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Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. This is the final installment in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 2011. Venturing into children’s literature seems like a natural evolution for McSweeney’s. The line between McSweeney’s adult and children’s books may seem blurry to some readers. You know what I mean if you’ve ever given your child one of the “board books” in Lisa Brown’s “Baby Be Of Use” series and received a blank stare and little-to-no good response. A parent might be confused by the brightly illustrated, pictorial stories that instruct your wee little one on the method for making mommy and daddy a martini or changing the oil in the car.

 

Or you might relate if you’ve ever delighted in handing your fifth-grader one of the encyclopedias in the Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey series. My favorite is Your Disgusting Head. Or the fuzzy (I don’t mean warm; I mean literally fuzzy) novelization of Dave Eggers’s and Spike Jonze’s screenplay, The Wild Things, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. These aren’t really for kids, but they’re a lot of fun no matter how young at heart you may be!

 

McSweeney’s marketed its children and young adult book imprint with the tagline “For Kids Who Love Weird Books.” The books definitely have the McSweeney’s design aesthetic. Many feature dust jackets that unfold into posters, and one even features heat-sensitive ink. Frequent McSweeney’s collaborator Jordon Crane’s board book Keep Our Secrets includes this tip: “For best results read this book with a hairdryer.” The McSweeney’s collection came complete with a hairdryer and is certainly the only collection at the Ransom Center with such a tool. The series features not only amazing illustrations but amazing stories. S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners and the Treasure of the Drowned Man’s Canyon is the first in a series and was a Nominee for the 2014–2015 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

 

Since being weird is no longer a stigma, I’m anxious for my own 1-year old, Simon, to be a weird kid. You see, being different is not only OK, it’s celebrated. Everything about McSweeney’s celebrates difference. From the namesake of the company, Mr. Timothy McSweeney himself, to the experimental design of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, to publishing books like Lemon (Lawrence Krauser), Real Man Adventures (T. Cooper), It Chooses You (Miranda July), and others that bring to print stories that comfort those who’ve always felt like they’ve never “fit in.” The publishing house also shines a light on the often ignored voices captured in the Voice of Witness oral history series that highlights human rights abuses in this country and around the world.

 

In fact, McSweeney’s wants to help inspire the upcoming generations’ crop of McSweeney’s writers.  Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s helped establish a non-profit tutoring and writing center, 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Under the umbrella organization 826 National, seven more centers have opened in Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston. Many writers and artists donate their work in support of 826 National with the proceeds of many McSweeney’s books going directly to further the work of the tutoring centers.

 

So, read, write, and be weird!

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with McSweeney’s archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the second in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s the year 2000. McSweeney’s and the rest of the world came through the threat of Y2K unscathed. It’s a new millennium, and new millennium readers want to experiment, take chances, and conquer new frontiers in reading. In 2000, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, which tells the story of a corporate memo writer who begins an intimate friendship with a lemon after his girlfriend breaks up with him. Lemon perhaps set the tone for McSweeney’s books, as one reviewer called it “handsome, smartly written and deeply eccentric.”

 

A unique love story deserves a unique cover, but one unique cover would simply not do. How about 10,000 unique covers? This line of thinking inspired Dave Eggers’s and Lawrence Krauser’s “Oodles of Doodles” cover idea. The first 10,000 books were wrapped in a blank dust jacket containing only the title and author rubberstamped in various places on each cover—Krauser’s blank canvas. Over a period of about three months, for about three hours a day, Krauser drew unique doodles on 9,812 Lemon dust jackets, making each copy a unique, one-of-a-kind original. Krauser didn’t quite make it through the 10,000 print run, but illustrated an additional 1,000 covers for the Dutch translation, for a grand total of 10,812 unique books.

 

The Ransom Center currently holds three copies of Lemon: one blank copy and two with unique doodle covers.

 

Since publishing Lemon, McSweeney’s book publishing division has grown into McSweeney’s Books, which publishes nonfiction biographies, memoirs, and criticism; a long list of humor books including the “Baby, Be of Use” series by Lisa Brown and the popular Haggis-on-Whey encyclopedias; art books with portfolios by Marcel Dzama, Dave Eggers, and Art Spiegelman; and Beck’s Song Reader, a music album that exists only as richly illustrated individual pieces of sheet music.

