March 6, 2015
Penguin’s Little Black Classics confirm that books are a much better investment than cigarettes
by Mark Krotov
The origin story of Penguin Classics has been told so often that it’s practically gospel in the publishing industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if Penguin’s human resources handbook commands all employees to memorize the story, in case they happen to encounter a living soul who has not heard about Allen Lane and the cigarettes.
Yes, cigarettes are key to the Penguin Classics myth. Here’s a version of said myth from a 2010 article in Smithsonian, though I could quote from thousands of other sources, all of which describe the same basic story:
In 1935, Allen Lane, chairman of the eminent British publishing house Bodley Head, spent a weekend in the country with Agatha Christie. Bodley Head, like many other publishers, was faring poorly during the Depression, and Lane was worrying about how to keep the business afloat. While he was in Exeter station waiting for his train back to London, he browsed shops looking for something good to read. He struck out. All he could find were trendy magazines and junky pulp fiction. And then he had a “Eureka!” moment: What if quality books were available at places like train stations and sold for reasonable prices—the price of a pack of cigarettes, say?
Suddenly, British citizens had a choice: they could spend six pence on a pack of cigarettes, or six pence on a paperback. Or twelve pence on both. This would prove to be a transformative moment in publishing history, though cigarette history seems to have been largely unaffected.
But have we been asking the right questions about the Penguin Classics story? We have not. The Penguin Classics story isn’t one about transformative paperback publishing, or the democratization of information, or inventive marketing, or changes in reading habits over time. No, there is only one right question to ask about Penguin Classics, and that question is: what is a better investment—books or cigarettes?
In 1935, the answer may have been difficult to determine, what with books and cigarettes available for the same price. But now, after eighty years, we finally got our answer. Last month, Penguin released a new line of books called Little Black Classics, which is making a splash in the United Kingdom. The series includes eighty short, classic works (including The Communist Manifesto, The Tell-Tale Heart , and . . . well, seventy-eight other books), all of them sixty-four pages long and available for eighty pence.
The existence of Little Black Classics is certainly exciting in its own right, but much more importantly, it proves that books are a better investment than cigarettes.
According to mySupermarket.co.uk (the most trusted site in supermarketeering), a pack of Benson & Hedges Dual is available from Tesco for £8.08. Rothmans King Size Blue Cigarettes are cheaper, at £5.99, but the pack only includes eighteen cigarettes—not twenty. Cigarette prices tend to hover in this range, no matter if you’re buying them from Tesco, Sainbury’s, Waitrose, or other retailers.
But Penguin’s Little Black Classics are only eighty pence. Also, unlike cigarettes, Little Black Classics are not, as far as we know, very bad for your health. And they’re highly reusable. And they endow their readers with knowledge, which even the most ardent tobacco lobbyist could not claim cigarettes do.
All of this constitutes definitive proof. Not only are books healthier, longer-lasting, and more inspiring than cigarettes, but they’re often also cheaper, as in the case of the Little Black Classics.
We’re pleased to have been able to finally answer this very important question.
Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.