-by Janey Thornton
Born in Bristol in 1902, just a stone’s throw away from Bookbarn, Allen Lane may not be a household name but he is an incredibly important figure in the history of the printed book. Together with his brothers John and Richard, he founded Penguin Books – and in doing so brought many works of fiction to a mass market audience.
Lane’s vision was to make quality books available to all at affordable prices. Legend has it that on a train journey in 1934, Lane found himself on the platform at Exeter with nothing available worth reading. He conceived of paperback editions of literature of proven quality which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine; the first was set up outside Henderson’s in Charing Cross Road, London, and dubbed the “Penguincubator”. The first Penguin books published cost sixpence, which was the same as a packet of cigarettes – and they were colour coded. Fiction was orange, biography was blue and crime was green. It was the first time in history good writing and literature had been available to so many.
Since that time, Penguin has brought audiences writing from some of the best known names in literature; including D.H. Lawrence, Roald Dahl and Eric Carle (who wrote The Hungry Caterpillar). Lane was arguably a visionary – with a passionate interest in making great works of fiction readily available to all. In 1952, twenty years after the founding of Penguin Books, he was awarded a knighthood for services to publishing. His interest in offering good titles inexpensively influenced the reading habits of people across the UK and still affects how we view books today.
With the announcement in November last year of ‘Designed by Apple in California’, a coffee table book with a RRP of £225, it’s surely more important than ever to remember the ethos of Allen Lane and the way his work contributed to our relationship with the written word. At Bookbarn we love to celebrate Penguin Books as symbols of Lane’s spirit as well as for the beautifully designed and attractive little pieces of magic they are. They fly off of the shelves of our Darwin Rare Books room and as they do so, the legacy of Bristol’s Allen Lane lives on.