 

McSweeney’s other book imprints include McSweeney’s Rectangulars; Believer Books, collecting writing from the magazine’s contributors; McSweeney’s McMullens, which publishes books for young children and young adults; Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustices around the world; Collins Library, reprints of forgotten classics edited by Paul Collins; McSweeney’s Poetry Series; and McSweeney’s Insatiables, a food and cooking imprint.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 1997. Dave Eggers is working at Esquire magazine. From his Brooklyn apartment at 394A Ninth Street, Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly. Eggers explains the publication will be called McSweeney’s, named after a man claiming to be a relative who wrote “long, tortured, and often incomprehensible letters” to the Eggers family. The email, which was forwarded extensively to other friends and writers, notes: “There will be an emphasis on experimentation. If you have a story that’s good, but conventional, you’d be better off sending it somewhere legitimate. This thing will be more about trying new and almost certainly misguided ideas.” Rejected works, unfinished stories, and cartoons without pictures had found their home.

 

Expecting to be around for only a few years, McSweeney’s is still going strong 15 years later and still publishes the flagship McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the monthly magazine The Believer, and an ever-expanding catalog of books published under various imprints.

 

Each issue of the Quarterly Concern is completely redesigned, but the McSweeney’s house style is immediately recognizable, often influenced by vintage typography and a distinct design aesthetic that honors the craft of bookmaking. Always willing to experiment, McSweeney’s has published issues with two spines, a magnetized binding, and a cigar box housing. They’ve also published an issue that resembles a bundle of mail, an issue printed as a complete daily newspaper, and an issue that gave readers a look inside the head of one sweaty man. Many issues focus on a theme, and selected issues have paid tribute to Donald Barthelme; acquainted readers with the art of comics and modern forms of extinct literary genres; introduced international voices by featuring contemporary writing from Icelandic, South Sudanese, and Australian Aboriginal writers; and provided thoughtful non-fiction essays.

 

Issue 16 was the first edition designed by former editor Eli Horowitz and can be considered the first to really experiment with book form and function. Horowitz wanted “something that could sit on a shelf, pretend to be a normal book, but then unfurl into something else entirely.” The jacket unfolds three times, resembling a pair of pants when completely unfolded, and contains four pockets. One pocket holds the novella Mr. Nobody at All by Ann Beattie, another holds a book of short stories, the third holds Robert Coover’s story “Heart Suit” presented as a deck of 15 playing cards, and the final holds an object: a comb. Horowitz noted that they wanted the fourth pocket to hold an item, but it had to be something long and thin. McSweeney’s considered a ruler and magnifying glass but didn’t want readers to ascribe a meaning to the item or think they were supposed to use it in a certain way. Horowitz decided on a comb. McSweeney’s printer in Singapore subcontracted with a comb maker, and they considered various samples, which can be found in box 17, folder 5 of the archive.

 

The bulk of the McSweeney’s archive comprises mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs used to produce McSweeney’s publications, but every publication isn’t fully documented. The materials related to issue 16 provide a good look at the publishing process. The archive contains Beattie’s and Adam Levin’s manuscripts with edits by Horowitz, partial proofs with copy-edits, color swatches, the comb samples, and an early homemade design mockup.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.

Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

By Micah Erwin

During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve.  Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.

 

In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.

 

Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).

 

The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project.  We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.

 

Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!

 

Related content:

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project

 

Image: These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

Fellows Find: Fleur Cowles archive sheds light on woman behind pioneering magazine “Flair”

By Teal Triggs

Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 


Teal Triggs is a Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at Royal College of Art, London. She spent time at the Ransom Center over the summer exploring materials related to Fleur Cowles with funding from the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund. She shares some of her findings here.

 

With the support of the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund, I was able to spend two weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the personal archive of the journalist, painter, and American socialite Fleur Cowles (1908–2009). As a graphic design historian, my research has focused on the significance of the early 1950s American publication Flair magazine (1950–1951), created and edited by Cowles. The magazine ran for only 12 issues (with a limited-run, 5,000-copy, pre-publication prototype printed in September 1949), yet its influence would continue long after its closure. Whilst the Cowles archive at the Ransom Center is not specifically about Flair, it does contain related materials that provide useful insights into Fleur Cowles’s extensive social network, her commitment to the arts, and importantly for me, her working methods as a writer and editor.

