I note two interesting items of literary history on this day: J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit was published today in 1937, the outgrowth consciously of his boredom with grading exam papers at Oxford (on the back of one of those papers he wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”) and his desire to write a story for his children. Unconsciously, it was a continuation of the fantasy world he had begun developing during his youth and while convalescing after the wounds he suffered in World War I. Tolkien ultimately realized that these early tales–of the Silmarils, of Beren and Luthen, of Turin Turambar–and his later tales of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo Baggins with the Fellowship of the Ring were all part of the ages-long history of the same world. This brilliant realization, along with Tolkien’s gift for creating languages based on the root tongues of our own ancestors and his skill as a mapmaker, gave his fantasy creation of Middle-Earth a depth and realism no other work before it had and every work after has had to acknowledge as an influence. What I like most about The Hobbit is the change in tone that occurs about midway through the book. Tolkien begins by talking down to his presumed audience of children, as children’s authors will sometimes do, but he recognizes soon enough that that condescending voice is not his. From the midpoint to the end, he drops the chatty asides and remarks and just speaks as an adult, telling the story, trusting that his readers would follow where he led. They did follow, and the readers–especially the young ones, led by Rayner Unwin, publisher Stanley Unwin’s son–loved it.
It’s also the birthday today of Sir Allen Lane in England in 1902. Lane, like Tolkien–and at just about the same time, in 1935–was stuck on a train, bored, but couldn’t find anything good to read. He noticed some cheap, trashy paperback novels around, none of which appealed to him. He began to wonder, though, whether a publisher such as he was could make a profit selling good literature in paperback format. He knew the idea was a cheeky one, and called the new house he was to form Penguin Books, with a dark, tuxedoed penguin emblem, to convey both formality and flippancy–the two traits that make the British the British. The idea worked. Lane’s venture brought both classic literature and the respectable literature of modern times within the economic reach of everyone on both sides of the Atlantic. Yes, the books sometimes fell apart in your hands, but most were made well enough to last a few years. They were easy to shelve and, oh, my Lord, they brought the best of British and American Lit–Shakespeare, Gibbon, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Twain, Francis Parkman–within the reach of those who could not afford the price of a hardbound book. This was a revolution in the extension of knowledge on the order of Gutenberg’s printing press. Every one of us born after 1940 owes Sir Allen Lane a debt–a debt we’ve all happily paid, judging by our overcrowded shelves, and a debt we will continue to pay–electronically or otherwise–well into the future.