The Surprising History of Penguin Predecessor, the Albatross Press

ab10cccaffe8b6577a8fbf82f605f5f8.jpgStrange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich by Michele K. Troy (Yale University Press, $40), tells the astonishing and largely forgotten story of a publisher of uniform English translations in the 1930s that managed to elbow out the market leader, the German firm, Tauchnitz, and keep Nazi censorship officials at bay while it promoted edgy, modern Anglo-American literature. In this way, authors such as James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, and Aldous Huxley acted as surprising “silent ambassadors” to German readers from 1932 to 1939. How? In short, the Reich desperately needed the foreign currency the publisher produced and was willing to look the other way, at least for a while. As Troy puts it, English-language books circulating in Germany were “less culturally troublesome than they were economically useful.”  

In design, content, and marketing approach, Albatross preceded Allen Lane’s Penguin Books by a few years. Albatross went after not only the tourist buyers but the continental readers who could read English, and Germany in particular was “a nation of book buyers.” The Albatross Press was based there, but it was funded by English/Jewish money, and it kept an editorial office in Paris--the labyrinthine structure helped to conceal its doings, according to Troy. Whether its output could be labeled propaganda is certainly one of the themes at play; as the German Foreign Office itself declared in 1941: “Propaganda sold is better than propaganda given.” Before the war made printing and publishing impossible, Albatross had distributed five hundred titles in color-coded paperbacks across Europe.

Strange Bird is intensely researched and eminently readable--there’s even a harrowing escape story at its center. The lingering mystery regarding its principal, German-born Englishman John Holroyd-Reece, who may have been a spy, adds an element of intrigue as well. Troy’s book is heartily recommended for anyone with an interest in publishing history, World War II, or modern Anglo-American literature.   

                                                                                                                                                                     Image via Yale University Press

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