BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Pelican is back! Penguin’s illustrious sibling made waves with its accessible non-fiction before disappearing from bookshop shelves in 1984. We chat to its editor, Laura Stickney, about the imprint’s history and why, 30 years later, it’s being resurrected.
How did the original Pelican imprint come in to being?
In 1936, one year after Penguin was born, its founder Allen Lane overheard a woman at King’s Cross station asking for ‘one of those Pelican books’. Presumably she meant to say Penguin, since the publisher had been an immediate success, but Lane was worried a competitor might be snatching up bird names, and decided to create a new list of non-fiction books called Pelicans. The books were distinctly intellectual in tone, yet always accessible, and priced more cheaply than most other serious non-fiction books. At that time many publishers were sceptical that the general reader would embrace this kind of non-fiction in large numbers, whereas this was the Pelican idea from the beginning.
Why was it disbanded in 1984?
In its heyday of the 1950s and 60s, Pelican was committed to both authority and accessibility, and bringing intelligent non-fiction to the widest possible audience. But by the 1980s, the imprint had moved slightly away from that democratic, popular spirit, and the books published were a bit narrower and more academic in tone. It’s the spirit of the early days — of the imprint in its golden age — that we are trying to revive now.
Why did Penguin decide to resurrect this famous imprint?
It strikes us that there is a widening gap in the culture that these books can fill, and a need for accessible, intelligent, inexpensive paperbacks — books that can serve as stepping stones to more demanding and pricier hardbacks. Pelicans are for those gaps your knowledge – for the subjects that you are interested in, but ignorant about, whether it is economics or evolution. We like to say they are books for the musician who wants to know more about philosophy, or the geographer who wants to read about physics.
What kinds of things will you be publishing under this Pelican?
We could publish on every topic under the sun, but there’s an expectation that the books will focus on broad and essential intellectual subjects. Pelicans are written by experts in their field, but rather than just focussing on what’s new or advancing a particular argument, they should open up and illuminate a topic as a whole.
Tell me a bit about the launch titles.
The five launch titles are all ideal Pelicans because they are superb introductions, yet they also ask us to think again about their subjects. Ha-Joon Chang shows why we can’t rely on the experts alone, and how we all can, and must, understand economics. Orlando Figes redefines the scope of the Russian Revolution, and Robin Dunbar shows that there is much more than stones and bones to human evolution. Melissa Lane illuminates the most important ideas of Greek and Roman political philosophers, and Bruce Hood explains what makes us social.
The cover designs are startlingly simple. Explain their, and the imprint’s, aesthetic.
Our idea from the beginning has been for Pelican books to be distinctive and accessible. This has informed our decisions throughout the relaunch, and we hope it is visible in the aesthetic of the entire series, which includes the design both inside and out, and the web presence. Our aim was to make the design clean, approachable and straightforward, since the promise to the reader is straightforward as well.
What’s your favourite historical Pelican title?
Probably George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, the first Pelican ever published, if only for the title.
Which Pelican title had the greatest impact?
That’s difficult to say! But if I had to pick one, I’d say John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which is probably one of the most influential books on art ever written.
Describe today’s Pelican reader.
Our aim is for Pelican to be truly global. These are books for everyone, to be read everywhere, around the world and in both print and ebook. We hope they will be popular with younger readers, and curious autodidacts of any age. They are for readers who like to think for themselves, and who don’t need to follow a syllabus.
Where do you see Pelican in five years’ time?
As a broad and diverse library of approachable, intelligent paperbacks for every interest imaginable, and a brand that readers can rely on for accessibility and authority. Hopefully Pelican will have re-entered the cultural slipstream, and evoke something of the affection its namesake did in its heyday.
Pelican titles are now on sale in the UK and will be available in South Africa from June.