Other People’s Bookshelves #17 – Karyn Reeves

So while I am away wandering the streets, well more realistically the bookshops, of London I thought I would leave you with the lovely Karyn Reeves (whose blog, A Penguin A Week, I adore even if am rubbish at commenting) and her wonderful bookshelves. Before we have a good old nosey through her bookshelves though shall we find out a little bit more about her? It would be rude not to.

Karyn is the owner of about 2000 Penguins published before 1970 (well actually many more than that if you count duplicates and Penguins published in other series), and is always on the look out for the 1000 titles She is still missing. Her blog is a little different to many in that it has one single idea which is to create some kind of online record about the 3000 titles Penguin published before 1970, as some of them are well known but others, many of which are worth reading, are at risk of being forgotten. Karyn says “It can be quite sobering to look at a wall of books and see the names of so many people who must have been very successful during their lives – and I think that to have even written one book is a major achievement – who are now gradually slipping into obscurity.” So she started the blog partly as a way to help retain that knowledge, and partly as a way to cope with the stresses of doing a PhD (in Maths and Statistics). Happily, the PhD is now finished and she has now become Dr Reeves. Her thesis was on the analysis of HIV data and about how HIV mutates at a phenomenal rate inside every infected person, partly in response to their specific immune system, which is one of the things which makes it such a devastating disease. Now she works at the Murdoch University in Perth as a research officer. If that wasn’t enough she is also a mother of five, her two youngest daughters following in her footsteps as constant readers. Here are her shelves…


Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

There is simply no limit to the number of books I would like to own. I would happily cover every wall of our home with bookshelves, so I could never contemplate any sort of culling system like one in, one out. I love that I own such a large number of unread books so that each time I am ready to read another one I have many hundreds to choose from, from a variety of genres. I think of the books I own as providing some kind of record of my life, and the collection is a reminder that time has passed to some purpose. The books capture the memories of the holidays on which they were purchased, and of what I was thinking or experiencing when each one was read. Many of them have been sent to me by people I have never met, so then they capture the memory of completely ordinary days when a package has turned up at the end of the driveway, always an exciting moment. I much prefer the option of buying more and more bookshelves to that of getting rid of books.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Most of my non-Penguins and all of my Penguins published after 1970 are currently in storage while I wait for my house to sell, but normally I have them grouped together by spine colour, and within that by author. The old Penguins, on the other hand, are ordered on the bookshelves approximately chronologically by issue date, as they have spines which are numbered roughly in that order. I find that that is the best way to keep track of them, and once you accumulate enough vintage Penguins they look very attractive filed that way. The chronological order means that you can easily spot various patterns in Penguin design, such as when they moved from the vertical to the horizontal stripes, or when the various colours (cerise, yellow, dark blue, purple, red and grey) disappeared, or when they altered the direction of the words on the spine, and some other brief experiments in their design. I never cull books, although when I do have more than one copy of a Penguin title, I will sometimes give surplus copies to others, such as to Pam who has the blog Travellin’ Penguin and who also collects old Penguins and often sends books my way.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

The first two books I remember purchasing were Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe and Room at the Top by John Braine. I had read about them, I think, in The Collector by John Fowles, a book (and movie) I loved, and which had a big influence on my reading when I was in my late teens. I think they were also mentioned on the back cover of A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. I remember them particularly because they had to be ordered in, possibly even from the UK, as they weren’t the sort of titles you were going to find being stocked in a Perth book shop all those years ago. I still own both books, and at least another four copies of A Room at the Top in its varying Penguin covers – it must have been exceptionally popular in the early 1960s because it went through at least 17 issues in the first year of publication, and I haven’t come across any other old Penguin title which can equal that.

Penguin 6 748

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

No. These days I post about every book that I read, so it wouldn’t make any sense to feel embarrassed about what I was reading.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Fire is something which has long troubled me, because until recently I was living on a bush block on the outskirts of Perth, and summer inevitably brings the possibility of bushfire. All the eucalypts in the backyard still display evidence of at least one fire which came far too close to the house before we lived there. The vintage Penguins are the things I would need to save, all 2000 of them, for the reasons that I mentioned early, for the memories they capture. As books they are all replaceable and most of them are not particularly valuable, but as artifacts of my life I would have difficulty living without them. 

