The loyalty and affection that Penguin have built up derives as much from their covers as the contents of the books. The consistency and appeal of their designs makes Penguins feel familiar – so one of the biggest surprises is how much Penguin’s design rules have changed and expanded on the iconic three-striped Penguin grid, while somehow always hanging on to an essential Penguin-ness by retaining some element or other. Even on a full-bleed illustration with a completely distinct style of lettering can discretely flash its heritage in the orange oval of the logo.
I’ve spent a lot of time dipping into my parents’ library of Penguins and building up my own, so I recognised most of the series and styles represented in this 70th-anniversary retrospective. But there was one part of the Penguin catalogue that surprised me: the Specials. These short books on social and political issues seem to be a version of the 18th and 19th century pamphlet (a relationship emphasised by “a layout which has much in common with Victorian handbills): topical, provocative, portable. In the text, Phil Baines describes the Specials as “Fulfilling a purpose not unlike the investigative journalism and current affairs television programmes of today”.
They were launched in 1937, and the first spread of Specials covers shows public debate agonising over German expansion, genocides and life at war. Clockwise from left: Ourselves And Germany (“Should Britain regard Germany as her potential enemy or seek her friendship? Lord Londonderry thinks we should adopt a policy of friendship with Hitler…”), The Jewish Problem, One Man Against Europe:
The next selection from the series shows the politicised output of the sixties, and there’s a feeling of furious urgency about both the topics and the blazing tomato-red of the covers. The titles often convey the now-ness of the issue: Has Man A Future?, Persecution 1961. The subjects are direct entries into ongoing public conversations: the risks of smoking, potential miscarriages of justice. These are titles that demand to be read and responded to immediately:
The last spread shows the tail-end of the series. In terms of design, this spread is pretty depressing. An inconsistent selection suggests a series that had lost a sense of its own importance and place:
But even more depressing is that the subjects on display here all feel wearily familiar. Abuses of medicine; fucking up with public money; Debt And Danger: The World Financial Crisis. In between the end of the Penguin Specials series in the mid-1980s and now, these issues have gone churning on, apparently untouched by debate. Partly, I suspect that this is because investigative reporting and current affairs television have been dying out since the end of the Specials – they didn’t replace the pamphlet form, they were just slower to choke, so that now there are serious suggestions of a voucher system to subsidise the democratic necessity of journalism.
Maybe, though, with papers struggling to escape from the cycle of churnalism described by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, now would be a good time to revive the Special. There’s maybe a bigger constituency of people for this sort of stuff than bookselling and the press at large would suggest, and there’s definitely a good argument for offering coherent long-form essays as well as the ongoing debate of blogging. I don’t know the economics of bookselling, but maybe with digital downloads, reviving the pamphlet could help to revive investigative journalism.