An Ode to Penguin

I tried to cushion up colleagues/WS into going with me, but in the end I trotted off happily alone to the Penguin exhibition at Artshouse, Thursday. For a booklover, just standing in front of the whole collection of pretty books and revelling in coverart and the interpretation of the spirit of texts is like a bite of strawberries dipped in your third glass of champagne- you feel almost a little tipsy, and memories of the things you have read just come back full blown in little gipsy voices as you finger the covers gingerly. The Penguin orange gets to me more than a Hermes box. The old covers are comfy and classic, the new ones curious and unsettling. The gorgeous Fitzgerald embossed covers of black, gold and navy (of which I have earlier mentioned that I bought the Flappers and Philosophers’ one) mark a new era of the book becoming popular again, a gift of a story, a paragraph read in the middle of a Sunday tea party.

I wish I could sit with Irving on the floor before all the books…and start from the middle or left or center or cross center or back where we will start from each book – and recall where we read it – what we were doing when we read it (like I still remember reading this glorious Mansfield while having KFC) – and about what we thought about the book. The best friend recently told me about rediscovering an old Joseph Conrad interpretation text in his Sydney home (which I thought had been sold but turns out it wasn’t and it now comes with his room intact- I have to do things like move my fantasy of the best friend’s home back into the corner of my mind, together with said Conrad book again) which he had bought from an old market, from a time when he did not know Conrad. Before he read Lord Jim, and then Heart of Darkness. I always adored Conrad, and he is one of my favourites – it all started when my junior college literature teacher, Harris, at the end of class when people were leaving, came up to me with wide-eyed determination, banging a book on the table – said to me “This is your book.” He knew I was in and out of wild things. He knew my life was a little bit of that ineventual storm that was in Lord Jim, that I would know what ie meant to be haunted, and live life romantically with a little trigger bomb at a corner of your soul. That’s why I love Conrad, perhaps. In Victory, the story of a man who runs off to a solitary island to escape. In Conrad’s universe, that was only the beginning. You never really thought you could run, could you?

But I am going too far and what I really wanted to say was how much I love this little bit of quirkiness that fell into my lap – that I admit to having gotten one of em’ orange Penguin bags, and I started doodling Penguins in the evening in the train, and puffins, and thinking of Nabokov all over again. And you will never understand my foolish excitement even about seeing Virginia Woolf, Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S Eliot pencils. Recently, I had been going through some of J’s texts which he is using to teach his English class. Descriptive writing. Horrendous, banal, absurd. Why doesn’t anyone think of utilising Woolf, or Eliot. It almost pains me to read the ‘model essays’ – when there is so much good writing out there to feed off. I miss Harris. He was old-school and brilliant and classic -and we all loved him that way.

But bugger, here’s the love to share ~

I love this. I quite like the little penguin raising part of its leg actually. Its like a penguin rushing off to begin reading his little book! Yay. I like mischievous young penguins more than mature penguins.

I don’t quite understand the Crown Jewels part. If anyone gets it do let me know. The most popular books they have ever published? Books from a special collection?

I was staring at this series of books and sighing a little. I quite like war books in a strange, sadistic way. And the Greek Myths one by Cicero sounds so intriguing. But wait…do you notice that they spelled Chekov wrongly? I quite like Turgenev too, even if Chekhov poked fun of him as a Russian romanticist in his book.

Seeing all the orange makes me sigh. I still want to finish the rest of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. And I still really dislike D.H Lawrence, despite what the Feminist Movement says.

The new texts. You can’t really see from this picture, but the newer texts have been given special treatment and also have special embossed features. I think they are pretty cool actually. They make what I thought were boring books sound vaguely interesting enough to read. Like a British newspaper’s take on the Yorkshire Ripper, in a sensationalist form of way. Can you read a book by its cover?

Artsy patterned covers. I am not sure about general patterns though. Pretty bland. I prefer the former.

A pretty little sewn version by Lewis Carroll, I really liked his other book – Through the Looking Glass!

I love snazzy literature on art and photography even if they make simple concepts sound very complex. I have built up a steady collection of Sontag and Barthes, two of my favourites in this area – brilliant critics of our time. They make me think so hard, I can never finish a book at one sitting. But it means that I will be revisiting the books and rereading them, again and again for the rest of my life. For that reason, worth the investment. And it is rare to find kindle versions of literary criticism.

I feel guilty but I was supposed to finish Kafka! In a strange way I enjoy reading Kafka criticism more than reading Kafka! Have you ever felt like that about any author? And that’s Eileen Chang’s Red Rose/White Rose, I watched the play at the Shanghai Theatre Festival, and really liked it. Maybe I should pick up the book.

My favourite Fitzgerald collection. The ones I hemmed and hawed over and gave up and bought the one on the far left! I feel like getting the rest too but how do you justify getting books you have read, just because the covers are pretty (esp when I have the kindle versions).

I love the way they are called art DICTATORS.

I really want an Evelyn Waugh Vile Bodies cup. I do. Each time I drink a coffee, I can think of VILE BODIES. Haha! Ok, I admit I haven’t read the book. But I will. Someday.


Born from their decade-long personal collection of Penguin books, BooksActually is proud to present the first-ever showcase in Singapore of over a thousand books from their private library featuring Penguin’s unique cover art that spans from its humble beginnings in 1935 to the present day. Embark on a visual and historical journey of the vision that made the world of literature accessible to the man on the street with BooksActually in An Ode To Penguin.

Presented by BooksActually
The Arts House, Gallery | 8 July – 16 July 2011

(photos below from exhibition tumblr, above mine own)

“How I fell in love with a Penguin…”
Write a short paragraph of no more than 150 words, and share your  first encounter with a Penguin book and how you fell in love with it !  You may even include a picture of your favourite Penguin book, or your  shelves full of them !
Send your entries in to our Facebook page !

“How I fell in love with a Penguin…”


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