P-pick up a Pelican

One of my daughters has recently been appointed by Penguin-Random House as their senior digital marketing manager. At the weekend she and I were discussing the famous non-fiction Pelican series which has been re-launched this year. Pelicans were extremely influential to my personal intellectual development and it is hard to disagree with the publisher’s own assessment that they were: ‘concise books, on big subjects, written by the experts’. From my home in Hampden Park I could catch the train into Eastbourne and visit WH Smith, with several weeks’ worth of accumulated pocket-money in my hand, to purchase one of those exciting blue-covered volumes. I can’t believe there was ever a better return on a 5 shilling (25p) investment, and in fact some of my oldest examples were even cheaper than this. So if the reading habits of a bookish teenager more than fifty years ago are of interest, read on.

There was hardly a scientific or cultural topic which was not illuminated by Pelicans. Although these were very serious works the standard of the writing was comprehensible by a school sixth-former and the appearance of a work between these bright blue volumes was a guarantee of quality. When I was studying for ‘A-level’ the teaching staff constantly exhorted us to ‘read around the subjects’ and Pelicans were ideal for this purpose. Once my university studies were entirely directed towards medical sciences then Pelican books offered a reasonably painless way of keeping in touch with other branches of technology, such as metallurgy, modern materials, or indeed physical science in its entirety (Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Science, volume 1, 1975).

I thought it might be worthwhile to identify some of my most loved examples, all of which are still present on my bookshelves. My A-level zoology studies are represented by the two volumes of Animals without Backbones (Ralph Buchsbaum, 1951) and Man and the Vertebrates (AS Romer, 1954). Rather discouragingly the Cambridge Local Board A-level biology syllabus declined to reward ‘biochemical detail’ in its examinations but this fascinating topic was described by Steven Rose in his Chemistry of Life (1966). The scientific and moral problems posed by atomic weapons and radioactivity were hugely important in the 1960s-70s in a way that is hard to recall now. This area was covered in Pelicans such as: Atomic Radiation and Life (Peter Alexander, 2nd edition 1965) and Nuclear Power (Walter C Patterson 1976). I can’t say that Facts from Figures (M.J. Moroney, 1951) was a personal favourite but the 3rd edition did help me struggle through several statistics classes.

J.E. Gordon’s The New Science of Strong Materials (1968) and Structures can be thoroughly recommended for anyone who wishes to understand how ships and cathedrals, once built, stay built. My absolute favourite Pelican must be Metals in the Service of Man by William Alexander and Arthur Street. Originally published in 1944 my first copy was the fourth edition and I currently have the eighth, purchased in 1987. This work helped me with A-level inorganic chemistry and subsequently with a university degree module in archaeo-metallurgy more than forty years later. I’ve strongly recommended it to all my children and perhaps one will eventually read it.

I see from what I have written that I have suggested that all Pelicans were works of science but this is totally misleading. Many were devoted to the humanities, some of my personal favourites being: A Short History of Religions (E.E. Kellett, 1962), The Greek Myths (Robert Graves, 1955), and What Happened in History (Gordon Childe, 1942). Can there ever have been better value for 15/- (75p) than D.M. Low’s abridgement of Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1963)?

Naturally I don’t completely understand Penguin’s publishing history. Some authors seem to have written directly for Pelican (like Robert Graves) whereas others consist of paperback reprints of other publishers’ hard-backs. Olaf Stapleton’s influential SF work Last & First Men, written in the 1930s, appeared originally as a Pelican but A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: an illustrated history was a Penguin although several others of his lucid historical works were Pelicans. All things considered Pelican books have contributed more to my personal education than any other media except Penguin Classics, but those are another story.

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