#1026 Popular Penguins

Image /Penguin

It was my Dad’s lifelong dream to own a secondhand book shop. So in what could be termed a curiously backwards step, the Hindin Miller family was uprooted from its Muriwai Beach life of sun, sand and cinematic success (he’d recently had three film scripts made into features), and found itself in cold, conservative, Christchurch town. The year was 1992. The book shop opened shortly thereafter. Bookmarks, on the corner of Hereford and Manchester Streets. Stocking everything from the rare, the popular, the scientific and the political, Dad once estimated that – between Bookmarks and our house – we were in possession of somewhere in the region of 40,000 books at any given time. I remember the Penguins.

I’ve recently started collecting the newly reissued Popular Penguins (pictured above), and have two to my name so far – Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English by Eric Partridge and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was my favourite book as a teenager and I’ve just finished reading it for the third time. I’m a big fan of reading and re-reading books – you take something new with every turn of the page.

This time round, there was one passage in particular that stood out to me:

“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

Perfect in its simplicity.

The story of how Penguin Books came into being is a good one too. It’s on the back cover of every book:

“He just wanted a decent book to read… Not too much to ask, was it? It was in 1935 when Allen Lane stood on a British railway platform looking for something good to read on his journey. His choice was limited to popular magazines and poor quality paperbacks. Lane’s disappointment and subsequent anger at the range of books available led him to found a company – and change the world. ‘We believed in the existence of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it.'”

It was probably the first time the British lower classes could afford to buy great books. The democratisation of literature. Back then they were a couple of pennies a book. Now they’re $12.95. Still a steal.

As much as I like to read, my decision to collect the Penguins stems from a much more shallow place – they just look so damn good.


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  1. says

    I have one or two of the popular penguins and gave a couple of copies of Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm in Penguin for Chrissy.You’re right, they look great.

  2. Kate says

    I love those too! I wish I could afford the gorgeous Penguin Hardback Classics, but with my current budget, I’ll stick to paperback for now.

  3. says

    I’ve been buying these nearly every time I go into borders – for $12 there’s no excuse not to, and they look ridiculously lovely. Pity there in a pile on my floor as my book(and mag)shelf is overflowing.

  4. oldgirl says

    what a lovely childhood you had.BookBooksBooks. If I had not gone into fashion all those years ago as a shopgirl in England and Aussie I think would have just have been happy working in a bookshop.. Now I am old I am ready to sit all day in a musty old bookshop and just enjoy the smell of the books, but life not always the way you want it to be, so I sit in my sitting room with all the books I have collected over the years and reread and reread. Also all my friends love to borrow books on all subjects, lots on fashion and lots of old mags from the 70’s and 80’s fun to go through.well back to work in the wet cold south

  5. Lyn (Penguin Publicist) says

    You might also be interested to know that March 2010 sees the release of ten new Popular Penguin titles – all by New Zealand authors(and yep still at the fab price of $12.95 and all with that great orange cover). How do I know? Well,I am the lucky Publicist at Penguin books looking after these titles!) The ten titles selected feature some of NZ’s finest ever novels – and the authors included reads like a who’s who of the NZ literary world. All titles are absolute Kiwi classics. Feel free to check out our website http://www.penguin.co.nz for further information!

  6. says

    Hey Isaac,

    I am doing exactly the same thing! I probably shouldn’t be saying this but I feel they look particularly FANTASTIC on my shelves next to boxes from purchases from Hermes…

    I usually buy 2 everytime I travel even if it is overnight totally addicted.

  7. Gen says

    Love these, too, and just bought Cold Comfort Farm and Run Rabbit Run.

    Isaac may I suggest Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford? You remind me of Cedric.

  8. Gen says

    you should really read Pursuit of Love, which comes first (but Cedric isn’t in that one).

    This is the bit that makes me think of you:

    Cedric went to the bookstall to buy Vogue, having mislaid his own copy. Uncle Matthew, who was waiting there for a train, happened to notice that the seams of his coat were piped in a contrasting shade. This was too much for his self-control. He fell upon Cedric and began to shake him like a rat; just then, very fortunately, the train came in, whereupon my uncle, who suffered terribly from train fever, dropped Cedric and rushed to catch it. ‘You’d never think’, as Cedric said afterwards, ‘that buying Vogue Magazine could be so dangerous. It was well worth it though, lovely Spring modes.’

    …And while we’re on the genre, read Bridesheads Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and watch the BBC/Granad series (NOT the recent film version, which was a travesty).

    okay, that’s all from me for now, back to work.

  9. oldgirl says

    issac you must read The Beautiful Fall by Alice Drake. Is is about Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent in the 70’s in Paris. You will wish you lived in Paris in the 70’s and knowing all these mad crazy people, I think may have been more fun than the Factory in New York

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