The Things We See

One of the joys of collecting Penguin Books is the wide variety of titles and series that they published over the years and especially exploring the ones that failed to take off.  There are more dead ends and random corners to explore in Penguins first 15 years of publishing than in a M.C. Escher painting. One of these was the well intentioned but ultimately seriously curtailed series The Things We See, book one of which is shown below.  They were assigned the letter code E to distinguish them from other Penguin series so E1 became Indoors and Out.

When I first started collecting Penguin, well before the advent of the internet and its ease of tracking down items around the world, I came to think of these as The Things We Don’t See as I so rarely came across one in a shop on my searches although they are not in fact that scarce and you can certainly pick up examples for £5 to £10 nowadays quite easily.

The Things We See was intended to be a departure from the normal Penguin style. Hardback books each of 64 pages, printed on art paper and significantly larger than their normal paperback production at 220mm tall x 182mm wide and looking at design of everyday objects. This had been touched on via several Pelican books (Penguins factual imprint) but the desire was to produce a series of high quality books on all aspects of the subject. Unfortunately they immediately hit several problems. The main one being the major paper shortage immediately after WWII in 1946 when the series was supposed to start along with the relatively high purchase cost at 3 shillings and sixpence, just over £7 today which sounds good until you realise that it is 3½ times the price of a ‘normal’ Penguin or Pelican at the time. A small number of Indoors and Out did make it on sale in 1946 as a special pre-issue publication but the majority arrived in 1947. It was intended as the introduction to the series and carried an impressive list of titles in preparation to give an idea of the intended scope:

  • Houses by Lionel Brett
  • Furniture by Gordon Russell
  • Radios and other appliances by R.D. Russell
  • Pottery and glass by A.B. Hollowood
  • Lettering and Printing by John Tarr
  • Advertising by Ashley Havinden
  • Shop Windows and exhibitions by Misha Black
  • Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood
  • Public Transport by Christian Barman
  • Private Cars by Humphrey Hague
  • Ships by David Pye
  • Aircraft by Christopher Nicholson

Other projected titles given, but with no author, so presumably not as advanced in production were Toys, Domestic Equipment, Shops and Cinemas, The Things We Wear. This would have given the E series an initial list of 17 titles however only 7 were ever printed, the ones in bold above being the remaining 6 to come out.

1947 was a good year for The Things We See as 3 more titles made it out that year. E4 Pottery and Glass was the next to appear as can be seen from the list of titles on the back which still has E2 and E3 as ‘in preparation’ and the list of titles has already been considerably cut back as it rapidly became clear that a) there was not enough paper and b) they weren’t selling very well. Only E1 was ever produced in hardback all the others are softback editions at the lower price of 2 shilling and sixpence, representing a 28% price cut; although this appears to have been a last minute decision as the old price is blocked out in black and the new overprinted on the inside flap of the dustwrapper. As can be seen on the rear cover of E3 Furniture; shown above; there is a long overprint removing the line

Titles already published:price 3/6 each

The rear of E2 Houses is the same as E3.  So what do the books look like inside? Well lets open E4 Pottery and Glass.

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They are very attractive photogravure printed volumes with lots of photographic illustrations, it is clear that these would have been expensive to produce so the dramatic cut in price cannot have helped the viability of the series as a whole.  That these books are still around was down to Penguins policy of just holding onto something until it eventually sold. Unlike a lot of publishers that would probably have pulped a lot of unsold stock to make way for new titles Penguin, under Allen Lane at least, very rarely did this. The next two titles to appear were E5 Public Transport in 1949 and E6 Ships in 1950, both still priced as 2 shillings and sixpence.

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These two are probably my favourites from the series, they are very readable and the illustrations invoke the era they come from so well

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Ships has a quote from The Architectural Press on the inside of the dustwapper, which turned out to be completely wrong:

To judge from the first few volumes the series called The Things We See ought to prove the most successful of all the contributions made by Penguin Books to visual education. Well designed, well illustrated and well printed they are remarkably cheap by any standard. Moreover the author of each has been given his head, within the limits imposed by considerations of space, and by bringing his heart too has produced a highly readable essay which is all the better for being in some degree a profession of personal faith.

Sadly there was only to be one more title produced and for that we had to wait another 3 years.  1953 saw E7 Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood and Susan Jellicoe. The latter author was not mentioned in the original plan for the book so possibly she was drafted in to make sure this book actually came out.  The price however had doubled to 5 shillings and the eye design cover was abandoned to make the book look more attractive to a post austerity public.

