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July 29, 2010

Happy birthday to the paperback!

penguin hemingway paperback

The Census Bureau alerted me to an important birthday: This week 75 years ago, Penguin brought out the first modern paperback. The idea came from British publishing exec Allen Lane, who was seeking a respite from a Depression-era revenue slump. The cheap, convenient, color-coded format caught on with readers and within months Penguin books were selling in the millions. Today, half of the books bought each year are softcover, the Census Bureau says.

Here's how Penguin's corporate history describes Lane's epiphany: "After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

"Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores. He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin and another employee was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. ...

"The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes."

This week, let's tip back a pint -- or a cup of tea -- to honor Mr. Lane.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)
        

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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