Bargain paperbacks continue the Penguin tradition

Sixty years on, Australians are celebrating the paperback by buying pocket-sized morsels of work by 60 writers. 

WHEN the author Gerald Murnane was eight, he saw his first Penguin paperbacks at his grandmother’s house. It was the 1940s and, in the unerring way families have of ensuring the very behavior they want to discourage, his aunts warned him that such books were not fit for children.

But when Murnane finally sneaked them away he found their contents more puzzling than enlightening. He was left with a strong sense that words such as “mistress” and “affair” held worlds of meaning he had yet to explore.

Later, Murnane qualified for university but disdained it in favor of “a typical young-man project of educating myself and becoming a writer at the same time”. For this he read Pelicans, the Penguin imprint for educational non-fiction.

He still has his paperback works of Hume and Berkeley, histories of England and introductions to art.

In the 1950s he returned to the Penguin family for his sex education but this time his luck was out. The Psychology of Sex, which he was inspired to buy after seeing it in the hands of many other young hopefuls, turned out to be a ponderous psychoanalytic tome that probably read little better in its original German.

Penguin paperbacks are woven through the reading lives of nearly three generations of Australians. In 1935 Penguin was launched with 10 sixpenny titles by authors including Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway; soon they were selling in their millions.

The company is marking its 60th birthday this year with a special issue that echoes its original aim of supplying ordinary people with good writing, cheaply. A publisher’s sell-out of 500,000 copies of Penguin 60s, pocket-sized morsels of work by 60 writers from Marcus Aurelius to Poppy Z. Brite, has gone into Australian bookshops, where they retail for a phenomenally popular $1.95.

For half the price of a glossy magazine, the reader gets about an hour’s taste of a writer’s style in the form of a chapter of a novel, some short stories or, if it’s Marcus Aurelius, a series of meditations. In England last July, eight of the mini-books cracked the top 10 non-fiction paperback list and three made fiction’s top 10. Their success might lead to increases in sales of other works by those authors; like the titbits a butcher barbecues outside his shop on a Saturday morning, the mini-books are designed to be delectable little temptations enticing readers into buying more.

That’s the part that exasperates Morris Lurie, who happens to be a Penguin author. “They should be giving them away free when you buy a Penguin, because they’re only promoting other books,” he snaps. “They’re only a few pages, and it’s their birthday and they do make 10 trillion dollars a year.

” But the former Premier, Joan Kirner, finds them a delight: “They’re terrific for aeroplanes and things. It’s nice to have something small and light that you can fill in an hour with and they’ve got large enough print for me to be able to read them.”
When she was a child, Kirner’s family had a few hardcover children’s classics such as titles by Mary Grant Bruce and the “royal albums”: “How to grow up like the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret!” It was when she got to teacher’s college, a working-class girl determined to make good, that she discovered the paperback mostly in its second-hand form.

She still has a bookcase filled with the orange and blue spines of the Penguins she read and studied then.

For her and for many other Australian public figures, the paperback was the only affordable gateway into the world of ideas. Lurie says, “That’s where we found out about all sorts of authors William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald.

The books have a great tendency to turn brown Penguin have always used cheap paper but they introduced us to lots of people.”
For Patsy Adam-Smith, author of books including The Anzacs and Goodbye Girlie, paperbacks were her lifeline to the world when she was an unhappy young wife in an isolated Tasmanian town in the ’50s. “I had to buy books; I couldn’t borrow, I don’t think there were people who read.” She remembers in particular Clochemerle, the satiric novel of French village life “It would have delighted me at the time; I didn’t know people who spoke out honestly” and Homer’s Iliad, which she loved so much she named her daughter Danae.

The writer Morris West has never been published by Penguin but remembers being asked to join its stable by its founder, Allen Lane, “back in the days when he was adventuring”.

West sees Lane’s launch of the paperback in the English-speaking world as “a seminal event, like the Internet”, and not just for readers. Suddenly authors who would have thought themselves lucky to be selling tens of thousands of books found they were being read by millions.

The readers, at least, would disagree with George Orwell’s comment in 1936: “The Penguin books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

First published in The Age.