HAPPENINGText: Alicia Tan

“We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price and staked everything on it.” — Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books.

Pop, hope and trot your way down soon for this never seen before showcase of old and new books under the great wings of the Penguin Publishing House. Singapore-based indie bookstore BOOKSACTUALLY’s exhibition is part art and part historical excavation. An Ode To Penguin features 1065 individual unique Penguin book covers as well as related memorabilia. In an increasingly book-starved world where electronic paper is fast taking over, it is certainly comforting to know that the good people at BOOKSACTUALLY love to share the beauty of text and image with the public.

An Ode To Penguin

Housed in the historic Arts House, which once served as Singapore’s Old Parliament House, An Ode To Penguin negotiates the relationship that books have with their covers. In delicate chalk drawings done by Karen Wai, the history and people who founded and shaped the publishing house are explained in bite-sized pieces.


The exhibition is a labour of love that has spanned nearly ten years. Each of the 1065 books were painstakingly mounted on one of five boards, creating an entire wall of books. Each row or section of books is marked by Roman numerals, so visitors can check against an info-board, the background of each series.


No feather is left unruffled — An Ode to Penguin also unearths lesser known imprints like Peacock Books, which was dedicated to young-adult titles and allows the public to get up close and personal. It’s a journey into a secret past, where visitors can revel in nostalgia.


The crown jewels of this Penguin’s crown are the first five titles published by Penguin while it was an imprint under The Bodley Head. A fine starting point in depicting the evolution of not only Penguin book covers, but also the content that was being published. The iconic minimalist book covers were chosen instead of the gaudy and elaborate designs that other paperback publishers offered back in the 1930s.


The exhibition is very much about embracing the old and new. Alongside battered but well-loved first editions, newer artist collaborations (like Paul Smith’s re-design of Lady Chatterly’s Lover) are featured under the careful curatorial eye of Kenny Leck and Karen Wai. While these priceless tomes are not for sale, BOOKSACTUALLY’s own creations, such as the Author Pencils, are available for the bibliophile in you to take home.


Pre-war Penguin Specials, Pelican books, King Penguins, Puffin Picture Books as well as Penguin Scores are on display. Most of these vintage titles were not available in Singapore until the 1960s.


Local artist such as moof (Mike Foo) and Joseph Chiang (Monster Gallery) have also collaborated with the exhibition, producing exquisite one-of-a-kind pieces of art that adorn the gallery. An Ode To Penguin wants you to know that reading is not just a past-time or hobby, it is a lifestyle.


In conjunction with Penguin’s lifelong emphasis on design, An Ode to Penguin also showcases entries from “I ✐ Penguin“, a competition that was held earlier in the year where participants had to re-interpret the cover of any existing Penguin book.


From it’s convenient location, open layout, to friendly guides and the eye-opening selection of books, An Ode To Penguin embodies the very principle that founder of Penguin Books Allen Lane upheld: making books accessible to the public.

An Ode To Penguin
Date: 8th – 17th July 2011
Place: The Arts House Gallery, Old Parliament House
Address: 1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore
Tel: +65 6222 9195

Text: Alicia Tan
Photos: Alicia Tan

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