This was part of a publishing venture begun by Penguin books in the 1950s. Reacting to a public mood that had come to find irksome the notion of carrying around, for example, the complete Henry James, the innovative folks at Penguin introduced their first editions in the spring of 1952.
The portable Tolstoy was first off the production line and proved at once to be a resounding success. Some two thirds the size of the real Lev Tolstoy and moulded from a light yet durable plastic, this charming figurine proved to be all the rage at dinner parties from Greenwich Village to Soho.
The portable Faulkner, Melville and Twain quickly followed, each arriving at the homes of delighted new owners in a hand crafted leather box, for the deceased authors, a charming coffin shape was chosen, and for those still living an attempt was made at some thematic continuity with their work. The Faulkner case for example was decorated with images of teenaged Down’s syndrome sufferers interwoven with a recurring pattern of lynched Negroes.
The future success of the venture seemed assured and the artists were called in to begin work on Dr Johnson. However, no sooner had the great lexicologist begun to appear in the bookshops, than a chorus of complaints arose concerning the validity of the term "portable" being applied to one who was clearly such a “Fat Bastard.”
The adverse publicity soon presented a serious threat to a project whose modishness had been evident from the outset. Fashions are fickle in literary circles at the best of times and this coincided with the added difficulties caused by competition from Weidenfeld and Nicholson’s new range of “Inflatable Greats of World Culture.”
All might well have been lost were it not for the genius of Samuel Allardyce Penguin, the grandson of the firm’s founder. Flinging his office chair at an underling one evening the gouges made on the face of the latter by the chair’s casters suggested an ideal way out. Wheeled authors: what could be simpler? Girth would henceforth only add to the fun as eager literary enthusiasts rolled their shrunken writers over the marble floors of their salons with gusto.
And so the venture took on a new impetus and the continuing fortunes of the Penguins were assured. “Make it new’ Ezra Pound had howled at a stuffy Edwardian literary scene, well nigh half a century later the Penguins had heeded his call.