To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Modern Classics, Penguin have produced 50 books, each containing an outstanding short story.
Sixty-five years ago, when post-war austerity was at its grimmest, Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, whose aim as a publisher was to make the best available to the many at a price they could afford, launched Penguin Classics, which embodied his ideal. Its first title – a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey – went on to sell over three million copies, confirming Lane’s reputation for combining the mercenary and the missionary.
Lane was not the first to publish cheap editions of the classics, but he pioneered the up-market paperback.
He also took particular care about the design of his books. Masterminded by the great typographer Jan Tschichold, the early Penguin Classics have become collectors’ items. Lane was an early proponent of colour coding, and the borders for the jackets were printed in different colours – red for translations from Russian, green for French, and so on.
By the early Sixties, Penguin was facing competition from rival paperback publishers, and booksellers began to tire of their uniform lettering jackets; and when, in 1961, it launched its Modern Classics list, drawings and paintings by artists such as David Gentleman and Quentin Blake were beautifully combined with the elegant typography and layouts provided by Hans Schmoller and Romek Marber.
The opening salvo of titles included The Great Gatsby, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. The list went on to include such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Albert Camus and Thomas Mann.
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