All the titles were relaunched with photographic dustwrappers over the top of the unsold stock dating back up to 6 years. Only E3 Furniture was actually reprinted with revisions for this relaunch all the rest were just what was still sitting in the warehouse so there must have been a highly tedious exercise in removing all the old wrappers and putting new ones on. Only Furniture and Gardens have photographic covers under the wrapper all the others retain the old eye cover.

20170130 The Things We See 08Several illustrations in Furniture were replaced as part of the revised edition and its price was increased to 3 shillings and sixpence alongside E1 Inside and Out which had never been reduced in price, the others stayed at the lower price.

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This is from the revised edition, only the birch bed (top left) was in the original 1947 book, the new pictures show a far more contemporary look in order to update the subject.

Presumably the books continued to slowly sell and the relaunch managed to clear some of the backlog of books making the effort of recovering all of the old stock worthwhile. Penguin meanwhile had other ambitious projects to handle by then and The Things We See was left to slowly fade away.  A sad end to what could have been a most interesting set of books.

Why not get hold of some, they are cheap enough, and enjoy, what is after all, a 70 year old series and therefore now significant in studying the history of design not just from their contents but also from the design of the books themselves. Three of the titles E1, E6 and E7 won design awards from the National Book League when they were published so were recognised as significant pieces of work even then.


The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

For my entry this week I’ve decided to review a book I was given at Christmas and thoroughly enjoyed, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

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Shaun is the notoriously curmudgeonly owner of the largest second hand bookshop in the Scotland which goes by the wonderfully simple name of The Bookshop. Not The Wigtown Bookshop (which is where it is) or Bythells’ Books, no it’s just The Bookshop, direct and to the point just like its owner. His website name is similarly one to be envied by anyone in the trade The book takes a very simple starting point “to write things down as they happened in the shop” and develops into an entertaining story of how a year passed for Shaun and his equally eccentric staff.  It starts randomly on Wednesday 5th February 2014 and finishes on Wednesday 4th February 2015 (this entry is as far as I can remember the only time the year is specified).

As the owner of a specialist retail business in a small town myself the interactions with customers, or at least people who wander into the shop, move stock around and then leave without buying anything, that Shaun documents are all to familiar.

Tuesday 8th April

At 10:15am a woman walked in and roared, I am in my element! Books! then continued to shout questions at me for an hour whilst she waddled about the shop like a ‘stately goose’ as Gogol describes Sobakevich’s wife in Dead Souls. Predictably she didn’t buy anything.

Few things are more guaranteed than when somebody you have never seen before in the shop and expresses huge enthusiasm on entering is that they won’t buy anything.

Shaun also has a dislike, no that’s the wrong word, hatred would be better, of Kindles and this is referred to several times in the book even to the point of shooting one and mounting the remains on the wall in his shop like a hunting trophy.

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This is totally understandable for somebody who makes their living selling books (well maybe not the shooting part) you can’t after all trade the contents of a Kindle but as somebody who loves books I also dislike the impersonal nature of reading on a screen. I found the photo on pinterest so don’t know who originally took it so I apologise in advance for unacknowledged copyright.

However I don’t want to give the idea that the book is just full of Shaun complaining, sometimes he is having a great time, although usually this is whilst he isn’t actually in the shop. Wigtown is Scotlands’ book town, based on the idea by Richard Booth in Hay on Wye, gathering bookshops together to make the place a specific destination for book lovers all over the world and The Bookshop was the first of what is now 13 independent retailers in the town.  It is also home to a book festival at the end of September which is documented in the book.  The Bookshop hosts ‘The Writers Retreat’ a place where guest speakers at the festival can escape to good food and drink and to chat amongst themselves and this leads to more stories being told. There is clearly a lot of effort put into the festival and I really ought to go, but maybe not this year as I suspect a lot of readers of this book have had the same idea.

Tuesday 25th March

Shortly after Andrew had left an extremely rude old woman demanded a copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin. We had one in the Russia section which she brought to the counter. It was an unusually pristine copy in a mint jacket, clearly unread – original price £25. She asked how much it was, I pointed to the sticker that says £6.50. She pushed it away from her and turned; walking out muttering, ‘Too expensive’. I’m pretty sure she’ll be back so I re-priced it at £8.50.

I loved the book and can’t recommend it more, you don’t have to be a bookseller or even a shopkeeper of any sort to get a lot of pleasure from it.

