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Book Covers, Classics, and the Politics of Literacy

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

The idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ has been credited to George Eliot, traced back to the novel ‘The Mill on the Floss’ (1860). However often this may have been repeated since, seemingly a great many times, we still continue to, quite literally, judge a book by its cover when purchasing one. Trend cycles have seen common themes in book covers evolve, then fall out of favour, only to be later repeated. Perhaps the best example of these are titles published by ‘Penguin Books’ which offer a wide range of contemporary and classic fiction, as well as non-fiction, catering to a vast audience of readers. However, purchasing decisions are not simply reliant upon covers, notably, current events inevitably play a significant role in what a reader selects, most recently reflected in the surge of copies of Camus’ ‘The Plague’ sold in early 2020 [1]. Despite the range of contemporary fiction published, readers continue to turn to literature which falls under the umbrella of ‘classics’. In his ‘ABC of Reading’, the poet, Ezra Pound, stated “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definition…. It is classic because of a certain and irrepressible freshness [2]”. Although, as has been noted, this is a very subjective definition, yet books that fall easily into this category continue to draw in a great number of readers each year.

Penguin Books as a company was created by Allen Lane in 1935 based on the idea of “publishing cheap, good-looking reprints of fiction and non-fiction in paperback [3]” at an affordable price that at the time was usually associated with poor quality fiction. The consequences of this decision led to a significant change in British reading habits as books previously inaccessible became available to those from working class backgrounds. In his 1946 essay ‘Books v. Cigarettes’, George Orwell refers to a conversation he had with a newspaper editor who had been speaking to his factory workers. In response to questions about the newspaper’s literary section, they exclaimed “You don’t suppose we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you’re talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn’t spend twelve and sixpence on a book [4]”. Without a price incentive a factory worker with limited spending power would not be able to purchase books, irrespective of their interest in doing so. Although, we would assume this conversation took place subsequent to the founding of Penguin Books, Orwell only states this conversation was “a couple of years ago [5]”.

This is not to say that books being published before Penguin were unattractive, no doubt much thought was put into the designs, but they were aimed at the tastes of a niche market rather than the public in general. By 1935, when Penguin Books began to publish, alternative forms of entertainment, such as radio and cinema had become widely available and this competition meant publishers like Penguin had to make their books more striking in terms of the cover design in order to capture the attention of a potential buyer. Diversity in terms of what was being published also had to be considered. For example, a prose translation of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ transformed the fiction landscape in terms of public accessibility to certain pieces of literature [6], as well as more ‘popular’ fiction such as books such as the ‘Hercule Poirot’ series by Agatha Christie, and the first non-fiction Pelican title, George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism’. Similar ideas continue today; the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ collection began its first series in 2004, with the intention of reproducing significant works owned by Penguin, covering subjects such as philosophy, science, and politics. This includes works, for example, by Seneca, Darwin, and Paine. By being selective regarding contents, and in some cases editing the length, the intention is to make them available in the most accessible format possible.

In an age when the competition for the public’s attention has extended to include the internet, the necessity of supplying an attractive convenient product at a suitable price is paramount. That such books sell is evidence that the interest is there, just as it was in the 1930s, as long as they are packaged appropriately for the audience of their respective times. Contemporary books have to be attractive on the shelf of a bookshop but equally they have to catch the eye of online shoppers. Penguin Books cited the colours pink and green as being particularly popular in 2021, especially for non-fiction books, alongside abstract covers that offer little indication of the nature of the book, as well as eye-catching typography, often with a retro-feeling serif font [7]. In this new era of book cover design, it is noticeable how simple many designs have become. This appears to be the opposite of those designed in the latter half of the twentieth century, where bold images or colourful illustrations were preferred, for example, the Penguin Science Fiction covers designed by Franco Grignani published in 1969. Another interesting example is the evolution of the cover of Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The classic 1972 Penguin cover has now been replaced by a very simple design using a circular image of the surface of an orange and does not even display the full title of the novel, simply the word ‘clockwork’. Other designs currently in vogue hold more similarities with the styles of the first Penguin Books with their simple stripe covers; orange for fiction, green for crime, and the blue ‘Pelican’ series for non-fiction. However, unlike today, the design of the originals served a more practical purpose by simply being cost-effective to produce and therefore be affordable to a wider audience. Simplicity is now more of an aesthetic consideration than a cost factor.

It should be remembered that the intention of Penguin Books was not simply to become a profitable book publisher, although commercial viability inevitably played its part, but there was a deliberate social aspiration involved in the planning process as well. This was potentially a reflection of the views of its founder, Allen Lane who had himself not attended university but become an employee of the publishers ‘Bodley Head’. It may have been this unique background to many of his contemporaries that meant the range of titles he chose were deliberately aimed to cater for all tastes and interests. Dr Richard Hoggart, author of the ‘The Uses of Literacy’, described in a 1985 interview Penguin Books as being “a great democratic device”, continuing that “the assumption behind Penguins was that everybody had a right to know [8]”. Priced at just 6d, he argued that for the potential buyers, there was a notion that “this book is for you if you want it [9]”. By 1935 there was almost, at least theoretically, universal literacy, and this meant there was a large potential market for literature. This had been developing amongst the population for some time, largely instigated by the 1870 Education Act, as well as subsequent legislation, such as the 1880 Elementary Education Act. This meant that it was far more unusual for young children to enter employment without any form of prior education beyond a certain level. Regardless of how basic the literacy skills they had gained from this may have been, it instigated a process of great change. It is significant that this also coincided with a decline of the agricultural industry, which, at the time, placed little demand for literacy on its workforce. 300,000 men left agricultural employment towards the end of the nineteenth-century, and not all were forced out by economic depression or new technology. Many simply left on a voluntary basis as alternative sources of employment became available. The jobs they moved to, either in industry or retail trades, placed more of a premium on literacy. In simply being literate, there was a sense of greater aspiration, and they were no longer content to follow previous generations unquestioningly simply becoming agricultural labourers, and movement into cities would bring greater opportunity for engagement in this as there were more schools, and later, access to libraries.

Taking the rural village of Wittering in the nineteenth century, then in Northamptonshire, now in Cambridgeshire, as an example of a standard village across England, it is possible to gain an appreciation of the changing literacy rates amongst its population using details taken from the marriage register. At this time, Wittering had an overwhelmingly agrarian population, not uncommon amongst rural villages, but this certainly may not be reflective of the circumstances for the whole English population. During the period considered, there were 182 marriages, relatively evenly spread across the time aside from a slight increase in 1850s. Prior to 1838 no details of age or occupation were recorded, so this aspect can only be shown on the graph from 1840 onwards. It should be noted that these dates are those of marriage, therefore education would pre-date this by around 10 to 15 years on average, although there are a few exceptions to this. Considering solely the latter period where occupation is actually stated, where there was an economic requirement to be literate, people generally were, reflected in skilled trade jobs such as bakers, shoemakers, or blacksmiths. It is the agricultural labourers who had a literacy rate which fell behind their tradesmen counterparts. It was the individuals from this background who moved away to local towns, cities, or even further afield to London.

This increase in literacy of the workforce did not find universal favour as it broke down the barrier between the employer and the employed, the informed literate and the masses. The position of literature and its availability emphasises this point. The “English literary intelligentsia” displayed a rather “hostile reaction to the unprecedently large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms [10]”, but there was no escaping the consequences of this. The question then moved from whether or not the individual was literate, but to what was suitable for them to read. Initially, it appears there were few affordable resources available, something that was to persist for some time, as reflected in the factory workers Orwell made reference to in 1946. Another development was the twopenny library, first appearing in North London in 1930, which charged readers on a loan basis, rather than requiring a subscription fee. Inevitably, class played an important role in what was made available. The twopenny libraries tended to carry what was referred to as ‘light fiction’ as well as the ‘middlebrow’ bestsellers of the previous decade. Whilst this emphasised class distinction between what was intended for middle-classes and working-classes [11], it did make literature more accessible to a wider population. It also demonstrates the significance of Penguin Books in offering a remedy to these class differences by making available a range of texts that were previously viewed as only being suitable for certain sections of society.

