For Beginners® is a graphic nonfiction series that deconstructs complex ideas and makes them accessible to the everyday reader. Every book in the series serves one purpose: to present the works of great thinkers and subjects alike in a straightforward, accessible manner. With subjects ranging from philosophy to politics, art, and beyond, the For Beginners series covers a range of topics in a humorous comic book-style.
The story of the For Beginners series spans the course of decades and some twenty countries the world over, but it begins in Harlem, with Glenn Thompson, the publisher and founder of Writers and Readers, the publishing cooperative that would one day become what is now For Beginners.
Glenn Thompson was born on September 24, 1940 in Harlem, NY and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Thompson spent his childhood in bad public schools, neglected by indifferent teachers, and, as a result, did not learn to read until he was twelve. Not being of particular interest to Thompson, reading was something that was not encouraged or expected of him or the other inner-city students. That is until his mother’s death at age eleven. With his mother’s death and his father’s absence, Thompson and his brother were put temporarily into a children’s shelter before being separated by the logistics of the Welfare Department. This trauma led Thompson to pick up a book and teach himself how to read.
Largely self-educated and a voracious reader of literary classics, by the age of fourteen, Glenn Thompson was a high school dropout. His insatiable appetite for literature in conjunction with the romanticism of the beat era (many beat poets and authors were regular figures in Greenwich Village where Thompson spent much of his time reading) resulted in dreams of leaving New York to discover the worlds that were written about in Camus, Orwell, Gide, and Kazantzakis. At twenty, he followed his dreams and took a freighter to Morocco. From there, he crossed the desert in Iran, traveled on land from Germany to Katmandu and back, lived in India, Turkey, Greece, Holland, Nepal, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, worked in a Kibbutz in Israel, and finally found himself working as a social worker in Hackney, England, a small working-class neighborhood not unlike where he grew up.
Thompson used his own personal experiences with the alienation of inner-city life to connect with the children that he worked with but soon found that the bureaucracy of government work prevented him from reaching his full potential. Thompson left the social worker program and opened up Hackney’s first bookshop, Centerprise, in 1970. Centerprise offered literature that was relevant and interesting to the racially-diverse, working-class children of Hackney and encouraged the development of youth writing skills. A book of one Hackney child’s poetry was published by Thompson and sold at Centerprise, resulting in the Centerprise Publishing Project, the first of many of Thompson’s publishing projects. In two years, Thompson turned Centerprise Publishing over to the community, it continues to this day to be a community run publisher of working-class children.
After a two year stint at Penguin Group’s education imprint, Thompson teamed up with a number of people who agreed with his views of activist, community-driven publishing. Writers and Readers was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. Thompson had ambitious goals with his Writers and Readers project: He wanted to prove that cooperative publishing, where no one member specialized in a single area but taught themselves about every aspect of publishing, could succeed on an international level; he wanted to prove that nonreaders would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles, the first of which being Cuba, the second (and immensely more popular) being Marx. The purpose of the Beginners series was to open up a realm of knowledge that had long been “locked into the domain of academia.” The books were meant to appeal to young readers as well as those who wished to broaden their knowledge without attending a university.
As the Writers and Readers and the Beginners series became more and more successful, however, it became much more difficult to maintain the co-op mentality. Questions of control arose. Some took it upon themselves to sell the titles to larger, corporate publishing houses. Thompson felt that he needed more control over the Writers and Readers. Compromising the cooperation values of Writers and Readers in order to preserve some of his more important ideals of reform and activism, Thompson took control as sole publisher. He went to New York and began a second branch called Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc.
For years, Thompson spent his time traveling between England and New York to manage the two companies. Until 1987, when Thompson moved the company solely and permanently to Harlem. The company continued to flourish and Thompson reassessed his ideals. It became his goal to lead a new Harlem Renaissance by creating an international publishing house that Harlem could identify with and be a part of; a Black publishing company house on equal footing with the industry giants. Writers and Readers and the Beginners series continued to flourish, bringing in enough revenue for Thompson to start two new publishing companies: The Harlem River Press (published children’s poetry) and Black Butterfly Childrens’ Books (published books for the oft neglected inner-city child). By the time of his death in 2001, Thompson and Writers and Readers Publishing had published over forty Beginners titles. Glenn Thompson died of cancer in London on September 7, 2001 leaving three children and two grandchildren.
Several years after the passing of Glenn Thompson, a few investors got together to discuss the cultural value and importance of his Beginners series and decided to buy the rights to the titles. For Beginners, LLC was born. Inspired by his innovative and radical concepts on the power and influence of independent publishing, we adopted Glenn Thompson’s ideals and intentions, re-releasing 20 of his Beginners titles and authorized one new title, Dada and Surrealism For Beginners, in the summer of 2007.
Newly reformed and ever expanding, Glenn Thompson’s series of influential and innovative graphic non-fiction titles lives on through us as the For Beginners series