Josna Rege

280. My Love Affair with Penguins

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, reading, Stories on August 2, 2014 at 6:04 am

Penguin Books, that is. I’m too unsystematic to be a collector, and besides, the ones I love the most have no monetary value by the time they’ve been read for the umpteenth time. I grew up with Puffins, and eventually graduated to Penguins. By then, the logos, the colors (orange for Penguins, blue for Pelicans, green for Crime, brown/black for Classics), the book designs, the illustrations, and, of course, the works themselves had (like George Orwell’s suet puddings and red pillar-boxes) entered into my soul.

Edward Ardizzone's illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

Edward Ardizzone’s illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

books and frog


BlackBeautyIt’s almost incredible to look back and realize that the period during which I voraciously devoured Puffins was less than five years long, from when I was seven or eight years old until I was about twelve. It started in Greece when I read my first novel, the Puffin edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, and was subsequently allowed to go down to the English bookshop in Athens and choose a new Puffin book every time the loose change in our kitchen drawer added up to 60 drachma. It was in Greece that I first read, most memorably, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. When we moved back to India my parents would let me order half-a-dozen Puffins from the Penguin catalogue every so often, and when they arrived, in a delicious-looking brown paper parcel, I would unwrap it rapturously and bury myself in them for days, transported magically into their worlds. Most of the books in the gathering of Puffins below were bought or shipped to me in Kharagpur.

PS158I was lucky that that period, from 1961 or 2 to 1966, also marked the beginning of Kaye Webb’s editorship of Puffin, so that the authors (such as Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, P.L. Travers, John Verney, Clive King, Laura Ingalls Wilder) and illustrators (Edward Ardizzone, Pauline Baynes, Ronald Searle, Raymond Briggs, Margery Gill, Mary Shepard) were absolutely first-rate, never, never patronizing their young readers. (Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books in the U.K., has a digital archive of Kaye Webb’s 18-year tenure at Puffin and you can listen to a 1993 interview with her on BBC4s Desert Island Discs.)

1949-1969_96dpiMy attachment to the plump Puffin logo of my era (I never took to the modernized logo of the Seventies, when the poor emaciated creature looked as if it had been put on a forced diet) carried over into a lifelong affection for Penguins as well, and I understand the obsession of those, like Karyn Reeves, author of the awe-inspiring blog A Penguin a week, who aim to collect the entire set of 3000 vintage titles that predate the ISBN, from the first 10 Penguins published in 1935 to the end of the Sixties. You can find the complete list of all the early Penguin series here, along with their cover art, including Peacock, Ptarmigan, Porpoise, Pelican, and Peregrine Books. Another feast for the eyes is the work of the Penguin Paperback Spotters’ Guild on flickr.


the first ten Penguins

the first ten Penguins

I myself am sometimes a little embarrassed by my brand loyalty for an outfit owned by Pearson, that London-based mega-corporation that owns everything from the Financial Times to Penguin Books. But the truth is that I grew up on Penguins. Their history is intimately bound up in my own, and their distinctive orange covers stand for so much that is dear to me. Penguin paperbacks helped shape the consciousness and sensibilities of my generation and that of my parents, inaugurating a new era in 1935 when they made high-quality literature available to working-class readers for the price of a pack of cigarettes.

I welcomed the establishment of Penguin India in the late 1980s for its role, along with others, such as Rupa Books, in helping to make both foreign and Indian titles, including English translations of excellent works from other Indian languages, available at affordable prices (although I was extremely disappointed in it earlier this year when it buckled so easily to pressure from the Hindu Right and withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History). The books pictured below include Penguin India titles as well as King Penguins and Penguin Modern Classics.





Perhaps I’m in danger of becoming an anachronism, along with my aging paperbacks. Occasionally I feel rather sheepish about the stacks of them spilling over and multiplying all about the house, but soon revert to unabashed pleasure in them. I reserve a special place in my heart and on my shelves for Penguins, which, when I am seized by the urge to rearrange, are organized by series and by color, although not, as yet, by number. The Puffins, almost the only things I have managed to retain from my peripatetic childhood, still occupy several shelves, two-deep, in my study at home. In my son’s childhood it gave me tremendous pleasure to be able to revisit them while reading them aloud to him, and I continue to resist all charges of hoarding and exhortations to de-clutter by not only holding on to the collection but adding to it whenever I come across a vintage Puffin in good condition. Picking up strange Penguins is a vice, I suppose, but a relatively innocuous one, as vices go; or so I tell myself. No, this is a lifelong love affair. Until I run out of space to lay my head, or develop a dust allergy, they’re here to stay.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Wonderful post Josna. I recognise and have some of them myself. Pygmalion and Crime and Punishment were for me memorable books. Pygmalion was a set work and I still have my Penguin copy with its annotations. So good to see an old batch of books like that in these modern days of the Kindle. 🙂

