There’s a post on the Guardian books blog that vigorously decries the putting of old Penguin covers on mugs and deckchairs. The author’s admirably concerned about the negative effects of this rampant commercialism. He’s so concerned that he wastes no time in drawing a clear line between the merchandising of those iconic designs and the collapse of Allen Lane’s noble, egalitarian vision for the publisher he founded.
And when I say ‘he wastes no time’, I mean he neatly saves himself time by not doing it. He just assumes the line exists. Penguin’s classic cover of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is being used to decorate a mug? Why, this way lies an illiterate (if presumably well-hydrated) public with no appreciation of their literary cultural heritage!
Most peculiarly, he is very upset that some notebooks cost more than the Penguin editions of the actual books from which they take their covers.
It’s depressing because the blank books cost more than the latest Penguin editions of the novels. The Invisible Man? £7.99 with annotations and an introduction by Christopher Priest. Wuthering Heights? The Penguin Popular Classic’s yours for £2.50, or for £6.99 have an annotated edition introduced by Brontë scholar (and Booker prize judge) Lucasta Miller. Nineteen Eighty-Four? £8.99, introduced by no less than Thomas Pynchon.
Surely it would be more depressing if the books cost more than the notebooks? Or, if we think back just three paragraphs in his, admittedly, kind of confusing argument, ‘Allen Lane set up Penguin to try to increase the numbers of people able to afford good books’. And now just look at what this new vulgar era of merchandising has wrought! Oh, it seems to have wrought affordable editions of classic books with introductions by the likes of ‘no less than Thomas Pynchon’. And of course the Penguin Popular Classics, housed in a distinctive green series style by no less then David Pearson and yours for no more than £2.50. How depressing.
Take this as a disclaimer: I used to work in the marketing department of Penguin and I still sometimes freelance for them. I’m also a fan of good book cover design. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog, and it’s one of the things that made my time at Penguin a good time. Because they still routinely produce brilliant designs. And the people in the art department are, in my experience, not just talented. They know they work at a publisher with a remarkable design history. And – if you talk to them about what it means to be in charge of preserving and celebrating that heritage, and about trying to do it justice with their own work – they’re also smart, thoughtful and humble.
Mugs and deckchairs might not be as vital a part of commemorating Penguin’s illustrious design past as histories of the designers responsible or collections of old designs. But if we think that awareness of good design has a way of improving new design (this is both my hunch and my own experience as an occasional ersatz designer), it can hardly be a bad thing. And, denunciations of publishers for selling out and ‘flogging’ themselves aside, the suggestion that it somehow impacts on the books themselves I’m going to politely call unfounded. Because it’s fucking stupid.
AT ANY RATE, the guy who wrote that post should look away now. This will only upset him. (But I think it’ll delight other people.)
Penguin have just released Postcards from Penguin. A box of one hundred postcards for £15 (actually it’s £7.80 at Amazon.co.uk or the Book Depository – which is less than 8p a postcard, bargain hounds), with great work from design legends like Romek Marber, Alan Aldridge and Jan Tschichold. There’s a few more photos at my Flickr page.
Things to note: the box itself was designed by Jim Stoddart; there’s been an admirable attention to detail paid, with several different versions of the back of the cards (all charming); and There must be a Pony! is an amazing title for a book with an amazing, eye-searing cover by Aldridge.
Postcards from Penguin | 9780141044668 | at Amazon | at the Book Depository