For those who may have forgotten, the paperback novel is a lightweight paper unit with words printed on actual (not virtual) pages. In the age of the e-book, it’s difficult to imagine that this simple concept was once a ground-breaking advancement in the world of literature. But 75 years ago, it was.
It began back in the 1930s. Like many notable entrepreneurs, English publisher Allen Lane spotted a hole in a market and set out to fill it. Waiting in a train station for a steam engine to whisk him away after a visit with Agatha Christie, Mr. Lane went off in search of a cigarette and a good book for the trip. He easily found the former but was unable to find a cheap, convenient read to help pass the time on his trip.
Feathers ruffled, Mr. Lane took it upon himself to develop a collection of inexpensive paperback books suitable for sale at a railway kiosk or newsstand. Those first products of Penguin Books publishing company bore the iconic orange and white cover designs, and the company quickly grew to include many titles and millions of color-coded copies.
“People thought, at the time that he did that, that he was sort of mad,” said Penguin Books president and publisher Kathryn Court this week, of Mr. Lane’s initial book release. “And of course, it turned out to be an enormous success very quickly.”
Mr. Lane’s introduction of the paperback book in 1935 was a landmark event in the publishing world. Penguin made books affordable and transportable, and most importantly, accessible to all. Over the years, the company has gone global, with offices all across the world.
On Monday night, the Vineyard is invited to help Penguin celebrate its 75th anniversary at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore with host Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Penguin author and Island resident. Ms. Brooks will read a selection from her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing, which is still a work-in-progress.
The idea for her fourth novel popped up when she spotted a small notation on an old map, marking the birthplace of Wampanoag Caleb Cheeschamuck, the first American Indian graduate of Harvard,
“I thought, cool, I wonder if he’s still around. I’d love to talk to him about what that was like,” said Ms. Brooks with a laugh, in an interview at her Vineyard Haven home this week. She had no such luck. As it turned out, Caleb’s story had taken place in the 1600s. “I was thinking 1965, maybe, Civil Rights era. I had no idea. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know Harvard was around in 1665,” she said.
Ms. Brooks remains mostly tight-lipped about her latest novel, but she’s looking forward to offering Islanders a little taste, in honor of Penguin’s anniversary. “I thought, well, I’ll read from something that’s not finished yet, to let people in on the process a little bit. That’s the idea,” she said.
As with her other novels, research plays an enormous role in her writing. Ms. Brooks scours journals, letters and court transcripts to build first what she calls the “scaffolding” of her story, and then to channel the voice of her narrator. Under pressure of a fall deadline, she said she’s now stealing whatever time she can to write, mostly when her two sons are either in school or at summer camp. Luckily, she is able to draw inspiration for Caleb’s Crossing, which is set on Martha’s Vineyard, from the world outside her front door.
“It’s wonderful to write about the Island. If you want some inspiration, if you want to describe the sunrise, you just get up early and watch the sunrise,” said Ms. Brooks. “It’s also been fantastic to get a little bit more into the history of the Wampanoags . . . There are so many fantastic people.”
Ms. Brooks said her decision to participate in the celebration was a no-brainer. “They said two things that won me over. One was that they were going to give 75 books to the Vineyard Haven Public Library, and since my sons, and the whole family really lives at the Vineyard Haven library, I thought 75 books was a pretty good deal.
“And then they told me that they had a Mini, and I used to drive a Mini when I was 17 years old.”
Ms. Brooks is referring to the Mini-Cooper, painted orange and decorated with an image of the company’s emblematic penguin, that will transport her from her seat at Monday night’s Possible Dreams auction to the event at the Bunch of Grapes. Like the other Penguin authors participating in the nationwide tour, Ms. Brooks will sign the dashboard of the Mini-Cooper, before it goes up for auction. The proceeds will be donated to the New York Public Library. And as a token of their appreciation for authors participating in the celebratory tour, Penguin has offered to donate 75 paperback titles to the library or literacy group of their choice.
The choice to ask Ms. Brooks to host the Vineyard leg of the tour was a simple one, said Penguin publicity manager Lindsay Prevette. “She’s just one of Penguin’s most iconic, well-loved authors,” she said.
Ms. Brooks first became a Penguin author in 2001, with the novel Year of Wonders. She’d enjoyed a long career as a journalist and foreign correspondent and had published two nonfiction titles with another publisher. But after taking on a new role of mother, Ms. Brooks sought a chance to settle down and stay closer to home. Which inevitably meant she’d have to make some career adjustments.
“I realized that I needed a new gig,” she said. Ideas for a novel had been bouncing around in her head for close to a decade, and she finally decided to set the words to paper. “I wrote three chapters and an outline, and gave it to my agent. And I said to her, ‘Just give me your frank opinion on it, because if it’s no good I’ll find another nonfiction idea.’ And I didn’t hear from her, and I didn’t hear from her, and I thought ‘Oh, she hated it,’” said Ms. Brooks. On the contrary. When her agent finally got in touch, it was to say she’d sold the novel to Penguin. “Then I had no chance but to write the thing,” she joked.
But while her professional relationship with Penguin began just 10 years ago, Ms. Brooks said her relationship with the books goes back much further.
“I used to love those old paperbacks. And it’s kind of an interesting thing now, when we’re all kind of in flux about what book technology is and how books are going to be delivered, to think about the incredibly radical idea of the paperback,” she said. And while people considered it a crazy idea at the time,” said Ms. Brooks, “those old Penguin paperback books are iconic now.”
Ms. Court said that a dedication to quality is what’s kept the company successful through the years, even as technology threatens to change the entire landscape of the publishing industry. “I think that we’re still trying to do some of the same things [Allen Lane] wanted to do, which is we want to publish a very wide range of books,” she said. “We want them to be available at reasonable prices so that people can afford to buy them. And we’re always looking for new talent, and new ways of making our books attractive to people. And to attract great authors. That’s still the most important thing we do.”
But Ms. Brooks knows books aren’t going anywhere, which is why she continues to write. “I’ve been incredibly lucky to find readers, and I’ll keep doing this for as long as I can get away with it,” she said. “I just feel like the book will survive, because it meets a human need.”
The Penguin Books 75th anniversary celebration at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, on Main street in Vineyard Haven, is on Monday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome.
The Gazette has three Penguin books to give away — Ms. Brooks’s Year of Wonders, Six Short Novels by John Steinbeck ,and Cod, by Mark Kurlanski, to the first three people to request each one (name your preference; first come, first served) on the Vineyard Gazette Facebook page.