The idea of the book as object, in this uneasy, proto-digital age, devolves, to my mind, to two things. The first is permanence. That heavy, well-built hardback edition of your favourite classic will sit on the shelves for decades, happily withstanding multiple readings as technology shifts, leaps and flips around it, eventually acquiring a personal, lived-in feel that nevertheless never degrades the actual text. That book will probably outlive you, and you will bequeath it to grandchildren who are fascinated by it, surprised by its simplicity and accessibility, and yet throw it out because they have nowhere to store it.
The second element of book as object is immediacy. Your eyes light on an object ? a new object, in a shop window ? and you desire it. (Buying online will never be able to replicate the brute, visceral thrill of physical shopping, where something that a few minutes ago lived over there, behind glass, now lives here, in your hand. Buying online, even instantly downloading something, is an act of acquisition; buying in the flesh is act of possession.)
And it is immediacy I think of when I see these twelve new slim Penguins, produced in honour of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, one for each line. Londoners tend to have a strange relationship to their ?local? tube line, in that it can represent drudgery, the journey to work, overcrowding and bad smells, but it also opens up a peculiar and precise perspective on the city, its route usually fixed long in the past but based on who knows what intentions or idiosyncrasies of geography, geology and finance.
The books themselves were commissioned from an interesting range of writers, including the sort of metropolitan journalist-writers you would entirely expect (William Leith, John O?Farrell, John Lanchester, Peter York ? who admits in his first line that he hadn?t travelled on the Tube in 25 years before starting writing the book), but also Richard Mabey on the nature to be found near the outer stretches of the Metropolitan Line, and Lucy Wadham with an autobiographical account of growing up and out of Chelsea, rather loosely attached to the Circle Line via Sloane Square station.
The covers, designed by Jim Stoddart, art director at Penguin Press, in conjunction with the individual authors, fit in perfectly with his recent redesign of Penguin Modern Classics: lots of white space; image strictly kept to the bottom; all typographical information at the top; Penguin logo definitively relocated to the top left.
A note on the animal: in contrast to the usual logo, these guys are set free from their orange oval cage, colour-coded to match the line livery, and are large enough that the peculiar expression on the penguin?s face seems to be very much directed at the author and the book title just to their right. The last time the penguin was in the top left hand corner of the Modern Classics, on the Romano Fancetti design that lasted from the mid-60s to the end of the 80s, it was standing the other way round, facing proudly inwards. Now it looks almost embarrassed, as if unsure if it?s happy to be associated with whatever book it?s been stamped on, certainly very comical.
The whiteness of these covers is, I think, a big part of their appeal. So many trends in recent book cover design have been about filling all the available space, either with typography or with pattern. Stoddart?s new look breaks with that, giving much more of a considered, curatorial balance between type, image and frame.
There is something of the dimension of these Penguin Line books which reminds me of the look of an iPod; in fact the ratios are pretty much identical, albeit switched round ? on an iPod the visual element is at the top. Bearing in mind the fact that, gadget-wise, Classic iPods are very much ?last decade? and will presumably soon be completely superseded by full-screen machines, this could be seen as a very contemporary take on the appeal of the retro: harking back to something that the techno-savvy among us might be just beginning to feel nostalgic for.
The fronts, then, are great. Less so the backs, which carry a rather naff and baffling identity card format, with the authors giving their age, height, eye colour etc, as well as details of ?first visit to the city?, ?self-rated Tube geekiness? and so on.
While most of the books are, textually speaking, straightforward enough inside, a few are more individual, including Leanne Shapton?s ?sketchbook? response to the Waterloo and City line (incorporating photos, watercolour reproductions and diagrams), Philippe Parreno?s entirely graphic, quasi flick-book answer to the Hammersmith and City Line, and fashion mag Fantastic Man?s mini magazine on the East London Line, with photoshoots, interviews and essays all interrogating that men?s fashion statement that is wearing your shirt fully buttoned up, with no tie. Not something I have given much thought to, I must admit, but it is a fascinating read, and not just because it?s ?my? line.
Many of the books are great little reads on their own terms, but you also can see how they are a definite response to the digital book, merging ?content?, design and marketing. They are a set, but also individuals. Londoners will want to buy the one that belongs to ?their? line (you can imagine the marketing department fantasising of vending machines at stations, stocked with racks of the relevant title), but then readers will also want to get the ones from their favourite authors, or that treat their particular interests (Paul Morley for pop music, Fantastic man for fashion, Richard Mabey for nature writing).
And, quite frankly, everyone should read (and politicians should be forced to read) ?Mind The Child? by Camila Batmanghelidjh and her charity Kids Company, nominally linked to the Victoria Line. After a highly personal introduction, it is rammed full of familiar but still jaw-dropping statistics about and, more importantly, heartbreaking testimonies from the capital?s ?children of the underground? ? the abused and vulnerable that the charity has been helping for 20 years now.
I?ll happily slide any of the other books into my jacket pocket next time I head out, Oyster card in hand, to take the Tube, but maybe not that one. Reading it made me cry.