 

Flair was very much a product of its time, simultaneously created as a response to the growth of specialist magazines and a nod to the new medium of television. As Cowles writes: “I wanted a magazine with ultimate dual reader appeal, male as well as female. And, in the frameword (sic) of television’s allure, I wanted a magazine of extraordinary visual excitement.” Flair achieved this with its unorthodox and experimental die-cut covers, unusual paper stock, tipped-in booklets, and luxurious use of space featuring illustration and photography. Undoubtedly, her editorial vision—signified by a drawing of her trademark rose—pushed the conventions of printing technologies and magazine design. Cowles found this a “thrilling gamble.” The original photographs in the collection show her sourcing paper in Milan and capture her exuberance in creating a magazine that has “a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery, with each new reading.”

 

As an editor, Cowles fulfilled, but also shaped, her reader’s aspirations. Flair was ultimately a reflection of Cowles’s own “jet-setting” lifestyle, with features on society’s elite, Hollywood celebrities, and exotic travel. The magazine featured those she knew and places she herself had visited, while often showcasing the contributions made by women with careers in politics. Flair was also a space where she expanded on her interest in design, with stories on interiors, architecture, and fashion. The archive material also shows that whilst Fleur promoted a stylized femininity, she was indeed a pioneer in promoting the role and careers of women in journalism and publishing.

 

Other documents in the collection clarify Cowles’s motivations. Before editing Flair, she was an Associate Editor at Look magazine—a publication owned by her then-husband “Mike” Gardner Cowles. One document that reveals Cowles’s commitment to gender equality is found in a speech she gave to the University of Syracuse and Syracuse Advertising and Sales Club on May 5, 1950. The title of her talk “The Woman in Publishing,” brought a decidedly feminist perspective to America’s publishing history, an aspect of her life I intend to explore further.

 

The opportunity to see the original magazines alongside supporting documents in the collection including letters, cards, telegrams, speeches, and manuscripts presented a rich context for my research, for which I am very grateful, and which will eventually appear in a book about Cowles’s impact on design.

 

Related content:

Publisher, author and artist Fleur Cowles’s archive donated to Ransom Center

Video: Fleur Cowles describes her artwork

Fleur’s Fleurs: “Flower Game” reveals friends and their favorite flowers

Slideshow: Cover art and designs of Flair magazine

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

By Megan Barnard

The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.

The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.

The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

McSweeney’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.
Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin.

The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.

“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”

The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.

The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Read more about the arrival of the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center.

Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

By Alyssa O'connell

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

By Jean Cannon

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According to popular mythology, the publisher Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, formulated his idea for a press dedicated exclusively to paperbacks while visiting a railway station. Having spent the weekend visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the famed author of Murder on the Orient Express, Lane arrived at the Exeter railway station and realized he had forgotten his book. Frustrated and facing the boredom of a long train trip, Lane tried to buy a novel at the station but found that there was nothing available that he felt worth reading. Bookless for the next few hours, he sat on the train and planned a new line of cheap, pocket-sized, and travel-worthy books, which could be sold at railway stations, grocers, and department stores. Penguin Books—and the paperback revolution—were born.

While this version of Allen Lane’s epiphany may be slightly romanticized, there is no doubt that Penguin Books, launched in 1935, sparked a new phase of publishing that would change the printing industry irrevocably. Mass marketing of paperbacks not only brought classics to a wider audience but also brought pulp fiction—previously published in magazines—to the forefront of the book trade.

The Ransom Center’s book collection is known for first editions, many of them lush volumes with elaborate bindings. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the Ransom Center also houses multiple volumes that illuminate the development of the paperback book trade in both America and Britain. Alongside important editions of Lane’s Penguins, the Center also houses Tauchnitz editions of paperbacks that pre-date Penguin, as well as the “penny dreadfuls” and dime novels that slowly developed into modern pulp fiction. This slideshow exhibits numerous items from the library’s collections that represent landmarks in the history of the paperback book trade.

"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.
"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.