Winner of the 2024 James David Forbes Collecting Prize: March of the Grenguins

Friday 10 May 2024
Principal Professor Dame Sally Mapstone and founder of the prize Dr Bill Zachs with this year’s winner, Benjamin Parris.
fig. 1 My collection before I won the prize. I have since acquired 50 more books, bringing my total to over 500, as well as two more bookshelves for them. No longer crammed together, my Grenguins are now officially free-range. 

In April of this year I found myself posing with a colony of penguins. Principal Professor Dame Sally Mapstone was there too. The photographer asked me to look down at the birds, and in that intimate moment, staring into those small beady eyes, I looked back on the events that had led me to this point…

First I would like to express my sincere gratitude towards the judges and the University for awarding me the 2024 James David Forbes Collecting Prize. It has been a joy and a privilege to engage with such a stimulating, rewarding, and wholesome process, and to meet so many fascinating, most importantly tolerant, people on the way. I say tolerant as this Prize has given me the best opportunity to talk extensively about my hobby, in hindsight maybe too much.

In my English MLitt in 2022, I studied a lot of Agatha Christie and her crime writing contemporaries. Like any good student, I hunted for the cheapest copies of their works. Fast forward a few months, and my bookshelves had turned a delightful shade of green. I had begun a collection of paperback crime novels, all published by Penguin Books between 1935 and the present day. Penguin originally colour-coded their books by genre: purple for essays, blue for biography, red for plays, etc. My collection, focusing on crime fiction, is all green. Thus my green penguin, or ‘Grenguin’ collection, was born.

fig. 2 – Some of my most well-known titles and authors

At the time of winning the prize I had 460 different titles in my collection; I now have over 500 (please don’t make me count them all again). Many of my books are by the most famous of crime writers (see fig. 2), but most are by authors who have been forgotten today. My collection is one of the few ways to read a considerable group of authors out of print until very recently, such as Richard Hull, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr.       

From the beginning I have valued my collection for its utility. My Grenguins are first and foremost compact, cheap, robust texts useful for my PhD research. These books provide valuable insight into how the crime genre has evolved in Britain since the early 20th century, encompassing a range of subgenres and styles. They reflect contemporary reading habits: their size allows them to be picked up a train station and slipped into a commuter’s pocket, and their high-quality construction and matching designs encourages readers to collect them, rather than throw them away. Despite some of my Grenguins being almost 90 years old, and having by no means received the same delicate care as other old texts, they remain in excellent condition and are all safe to handle and comfortably read.

The stories behind my books are as entertaining as those within them. Each of my Grenguins shines a light on a momentous point in British publishing history – a tale of daring innovation. Grenguins were born (or, more appropriately, hatched) thanks to the groundbreaking work of Allen, Richard, and John Lane, co-founders of Penguin Books. They wanted to release cheap, yet well-made, easily transportable paperbacks for the commuting middle-classes – keeping their prices firmly at a sixpence. My extensive collection is a testament to how well this ultimately paid off and to the further innovation that followed. My favourite example is the ‘Penguincubator’, a Penguin vending machine set up in 1937. 

What I loved sharing with the judges the most (read sharing as ‘trapped them in a room and talked at them until they begged me to stop’) is how each of my Grenguins is subtly different. Up until the 1950s Penguin still had not finalised their logo, making my collection a miniature study in graphic design. My collection houses a considerable variety of penguins –many are waving, skipping, dancing, or in one case paired up and holding hands (see fig. 4).

There is no way to give a detailed sense of my 500 book collection here; I would need a lot more space to described everything from my first editions from 1936 (complete with super-rare dust-jackets) to the stylish illustrated covers printed since the early 1960s. My Grenguin with perhaps the most character, though, is a copy of the legendary Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Published during the Second World War, on the back cover is a surprisingly homoerotic advert for cigarettes (see fig. 5). It depicts a dashing gentleman officer, smoking a cigarette that is ‘for the fellow with a full-size man’s job to do’.

Benjamin and the Bell Pettigrew penguins.

Thus these silly little penguins led me to receive the James David Forbes Collecting Prize, appropriately under the gaze of the many stuffed birds in the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History. My favourite part of the process was exploring the collections of my fellow contestants and talking with the incredibly knowledgeable University Collections staff. As any dedicated hobbyist will testify, there is nothing like being in a room full of people with the same passionate interest. For me the most important aspect of my collection is how it makes great literature accessible (I bought most of my books for around £5 each). Book collecting is a great way to sate the hoarder in all of us, but it should also be a way in which we can share our passions with others. The James David Forbes Collecting Prize has allowed me to do both.

Benjamin Parris
[email protected]

2 thoughts on "Winner of the 2024 James David Forbes Collecting Prize: March of the Grenguins"

  • Paul Thompson
    Paul Thompson
    Friday 10 May 2024, 5.30pm

    Congratulations, Benjamin. It gave me great pleasure to see you win this prize, and to attend the prize-giving.

  • Helen McGinley
    Helen McGinley
    Wednesday 15 May 2024, 10.27am

    Congratulations on your award, and on a very entertaining blogpost. I love the "Penguincubator" and the dancing penguins.


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