February 14, 2014

Pelican Books returns and will explain everything, especially badgers


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In times of trouble, revive an imprint. Or so, it seems, has been the thought crossing publishers’ minds lately.

First, there was Liveright at W.W. Norton, back from a series of graves. And now Penguin has revived the famed Pelican Books imprint, which last saw the light in 1984. Allen Lane, founder of Penguin, created Pelican in 1937, a few years after the first Penguin paperbacks were published. Pelican was an extension of the Penguin idea (quality books in handsome but inexpensive packages), and it had an educational bent—these were books that would explain things to you, beginning with the first book in the series, George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, and Fascism.

Shaw’s guide would be followed by thousands of titles that covered almost every conceivable field, among them history, politics, psychology, sociology, religion, economics, computing, and the natural world. With their distinctive pale blue borders and great cover design (here’re some examples), the Pelicans stood out and influenced generations of readers. A few were bestsellers: R.A Saville-Sneath’s Aircraft Recognition turned out to be exactly the book you needed in 1940s England.

And now they’re back. Or almost back—@PenguinBooksUK tweeted some teasers of a redesigned logo on February 7th. And a site’s up, announcing the five titles Pelican will be publishing in May 2014, which give some indication of the future (and perhaps of the size) of the list.

They are Economics: A User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang, Human Evolution by Robin Dunbar, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 by Orlando Figes, The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood, and Greek and Roman Political Ideas by Melissa Lane. Based on the minimal descriptions up on Amazon, the first entrants look in keeping with the Pelican tradition, and a pretty solid bet: a series of well-respected scholars, all of whom already have successful books under their belts, writing about topics of perennial interest—I will not, I’m sure, be the only person who would prefer to carry around Chang’s Economics: A User’s Guide instead of Economics for Dummies, which I also own, along with some terrible Suze Orman books.

And Dunbar you may remember as the anthropologist who, a few years ago, took some of the wind out of Facebook with his analysis of social networks in How Many Friends Does One Person Need? (answer: about 150). Lane, meanwhile, is the author of Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living, and if anyone seems like a useful guide to how we can not either freeze or drown in the next ten years, it is this man.


But Figes… well, that is a little something different. Because Figes has a pile of issues that we’ve blogged about here and here. Not only did he make an understandable but extremely poor error of judgment in posting anonymous reviews to Amazon a couple of years ago—good ones of his books and nasty ones of his competitors’ and critics’ books—and then passed it off as his wife’s doing (that part’s particularly shitty), but Figes’s record as a scholar is still on shaky ground, after he was accused by the Russian human rights and historical remembrance organization Memorial of errors, misinterpretations, and inventions in his book The Whisperers.

The waters are clearly murky around all of this, and whether it’ll ever be properly explained seems unlikely: there’s a lot in the mix, including but not limited to self-promotion, jealousy, the interpretation of thousands of sources (some of them oral histories), complex alliances, and the variable political and literary climates of Russia and Figes’ home territories of the UK and the US.

But seeing his name come up on the inaugural list of Pelican Books is definitely going to raise some eyebrows, and if I had been magically given the reins at Pelican, I probably wouldn’t have done that. I also wouldn’t have called him “the greatest storyteller of modern Russian historians” in my descriptive copy, as Pelican does.

Still, time’s going to pass, Figes has probably written a perfectly reputable book, and meanwhile, if I have any questions about the psychological nature of the English schoolboy or badgers, now I’ll know where to turn…


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.