By the way I checked and yes you can get it on Kindle, Shaun is presumably furious…

The Original Alice

Almost everyone knows the children’s tale Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll either having read the book, or seen or heard, one of the many adaptations over the years.  Most readers will know that Alice was a real person, one of the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church college at Oxford and the stories were told to entertain her and her sisters.  They will also know that Lewis Carroll was really the reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a 24 year old mathematics lecturer at Christ Church when he first met the Liddell’s. But what is less well known is that when the stories were first written down they were intended to just be a one off book as a gift to Alice and the title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

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The book was handwritten and illustrated by Dodgson and was given to Alice for Christmas in 1864 when she was 12 years old, although he originally came up with most of the story when she was 10 on a trip up the river for a picnic. Alice treasured the little book for decades but eventually in 1928 at the age of 75 and now a widow needing money she sold it at auction for £15,000 (approximately £860,000 today). The book was bought by Dr Rosenbach, who was an American book dealer, and he subsequently sold it in the US.   The private collector who owned it died in 1948 and the book was again put up for auction this time making $50,000 (roughly $508,000 or £363,000 nowadays) and Dr Rosenbach was the top bidder at this auction as well.

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This time however was to be the last time it will ever come to the market. Several American benefactors led by book collector Lessing Rosenwald obtained the book in order to give it to Britain in thanks for the gallantry of the British people during the Second World War.  In November 1948 the book was brought on the liner The Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic and presented to the British Museum with the Archbishop of Canterbury representing the country by receiving it.  The book is now part of the national collection (catalogue ref MS 45700).

In 1997 The British Library published a book by Sally Brown entitled The Original Alice, which now sadly out of print but fairly easy to find on the second hand market.  This tells the story of how Alice came to be written and compares Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to Alice in Wonderland with examples as to how the books differ.

20170116 The Original Alice 1 The illustrations of the original book included here are from another out of print edition, a beautiful leather bound facsimile of the original produced in a limited edition run of just 3750 copies by the Folio Society in 2008, this is somewhat more tricky to track down but it is a beautiful thing to own and read.  It comes in a lovely box with a ribbon to lift the book out with.


Although he never intended publication Dodgson did pass the book to his friend, the children’s novelist George MacDonald, to cast his professional eye over, before giving it to Alice. MacDonald’s children so enjoyed the book that Dodgson was eventually persuaded to publish.  He significantly rewrote the tales, removing a lot of references that only really made sense to the Liddell family and adding Pig and Pepper along with The Mad Tea Party. These additions and revisions to the original text almost doubled the length and took the book up from 18000 to 35000 words.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was finally published in November 1865 in an edition of 2000 copies but in a final twist these were withdrawn as the illustrator, John Tenniel, was unhappy with the quality of the reproductions of his pictures.  This makes the handful of copies that still exist one of the rarest of all children’s books.  The book was finally available to the public in 1866 and was an immediate success.  Alice’s Adventures Under Ground has been printed several times in the intervening 150 years but only the Folio Society have produced a true facsimile of the book with the leather binding and colour illustrations where appropriate, however it is worth searching out a copy of the text as first written as it gives a view of the story that Alice herself first heard and it is quite different to the text that we all know.


1894 - Lane Christmas Book- The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley- 2 title pageWelcome to my book shelves, home to some 6500 volumes dating back to the mid 1700’s right up to the present day. I’m going to use these as the basis for short essays or reviews not just of these books but where ever they wish to take me.  The aim is to pick a book, or group of books each week and look at its significance, or just tell a tale as to why it has found itself here.

The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley featured with this first article is a good entry point as the Bodliean Library in Oxford takes its name from Sir Thomas who came to its rescue in the 1590’s and put it finally in the secure position it now holds as one of the worlds greatest libraries. So immediately we have a book leading to more books

When John Lane founded his publishing company in 1887 he chose to call it The Bodley Head in honour of Sir Thomas and for Christmas 1894 printed a very small number of copies of Bodley’s autobiography as gifts to friends and people who had helped set up the business.  Very few of these books have survived the intervening 123 years but it’s an interesting work that should perhaps be better known.

I have two copies of ‘The Life’ one still in the original card covers and one rebound in boards and this also includes the original compliments slip from John Lane.

My main interest in The Bodley Head however is in one of his employees in the 1930’s, Allen Lane, who went on to found a far more famous publishing company namely Penguin Books, which now owns The Bodley Head imprint and uses it for non-fiction titles.

Well over 2000 of my books are Penguins and I specialise in the first 10 years of the company 1935 to 1945 which led to some fascinating books and stories about how they came about as the firm struggled with wartime restrictions but also the greater need amongst the population at home and also servicemen/women for something to read.  More to come about those in future entries to this blog…