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I don’t recall any books on my parent’ bookshelves that I wanted to read, and I don’t have recollection of thinking of books as off limits when I was young. What I do remember from my teenage years is the frustration of not knowing what to read, or where to get advice. I solved it by turning to second hand bookshops and eventually working out that books with orange spines were a safe bet, so that you could buy titles at random and be assured of discovering something worth reading, and that was what led me to start collecting Penguins.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

The project I’ve taken on through the blog keeps me very focused on the books I already own; I suspect there are already more of these than there will be time left to read. And each time I am ready to choose another book I have hundreds to choose from that I am looking forward to reading so I am never tempted to borrow one from anyone else, or from the library. But if I did read a borrowed book I am sure I would be looking for a copy to put on the shelves, just in case I wanted to refer to it later.

Penguin 6 770

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

Maigret Mystified (Penguin no. 2024) is the last book I purchased for myself, and as I own so few of the Simenon Penguins – and I don’t know why this is, perhaps Australians didn’t have a taste for translated fiction in the 1960s – I am always happy when I find another one.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Well there are about one thousand books that I wish to have on my bookshelves and don’t currently own because my goal is to find (and read) all of the titles Penguin published before Allen Lane died in 1970. They are getting more difficult to find these days, and so I tend to only look for them now when I am on holiday, but one of the very lovely things about having a blog is that people now help me in my quest. I have had wonderful help in tracking down bookshops which stock them over east and overseas, and I have been taken on book shopping expeditions on my travels, and I have had many books turn up in the mail.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I think anyone who loves books appreciates the sight of an old Penguin and is likely to feel overwhelmed by a whole wall of them. I suspect people probably think I am a little obsessive, and I agree that choosing what you would read according to the backlist of one particular publisher is an unusual way to go about things, but it works for me. In a world in which there are more books available than you could possibly hope to read, you have to find some way to make a choice, and this one introduces me to books and stories I would otherwise know nothing about.

Penguin 6 759


A huge thanks to Karyn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Karyn’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?


Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

15 responses to “Other People’s Bookshelves #17 – Karyn Reeves

  1. Hello,
    I’m simply in awe of Karyn’s collection. What a wonderful challenge to set. Her home must look incredible when all the Penguins are on display.
    I visit lots of bookshops and, although I’ve not written about it yet, I came across http://www.thesecondhandbookshop.co.uk/ recently. The website is poor, but he had quite a large selection of old Penguins. I’m not sure if it’s of any use, but I figured I’d rather pass it on than not.
    Now I’m off to read Karyn’s blog…

  2. Karen has a wonderful collection of the wonderful Penguins and I am glad the collection is being recognised. So many old paperback books are being lost and I love seeing such an extensive collection being preserved and in Australia as well. Great feature Simon.

  3. What a wonderful collection – I love the old Penguins, I must have read so many of them when I was a child/teenager (from libraries). Beautiful pictures, too!

  4. wow! what an awe-inspiring collection.

  5. gaskella

    I’m awe-struck too – I knew Karyn collected Penguins, but they just look so wonderful all together.

  6. Great collection of penguins so many of these out of print now

  7. Thankfully Karyn’s (and Pam’s) collection obsession is so overwhelming that it doesn’t compel me to become similarly obsessed. I would love to spend a few hours looking at her collection though.

  8. What a great series, Simon, I love looking at people’s bookshelves! I think Karen’s collection is very impressive, and I really enjoyed reading this interview.

    Kind regards,

  9. I’m amazed by Karyn’s book collection! I think it’s a fantastic and inspiring idea, especially in these days of ebooks. I find it comforting. I’m definitely going to check her blog out. Who knows maybe I can help her find a b book she’s looking for. Thanks for sharing Karyn!

  10. Col

    There’s just something inherently beautiful about rows and rows of Penguins. Karyn’s book collection leaves me with a mix of admiration and envy! It’s terrific

  11. I am awestruck, inspired, and very very jealous. This is the most incredible thing I have ever seen! I am obsessed with Penguins (specifically orange classics) but this collection puts me to shame. Something to aim for I guess.

  12. Just amazing. I’m a semi-collector of Penguins and Pelicans, and could stare at her bookshelves for hours. Argh!

    Incidentally, her reviews are also quite excellent, she has a good literary sensibility.

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