It happens sometimes. What are we calling physical books now? Book-books as opposed to e-books. I don’t feel a need to call them anything other than books, unless the distinction needs to be made. In this case, it does; I bought a paperbook.
Sometimes people buy them for me — people who know me well, who consider the content as well as the cover design and age. Pulp sci-fi collections are my favourite; recently I was given a 1963 Penguin science fiction compilation edited by Brian Aldiss, the classic orange-and-white cover overlaid with a scribble of something that might be a robot, or a satellite, or a bucket of spatulas. It includes stories by Isaac Asimov, Walter M. Miller, Clifford D. Simak, Aldiss himself, “up-and-coming British author Jim Ballard”…and John Steinbeck.
I’d just like to mention that this piece I’m writing is not intended to be a contribution to (or used as ammunition in) the ongoing Traditional Books vs E-books debate. It is, however, about a paperbook, an old Penguin paperback I bought from a stall in East London’s Spitalfields Market. It was a stall selling nothing but “vintage” — you know, old — books, mainly paperbacks, mainly Penguin.
I rarely have the opportunity to look round charity shops or used book shops myself, so heading straight for the vintage mostly-Penguin stall didn’t seem like too much of a cop-out. Obviously you’re not going to get the thrill of discovering a dog-eared gem amongst the Browns and Steeles — but you’re unlikely to feel you’ve wasted your time.
There were many, many appealing (and very reasonably-priced) books available, but one particularly modest little number caught my eye: An austere dull blue cover bearing little more than a table of contents. Its functional design was as attractive as the list of names, which included Sartre, Lorca, Isherwood and Auden – not that I’m particularly familiar with the work of such writers, but it was a classy roll-call.
I guessed, vaguely, that it might be from the early sixties or even late fifties. Well…the first thing I noticed when I opened the book was that it was held together by two huge rusty staples. And then:
First Published JUNE 1941
Owing to restriction of paper supplies, readers of
The Penguin New Writing are advised to place a
regular order with their local bookseller.
Austere, I called it. Austerity. That introductory note set the stage better than any establishing scene or Britain is at war! flannel. Restriction of paper supplies — indeed, the stock is onion-skin-thin, the sort of paper you’d find in a school hymn book. The 150-page volume is barely a quarter of an inch thick. You can fill in the obvious statements like “I was holding a piece of history in my hands!”
And then, the foreword. I realise that the intro note wouldn’t carry so much charge for anyone not British, and neither will the foreword. Have a look, though, and you might see why it was such a thrill for me; at first, editor John Lehmann’s words seem almost subversive, but they become a beautifully balanced state of the nation address, all in a page and a half. The result is a much more powerful rallying cry than any Rule Britannia! Smash the Boche! “pep-talk” would have been. Grammar and spacing are [sic]:
To what extent, and in what way, should a magazine of creative writing reflect the war ? As far as poetry is concerned, this question has already been discussed in Penguin New Writing as well as in many other places, but the contents of the present issue afford a good opportunity to consider it in a more general way.
There is one school of thought which maintains that all that people want to read to-day is stories which will take them right away from the war and ideas connected with the war, which will entertain them innocuously or help them to build dream-worlds of romance and happiness. New Writing has little to offer such people, and the circulation we have rapidly built up in the second year of the war leads me to believe that this diagnosis of what the average intelligent man or woman wants is very wide of the mark. There is another opposite school of thought, holding that only themes bearing on the war should be admitted, pep-talks in fact under a thin coating of fiction or reportage, to stimulate the will to work and fight.
Looking through this month’s contributions, I find five which are directly connected with the present war of Great Britain against the Axis, and none of them, though their mood is far from defeatist, can be described as a pep-talk. They reflect anxiety, disillusionment and a sense of comedy in our shortcomings, as much as the more positive emotions. There are also two stories which have their setting in other wars, and if The Third-rate Gunner is an admirable picture of the vitality of the Chinese people and their unity in withstanding the Japanese attack on the national identity, Jean Paul Sartre’s story of the Spanish war is entirely anti-heroic and describes feelings and details of behaviour that most people try to ignore the existence of in wartime.
Christopher Isherwood’s The Nowaks, perhaps the finest story we have ever published, goes even further, for it has its setting in pre-war Berlin, and commits what a certain coterie of people have come to consider an unpardonable sin: it shows some Germans in a sympathetic light, particularly Germans of the working-class.
And yet, to my mind, the final effect of these stories is the very opposite of depressing or disintegrating, and I cannot believe that anyone will be a worse soldier or a worse citizen of a nation defending its existence for reading them. In fact, I think they definitely strengthen what is called morale, because they enrich the imagination; and in the failure to appreciate this aspect of creative literature lies the chief error of those who only believe in pep-talks. One-sided, artificial propaganda may be necessary for a people that has only a weak organic cohesion and is not sure of the necessity of its resistance. But it seems to me that an adult, civilized community functions in a very different way; to be able to criticise, to see the dark side as well as the light, to be aware of every variety of human thought and feeling beside the emotion appropriate for the time, confirms a resilience that is a sign not of softness but of a power to bend under pressure without breaking. Fanfarlo’s plea for “optimo-pessimism,”* is only one aspect of the truth that to live through our time and to master it, we must live in it to the fullest possible extent.
*Shaving Through the Blitz is attributed to “Fanfarlo”, the nom de plume of G.W. Stonier; the narrator’s “optimo-pessimism” principle is, again, about maintaining a balanced outlook
I particularly enjoy seeing the prices printed on the back covers of these old books. A 1981 copy of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids: £1.00. Current paperback price: £8.99. From 1972, The Kraken Wakes (also £8.99 in today’s market): 30p! The Penguin SF collection is pre-decimal, 3/6 — (three shillings and sixpence). I said I “enjoy” seeing the prices; that’s not quite right. I am, at best, amused by them; at worst, I worry that we’re being priced into illiteracy.
Penguin New Writing 7 doesn’t have a printed price, but scribbled in the corner of the first page in light pencil is a very reasonable (for 2012) £3. What can you get for £3 these days?