April 25 marks World Penguin Day, celebrating the annual northward migration of the penguins and the start of warmer weather. Here at Wordscape, we’ve decided to commemorate this day by focusing on another kind of penguin: Penguin Books. In 1935, Penguin started its own kind of migration; a social movement to make good literature accessible to all. Personally, I feel I have a lot to thank Penguin for. If it wasn’t for its founder, Allen Lane, despairing at the lack of affordable books available at a train station all those years ago, I mightn’t have had such easy access to literature or discovered my own love of books growing up in the late ‘90s, a love which has led me to be who I am today.
The penguin itself came about as Lane wanted an animal that was “dignified, but flippant” to represent his brand, and thus the iconic Penguin was born, migrating to shelves all over the UK on the covers of quality paperbacks.
Penguin didn’t stop here. With the introduction of the Pelican series in 1937 and the Puffin Picture Books line in 1942, it went to fill gaps on the shelves for the working classes to access non-fiction by academics, and to make the countryside more accessible and less scary to city children facing evacuation during the second world war respectively.
Liverpool, in particular, has links with Penguin. Cleverly using the success of the Beatles, Penguin released The Mersey Sound as the 10th installment in its ‘60s Penguin Modern Poets series. Featuring Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten, and Adrian Henri, The Mersey Sound was a successful attempt at accessible poetry for all readers, using ‘everyday language’ to express life in ‘60s Liverpool. Involving Liverpool in the literary scene as it had never been before, Penguin holds a special place in my heart for this venture.
In today’s increasingly paperless world, one communicated with short articles, fast news, Instagram posts, and 280 character tweets, Penguin is keeping literature relevant. Curating careful and visually-matching collections from the Vintage Classics series, Penguin Modern Classics and the Penguin English Library, just to name a few, Penguin is encouraging people to create their own personal libraries once again, with its beautiful and aesthetic covers making literature part of modern life, and giving people places to start their own collections.
Two collections that stand out are the Penguin Clothbound Classics series and the Puffin Classics collection.
With the covers all designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith, the Clothbound Classics series has aesthetically beautiful and coordinating covers, making seminal pieces of classic fiction ones to be photographed or displayed as art in the home, as well as to be read.
The Puffin Classics series is a collection that is particularly striking. In collaboration with cover artist William Morris, it invites younger readers to read the books their parents and relatives may have read as children, and adults to relive their childhood through these books. This visually decadent collection encourages people to define their childhood through the books they read, integrating literature back into people’s personalities and memories.
That’s why Penguin springs to mind for me this World Penguin Day. As someone who believes in the cultural and social importance of literature, Penguin’s redefining of literature both at its foundation and today has kept literature culturally relevant in our digitised society. From physical books and curated collections, to art prints and bags of iconic original Penguin covers, Penguin allows us to experience literature holistically as a way to both explore culture and expand our minds, and to express ourselves to the world and find our place within it.