialist Realist scenes, mainly I suppose because of the impact those books had on me when I first read him, and there were quite a few others I would have liked to see.  But there has to be a limit.  It’s a chunky book as it is, but a pleasure to handle, the pictures reproduced (at 90% of the original size) in crisp colours on good-quality paper.

A couple of minor criticisms though: the covers are presented randomly and it would have been instructive to have had a chronological progression in order to get a better sense of how design has changed over the decades.  It would also have been useful to have the date of the cover on the same page, rather than having to turn to the back for publishing information (though on the other hand, having just the cover prevents the eye being distracted).  Some of the publishing information may be unreliable, perhaps relating to the file copy held at Penguin.  For example, I was pleased to see A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry, with its striking Jackson Pollock cover (570), as I remember this being a set text when I was doing A Level English.  I was therefore surprised to find it dated 1980, after I took my exam, which seemed to represent a fairly dramatic case of false memory.  Fortunately I still have my copy, with the Pollock cover: it is a 1969 reprint, produced before my A Level course.

I grew up with Penguins, mostly picked up in my teenage years and twenties from jumble sales and second-hand bookshops.  Then I remember I went through a period when having too many of them seemed downmarket and I preferred to change them for second-hand hardbacks when I could.  What was I thinking?  The wheel turned and I came to appreciate them once more, and they regained an honoured place on the shelves, which they have retained ever since, though I have had to make some hard decisions – or no decision at all by keeping both – when finding myself in possession of both Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics editions of the same title.  Because of course it’s not just about the cover design; the book has to earn its keep in terms of its content.  Penguin on the whole fares pretty well editorially, and an attractive cover is a pleasant bonus.

While it is lovely seeing the range of covers, there is always going to be a special attraction in those associated with one’s youth, a kind of literary madeleine evoking memories of that time when one is discovering the world and its reading pleasures, and the time to read everything seems endless.  Sadly it isn’t endless, but with a will one can still get through a lot.  Thank you Penguin, for being such a formative influence, and giving so many hours of pleasure.

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