September 26, 2009
The Times picks the 50 best paperbacks of 2009
Erica Wagner introduces our countdown of the year’s top 50 paperbacks, and Nicholas Clee explains the history of this revolutionary format
Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, did not invent the mass-market paperback. Cheap paperbacks were available before the 1930s — and you got what you paid for. Legend has it that Lane, returning in 1934 from a visit to Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan in Devon, was so appalled by the fare on offer at the Exeter station bookstall that he immediately determined to produce worthwhile books costing “no more than a packet of cigarettes”.
He recognised that there was a new social atmosphere, defined by J. B. Priestley as one of “arterial and by-pass roads, of filling-stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming-pools and everything given away for cigarette coupons.” The people inhabiting this world were not affluent, but had some disposable income; they were better educated than earlier generations; and they had leisure time.
The book trade was, largely, appalled at this notion. Cheap paperbacks — Penguins were priced at 6d at a time when most new hardback novels were 7s 6d — would not only be unprofitable themselves, but would also undermine the entire industry. Publishers including Victor Gollancz and Stanley Unwin, the head of Allen & Unwin, refused to sell Lane rights in their books.
Prescott seemed no more enthusiastic than his counterparts had been. But then Mrs Prescott arrived at the office, to meet her husband for lunch. She liked the look of the Penguins.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale:
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga:
Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre