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Opening Arguments

Paperback righter

The Kindle of its day, or maybe even the iPhone:

De Graff revolutionized that market when he got backing from Simon & Schuster to launch Pocket Books in May 1939. A petite 4 by 6 inches and priced at a mere 25 cents, the Pocket Book changed everything about who could read and where. Suddenly people read all the time, much as we now peek at e-mail and Twitter on our phones. And by working with the often gangster-riddled magazine-distribution industry, De Graff sold books where they had never been available before—grocery stores, drugstores and airport terminals. Within two years he’d sold 17 million.

“They literally couldn’t keep up with demand,” says historian Kenneth C. Davis, who documented De Graff’s triumph in his book Two-Bit Culture. “They tapped into a huge reservoir of Americans who nobody realized wanted to read.”

Other publishers rushed into the business. And, like all forms of new media, pocket-size books panicked the elites. Sure, some books were quality literature, but the biggest sellers were mysteries, westerns, thinly veiled smut—a potential “flood of trash” that threatened to “debase farther the popular taste,” as the social critic Harvey Swados worried. But the tumult also gave birth to new and distinctly American literary genres, from Mickey Spillane’s gritty detective stories to Ray Bradbury’s cerebral science fiction.

Man, this brings back a flood of memories. When I was in high school, I always had a paperback with me, usually stuffed in a back pocket. Whatever we were doing, when there was a break, I'd pull it out to read a page, or even just a paragraph or two. But my introduction to them came earlier as a pere-teen, when I visited my cousin Frank Jr. and raided his stash of dog-eared western and science fiction paperbacks. Reading a hard-backed book was different -- too reminiscent of the reading we had to do for school. Paperbacks were the right kind of reading -- strictly for fun.

As the writer notes, the "financial success of the paperback became its cultural downfall:

Media conglomerates bought the upstart pocket-book firms and began hiking prices and chasing after quick-money best-sellers, including jokey fare like 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. And while paperbacks remain commonplace, they’re no longer dizzingly cheaper than hardcovers.

Paperbacks were still under $1 when I was in high school, which meant I could actually afford them. So I watched this trasformation of paperbacks with dismay. But about the time it became irrelevant whether you bought a paperback or a hardback, along came the Kindle, and the new revolution began.


Fri, 04/26/2013 - 11:33am

I'm struck by the memory of my seventh and eighth grade English teacher, who absolutely despised paperbacks and would take them away from you if she caught you reading one.  She thought they were all trash, regardless.

This, circa 1962-64, she was probably about 40 then.  Imagine a teacher doing that today.

Mike Monigold
Fri, 04/26/2013 - 5:41pm

Back in 1969 I discovered a series of Conan novels. Mostly written by Robert E. Howard and added to by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. They featured fantastic covers by Frank Frazetta. At either 75 or 95 cents, I could afford all 12 in the series. Although now battered and falling apart, they are still with me after all these years. They were fond paperback memories from a more innocent age.