Perhaps some of the most popular early Penguin Books were those by Agatha Christie. Whilst some of her work is now reaching a classic status today, this was, for quite obvious reasons, not the case that the time of publication. Instead, texts such as Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ and Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ were amongst the early classic titles. Allen Lane was shrewd enough to provide an accessible popular text that would attract a wide range of readers, as well as more demanding alternatives that meant the profit on the former would compensate for potential losses on the latter. Beyond making these texts accessible to a wider audience, Penguin also pursued new endeavours, such as the publication of the Penguin Russian Classics. The first of these was ‘Three Plays’ by Chekhov, translated by Russian émigré, Samuel S. Kotelianskii [12], although this was to be later re-translated and published again in 1951. Focus on Russia was to persist with a series of non-fiction titles concerning the USSR, examining its economy, culture, and wartime activities. This continued throughout the period into the 1950s with texts like Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ as well as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ all translated and published by Penguin [13].

With the descent of Europe into war in 1939, Penguin was in a position to capitalise upon its publishing strength to inform the public of political and military developments with a range of Penguin ‘Specials’ that proved especially popular and likely influential. These took a firmly anti-fascist line, often selling between 100,000 and 250,000 copies [14]. “The subjects of Specials had to be of immediate and pressing concern and, once identified, authoritative writers were commissioned to them write to almost impossible deadlines [15]”. The first of these, Edgar Mowrer’s ‘Germany Turns Back the Clock’ was published in 1937, and they continued to be published throughout the war. Some were practical titles such as ‘Aircraft Recognition’ and ‘Our Food Problem’, but the majority were an attempt to explain current events like Harold Nicholson’s ‘Why Britain is at War’, published in 1939. Others looked more to the future such as H. N. Brailsford’s ‘Our Settlements with Germany’ published in 1944. With a growth in demand for books during the war, both by the general public and in particular within the armed forces, these books proved highly influential. It was remarked that Clement Attlee described “his path to Downing Street was paved with Penguin Specials [16]”. In July 1938, George Orwell had reviewed the Penguin Special ‘Searchlight on Spain’ written by the Duchess of Atholl; he wrote of her book and others from this series, that they formed “the link between Left and Right which is absolutely necessary for the purpose of war [17]”. Despite such extensive praise, it seems ironic that the series was then somewhat neglected in the immediate aftermath of the war. However, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed something of a renaissance, generally adopting a left-of-centre approach to examine the political issues of the day. This stemmed from increased social awareness which led to questions of political leaders, much like their wartime predecessors, many of these were written, and had their covers designed, with a degree of urgency [18]. Titles included ‘What’s Wrong with the Unions?’ published in 1961, ‘The A6 Murder, Regina v. James Hanratty’ published in 1963, ‘Israel and the Arabs’ published in 1968, and ‘Divided Ulster’ published in 1970. Penguin was now reflecting the Post-War consensus that was to dominate British politics for the next 35 years. The Penguin Specials series also ventured into the world of business with re-prints of Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ and William H. Whyte’s ‘The Organisation Man’, both published in 1960. Whilst the tone and content of these books remained egalitarian, the sense of optimism for the future was being replaced with a greater sense of doubt as questions as to the changing nature of the world and the place of Britain within it began to be asked. Although, it is increasingly felt that it was this drift to the left that meant it lost touch with the views of a proportion of its potential readership [19]. This is demonstrated in the decline in the sales figures for Penguin Specials published between 1980 and 1985, with only E. P. Thompson’s ‘Protest and Survive’ reaching a reasonably sized audience, selling 61,000 copies. Many others sold in the very low thousands [20]. After an absence of some years, the series has more recently been resurrected in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Whilst their subject matter continues to be varied, the sense of social purpose that the originals had is far less readily apparent. However, if the social and political ambitions of Penguin are at a low ebb, their other catalogues appear to be thriving.

Of particular contemporary popularity are Penguin’s ‘Modern Classics’, whilst there is a debate surrounding what truly fits into this category, it is undoubtably the case that these books currently sell a remarkable number of copies. This is reflected in the current eau de nil colour spines as of 2017 which appear on almost every fiction shelf in a bookshop. Given that these 1,227 [21] books (at the time of writing) include titles such as ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and ‘1984’, it is almost inevitable that this is the case. Today, given the changing attitudes towards literature, it is unsurprising that people largely choose to consume ‘the greats’ of fiction, and as these have now become even more attractive due to contemporary cover designs, this makes them almost preferable to new releases. Equally, books that receive a popular reception on social media tend to be successful. The influence of what our books look like and what books are seen as being ‘on trend’ has grown rapidly and reflects a change in the reading habits amongst the population, and especially younger age groups. This stands in contrast to the position of general readers in the early twentieth century where there was difficulty in accessing good quality fiction.

