The Paperback Book:
Perfect Union of Form and Function
by: Randy D. Ralph, MLIS, Ph.D.
In place 1994. Copyright © 1994 Randy D. Ralph.
"The book is the ornament . . . and with any luck you read it."
Nicholson Baker, "Books as Furniture,"The New Yorker 71(June 12, 1995):84-92.
The most perfect union of form and function in a book is the mass edition paperback. Paperback books are inexpensive, unprepossessing and last just long enough to do the job, which is to convey the information they contain and, in the process, to entertain, educate, gladden or infuriate. What is the raison d'Ítre of the book if it is not to convey information? All else is secondary.
Everyone has owned and read at least one paperback book. Everyone has given one to a friend. Everyone has at least one stuffed away in a junk drawer. Everyone has traded one for another, even Steven. The operative word in all this is everyone. The humble paperback has put more information, literature and art within the reach of more people than any other form at any other time. Yet the humble and powerful paperback has been almost universally looked down on since Gertrude the Kangaroo hopped onto the publishing scene in 1939 with the first Pocket Book in her pouch, the plastic laminate already peeling from the covers. In the words of Gertie's spiritual father, Robert de Graff:
In the same year, Ian Ballantine, with a little cash from his father, and a lot of good ideas for mass marketing, opened Penguin's first U.S. office in New York. Gertie was not long without competition. The paperback businesses begun by Ballantine and de Graff took off during World War II as both firms were contracted to mass produce paperback editions of a wide range of classics and popular titles for the GIs serving in Europe and the Pacific. In August 1945, as atomic bombs were dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ballantine had developed the connections and the found the cash he needed to open Bantam Books with the blessing of the illustrious Bennett Cerf. The rest, as they say, is history.
The first book I ever bought for myself was Catcher in the Rye. I
it in paperback edition. Since then I have read more paperbacks than
anything else. I have read at least three or four a month since, whenever
I could afford to. Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Darwin, Leguin,
Dreiser, Joyce, Fowles, to name but a few. The list goes on and on.
Could I have done this in any other century and in any other form?
It pleases me greatly to know that good and caring people are looking after all those beautiful books from the past and that we will have them to admire forever whenever the spirit moves us to do so. But on an otherwise bleak winter day, just give me a cup of hot chocolate and a good paperback I don't have to worry about spilling anything on. I'll curl up by the fire until further notice, thank you.
Postscript: Ian Ballantine died in March, 1995.
Appendix: A Brief Bibliography on Paperbacks
to the Document Pages.