By Steve Donoghue
Around about the 1950s, the American literary establishment, never exactly nimble on its feet, noticed that its world had changed about a decade earlier.
The fateful year was 1939, when Pocket Books decided to field-test a new approach to selling books. They issued cheaply-made mass market paperbacks for 25 cents apiece, and they worked hard to make sure those books were available everywhere – not just in bookstores, but at newsstands, in drugstores, department stores, train stations, dime stores like Woolworth’s, mom-and-pop shops, and supermarkets all over the country.
The thinking behind this decision, particularly the thinking of the Pocket Books diabolical guru, Robert de Graff, was a simple leap of faith: the 25-cent price tag would make a profit if enough people paid it, so the real strategy was to put those little paperbacks in front of as many people as possible.
The paperbacks themselves were a modest stroke of genius: small, light, cheap but surprisingly sturdy, super-convenient to hold in the hand or slip into a purse or pocket. They were above all comfortable – you could buy them anywhere, take them anywhere, read them anywhere. Pocket Books had taken the friction out of the process.
The literary establishment became alarmed because when Pocket Books (and the imitators that immediately swarmed into this new market space (Bantam, Avon, and of course Penguin, among others) took the friction out of the process, they also took the mystique out of it all. Suddenly, the literary establishment looked around and saw that the barbarians were at the gate.
That establishment was all but personified in critic and pooh-bah Malcolm Cowley, and in the mid-’50s he painted a picture of the state of affairs that seemed robust and forthright but, just under the surface, seeped with a sickly combination of fear and condescension. He looked at all those metal spinner-racks dispensing paperbacks of all kinds to the great unwashed, and it’s pretty easy to tell that the sight faintly appalled him. “An old man in a shabby overcoat looked at the covers of the books, opened two or three of them, but shambled off without making a purchase,” he wrote at the time. “A younger man came over from the cigar counter, inspected the Westerns, and chose one with two blazing guns on the cover. A broad-beamed housewife, her head wrapped in a soiled babushka, had been bustling among the kitchenware. Now, with her purchase under her arm, she passed the book racks, examined the Sartre, rejected it, and instead picked out a Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill. It had taken her less time to buy a book than to buy a saucepan.”
You can practically feel his skin crawling. This new phenomenon was unstoppable, a “rich, random, gaudy, vital, corrupt” process that “put culture at the disposal of the plain man, even the poorest, for less than the price of a bar whiskey.”
Of course that process was driven by the fact that plenty of people love to read, but there was something else involved too: the simple fact that those little paperbacks were, in their unassuming way, perfect pieces of technology. Unlike cumbersome, costly hardcovers, they were cheap, easy, and omnipresent.
I think about this whenever I run into a glitch on one of my e-readers.
I’ve got a few of them, and none is 100% exactly as perfect as those little paperbacks were, in the sense of realizing their potential. That limitation of potential is an important factor to keep in mind (those little paperbacks, after all, couldn’t be read in the dark, and their paper-stock faded and damaged pretty easily) – no sense wishing these things were something they can’t be.
But even within those parameters, each one of these devices has pros and cons. Some, like many popular Kindles, have the power button on the bottom side, pretty much exactly where you’re most likely to rest the device in your hand and thereby accidentally power the whole thing off. Others, like many popular Kobos, have a cheap plastic feel that belies the sophistication of their hardware and software. Some have batteries that don’t last long enough on a charge; I never think about charging my paperbacks, so ideally I should hardly ever think about charging my e-reader. (It would be nice if they didn’t need charging at all – leeched power off the nearest charged device, for instance, or drew it from sunlight – but again, we’re sticking with the immediately possible).
Some aren’t quite the right size – they either get lost in the palm of my hand, or they’ve got me stretching out fingers and thumbs to handle them. Some have oddly fussy user interfaces, like Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men,” saying “You have to ask me nice” every time I want to read some Tacitus or a killer shark novel. Some have dodgy or incomplete in-house bookstores – not a big concern for me, since I tend to read side-loaded files, but then, some devices also get indigestion if you side-load too many files.
“Build a better mousetrap,” the old saying goes, “and the world will beat a path to your door.” Those old cheap paperbacks were – and still are – in their own humble way, a better mousetrap than heavy hardcovers with higher price tags and uncut pages. And electronic readers, with their handy size and adjustable fonts and built-in dictionaries and all, are indisputably a better mousetrap than those old paperbacks when it comes to the bedrock function of all reading technology, which is to connect people (all people, sorry Malcolm) with books. But there’s still plenty of room for helpful tinkering!