The continuing popularity of printed fiction risks making the assumption that the population is fully literate and there are no longer any political issues connected to this. The reality is that according to the ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’, there remains an “estimated nine million working aged adults in England (more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65) with low literacy skills [22]”. During the last decade, the public have increasingly turned to online sources for information, especially that of a political nature, replacing printed works. Here too, literacy remains crucial, and it also makes the assumption that the population is computer literate too. There is certainly a risk that parts of the population become excluded in this way, as well as in the more conventional sense of being literate. Penguin Books was established in the 1930s with the intention of providing quality fiction and non-fiction printed by a reputable publisher in an accessible form most people could afford. Today, newly printed books have become more expensive again, risking making them exclusive to certain sections of society, with others being forced to turn to online sources. Even here, this assumes that they have access to the internet, and if not, the problem of exclusion that Penguin Books addressed more than eighty years ago, will only reassert itself.



[1] Flood, A. (March 2020) ‘Publishers report sales boom in novels about fictional epidemics’, the Guardian.

[2] Palmer, L. H. (1973) ‘Matthew Arnold and Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading’, Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Vol.2, no.2, pp.193-198, p.194-195

[3] Baines, P. (2005) ‘Penguin by Design’. London: Penguin Books Ltd. p.12

[4] Orwell, G. (1946) ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ (2008 ed.). London: Penguin Books Ltd. p.1

[5] Orwell, G. (1946) ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ (2008 ed.). London: Penguin Books Ltd. p.1

[6] Garnett, H. (September 2018) ‘How far did Allen Lane, co-founder of Penguin Books, contribute to changing the reading culture in Britain from the 1930s-1940s?’, The Journal of Publishing Culture, Vol.8, no.1. p.4

[7] Clark, L., Wright, B., and Kelly, B. (December 2021) ‘Pinks, layers and bold fonts: the book cover trends that have dominated 2021’, Penguin, [online]

[8] Hoggart, D. (1985) A film made to mark the 50th anniversary of Penguin Books and celebrate its founder Allen Lane [Accessible online, accessed 19/11/22]

[9] Hoggart, D. (1985) A film made to mark the 50th anniversary of Penguin Books and celebrate its founder Allen Lane [Accessible online, accessed 19/11/22]

[10] Carey, J. (1992) ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’. London: Faber and Faber. preface, p.1

[11] Hilliard, C. (2014) ‘The Twopenny Library: The Book Trade, Working-Class Readers, and ‘Middlebrow’ Novels in Britain, 1930-42’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol.25, No.2, pp.199-220, p.199

[12] McAteer, C. (2021) ‘Translating Great Russian Literature’. Oxford: Routledge, p.2

[13] McAteer, C. (2021) ‘Translating Great Russian Literature’. Oxford: Routledge, p.155

[14] Penguin Archive Project (2022) ‘Penguin Specials’, University of Bristol, [online]

[15] Baines, P. (2005) ‘Penguin by Design’. London: Penguin Books Ltd. p.29

[16] Morpurgo, J. E. (1985) A film made to mark the 50th anniversary of Penguin Books and celebrate its founder Allen Lane [Accessible online, accessed 19/11/22]

[17] Orwell, G. (July 1938) ‘Review- Searchlight on Spain by the Duchess of Atholl’. Orwell, S. and Angus, I. ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940’. London: Secker and Warburg. p.344

[18] Baines, P. (2005) ‘Penguin by Design’. London: Penguin Books Ltd. p.112

[19] Blackburn, D. (2012) ‘Penguin Specials and the Centre-Left, 1937-1988’. PhD Thesis, Bristol: University of Bristol. p.231

[20] Blackburn, D. (2012) ‘Penguin Specials and the Centre-Left, 1937-1988’. PhD Thesis, Bristol: University of Bristol. p.247

[21] Penguin (2022) ‘Penguin Modern Classics’, Penguin.

[22] Kuczera, M., Field, S., and Windisch, H. C. (2016) ‘Building Skills for All: A Review of England’. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, [online] p.9



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