    • Glad it brought back memories of your own, Don. Ah, Crime and Punishment. I think it was the heaviest (in both senses of the word) book I read as a teenager, and it haunted me for days. I literally believed that I was the murderer; I felt his guilt that much. Shaw is a favorite of my Dad’s. I cam to Pygmalion fairly late, I think, after all the movies, and was struck by Shaw’s anti-romanticism—well, his realism, I suppose—since in his version Eliza is neither likely to stay with Higgins nor with Freddie, and his commentary on the subject is priceless. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned the Kindle, since I deliberately steered away from that subject. I’ve done my share of ranting against it in the past, but it’s like beating one’s head against a wall. Better, I now feel, to try to convey one’s love of books in all their physicality. Thanks as always.

  2. I had the same copy of The Odyssey until I passed it on to one of my children. Songberd’s Grove is one of my favorite books of all times, although I got it from the library originally and remember reading it on our upper flat porch one summer. I finally got my own copy several years ago. I read many of the children’s books you have there but not in the Puffin edition.

    • Kristin, you’re the only other person I’ve ever met who has read Songberd’s Grove! I loved it too. And it’s a perfect example of Puffin Books’ policy of choosing authors who don’t patronize young readers. Love that you remember where you read it for the first time. I read Nikhil another, battered copy of The Odyssey that I had picked up goodness knows where. But when I came across this clean old Penguin copy somewhere, I had to pick it up. Interesting how much our reading overlaps—I remember your telling me about your love of Doris Lessing’s novels. How much our early reading shapes our consciousness and worldview!
      P.S. Kristin, I posted a link to a kuchen recipe in the comments section of my post “Kuchen” ( hope your birthday hasn’t passed yet. As it happened, my husband gave me an old German cookbook for my birthday, so if there’s still time and you’re still interested I could look up other recipes.

  3. I call this The Song of My Soul to be surrounded by the books that feed me and comfort me and teach me about our world and those who inhabit it. You’ve awakened me to some titles I’ve not seen and to a new appreciation for publishing houses of our youth.

    I envy you your determination to hold onto your collection; I have smatterings of books from years gone by, but released many through emotional and physical moves. I will enjoy looking at these lovely photos of your collection many times, and have no doubt they will trigger deep-seated memories.

    Thank you for such a richly stimulating post.

    • Thank you for this lovely comment, Sammy. And thanks too, for your appreciation of my need to hold on to these old books. If these photos do trigger memories of beloved books of your childhood, then my happiness will be complete.

  4. Good for you, Jojo, hang on to them. I never saved any of mine, being unaware as I was as a youngster. If I find any in my travels, I will get them for you if they are in good condition.

    • Thanks, Marianne! I’m trying to be selective about what I save, given that I am completely out of shelf space. But when it comes to Penguins and Puffins, all my resolutions are abandoned!

  5. Lovely post. I actually have very few Penguins, being in the US but you make me want to collect them (as if I need more books). I love the covers, especially of your old childhood favorites.

    • Thank you for your comment–and yes, many of those vintage cover designs are works of art in themselves. As a child I was always mystified by the words printed on the back cover of every Puffin: For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.

  6. I too prefer the original Puffin logo to the later cartoony version. I suppose the redesign is in line with the edict that to appeal to children (and, it would appear, a large proportion of adults) creatures must have large eyes, like Byzantine icons or Disney princesses or puppies on calendars. Otherwise they won’t look twice at your product. This despite puffins being distinguished by their clown-like eye make-up rather than their puppy eyes. I suppose the slimmer body shape is a subliminal message about avoiding becoming obese. If so, it hasn’t worked.

    I drafted a witty response earlier regarding old paperbacks but forgot to post it. Ah well, it’s disappeared now. Onwards and upwards!

    • Oh, sorry you lost your earlier response, but thank you for this one. Good point–I hadn’t noticed those huge eyes in the 70s logo, but now I see that the new logo, though still a little slimmer than the original, has returned to the small eyes and pleasingly rounded body. Puffin_Books_logo

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