I’ve had paperbacks on my mind this month with the release of my third novel The Mapmaker’s Children in trade edition. One of my favorite things to do when on travel is to check out a city’s local antiquarian shop and quarry the shelves for forgotten book gems. All of which, I recently noted, were hardbacks. It makes logical sense that paperbacks would have a difficult time withstanding the wear, tear, and eras. After all, paper by its definition is made of organic materials—perishable like all of nature’s creations.
When I was very young, I found what I coined “the most perfect acorn in all the earth’s forests” behind our military barracks. We’d just moved from Germany where I’d heard tales of the sacred oak tree but lived in the city, so I never got to see the fabled oak seed before that day. It seemed a wondrous discovery. Firstly, it was very large—the width of a quarter, which by acorn standards is epic. Secondly, all the other acorns on the ground were cracked, misshapen, dirty, and half-eaten by forest critters. My acorn was pristine and shiny as if it’d been polished with butter. I carried that darling nut home and put it in my treasure box where it stayed faithfully for decades.
Married and about to move across the country to Texas, I took my childhood mementos from my parents. One of those being my treasure box. I wish I could say I opened it to find all my precious items as pristine as the day I collected them, but no. My acorn had been the victim of a long-ago bug feast. It was pocked with holes, cracked open, and brittle. I mourned for a beat then decided that the acorn had a very special life in my life. It hadn’t been ravaged by a toothy squirrel or been left to rot in the wet marshes. It’d been cared for and loved by a little girl who saw magic in the ordinary.
I assume we don’t find paperbacks from the early 1900s for precisely this reason: they are ephemeral. In truth, paperbacks are the titles passed from literal hand to hand; the books that bring readers together in groups to cry into, spill their coffees on, and swat away intruding summer gnats. They are the books of the everyday, right? Just as history only records the major events, the quiet routines are simply… lived until they are gone. But aren’t those the ultimate zeitgeist of a time? Being a history geek, I took to the archives for answers.
In the beginning (a very biblical start but hey, the Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed so it seems befitting), books were expensive luxuries. They were designed with rigid covers to protect the delicate pages within. Paperbacks came into vogue across Europe in the 19th century and made their way onto American shelves in the 1930s. Penguin and New American Library were the primary publishers of mass, lower-costing paperbacks. These were intended to introduce older texts to the next generation of readers who couldn’t afford hardbacks. Suddenly, the everyman could have an extravagance right in his or her palm. The popularity soared. Additionally, during World War II, reading became not just a means of education, but a prominent leisure activity. Publishers needed a cost-efficient way to supply demand during the war shortages. The paperback was the answer, and for many today, still is.
I’ve had it explained to me like the film industry. The hardback copy being equivalent to seeing a movie at the theater and the paperback being the DVD or streaming download. Life is busy, and we can’t all make it out to the theater. But given the opportunity to have a viewing in our living rooms, we jump to order! Of course, there are many who are faithful to the intrinsic artistic experience: seeing a film on the big screen in theater-style seating with a handful of fresh popcorn. Similarly, there are bookaphiles who want the limited quantities of hardback first editions for their libraries. How a reader chooses to engage with literature is entirely subjective and copy sales (hardback versus paperback) are more a concern of the publishers. What remains eternally the same across formats is the writing— the story.
Like my childhood acorn, paperbacks may not last for a hundred years, but while they are abundantly available and in our hands… Oh, what treasures! There’s magic in their routine paper and ink. Don’t you agree?
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