Some Penguins Don’t Live In Antarctica

Here’s a fascinating follow-up to my post earlier this fall noting the birthday of the founder of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane.  Stuart Kells tries hard to debunk what he calls the “myth” of the publishing firm’s origins.  For instance:

“One myth is the famous story of how he conceived of Penguin while waiting on a train platform, frustrated by the poor selection of books on the railway bookstall. A glaring flaw in this story is that Allen, though knighted for his contributions to literature and literacy, was never much of a reader. Nevertheless, the platform story has become part of Penguin’s official corporate line.”

Flawed the story may be, but the best Kells can do is say that Sir Allen was “not much of a reader.”  If so, that fact doesn’t make the origin story less true.  Lane was a businessman; his job was to sell books, not read them.  There are plenty of examples of businessmen who are or were not exactly enamored of the products they sell:  Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, for example, seldom ate the hamburgers his chain sold (or, for that matter, the fried chicken he made while running Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets before that.)  One can also point out that many tobacco company executives were smart enough not to smoke the cigarettes they sold in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  A key to success in the marketplace is not whether we like the product we sell, but whether we have  insight into how to make other people like it and buy it.  Lane gained that insight, probably on that platform, by noticing books and magazines he didn’t necessarily have to read.

As for Lane’s brothers being “written out of the story,” well, they were no more likely “written out of the story” than Roy Disney, brother Walt Disney’s accountant, was “written out” of that corporation’s success.  Roy kept the Disney ship afloat during some very hard times in the 1920s and early 30s,  arranging loans and lines of credit, and those who were around knew exactly what he did and why he chose to remain in the background while his brother supervised the making of animated art at the highest level.  What Penguin and the Lane Brothers has to do is lay out the truth of the roles the brothers played at the firm and let readers judge for themselves whether Sir Allen took all the credit for himself at their expense.  A biography that slams its subject just for the sake of an overzealous charge of self-aggrandizement is a biography that misses an opportunity to explain why and how the ubiquitous Penguin Books became so successful.

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