The Generalist

Requiem for the Mass Market Paperback

I have always loved the mass market paperback.

The cheap newsprint-like paper, small size, soft cover, and most of all, light weight, made them perfect for carrying around on daily basis. And I was one that always had to have a book with me. I once knew an artist who liked to dip them in the bathtub and let them dry into a crinkly sculpture. There was something about the well-worn, used-and-abused, but still readable, look that appealed to her. I myself, used to make little covers out of cardboard and brown paper bags so they would stay neat and clean while I was reading them. At one time I had library of them piled double-deep in three bookshelves. At some point I decided keeping all these books wasn’t such a good idea. I was running out of space and moving them was becoming impossible. I guess I figured I could always just pick them up again at the used bookstore whenever I fancied reading them. How wrong I was. I wish now I had simply found some way to store them. Many of them were classics and I miss them. And they’re getting harder and harder to find.

The softcover still exists and is very popular. But not the mass market paperback. Even used bookstores are phasing them out. On a recent trip to the Strand in Manhattan, all that was left was a single bookshelf. Yes, you still see them in supermarkets, but they are mostly the latest fad mysteries, romances or science fiction novels, not classics, and even those are doomed. They will be replaced with electronic versions for Kindles, Nooks, iPads and the like. it’s the end of an era. In the meantime, publishers have to make a buck and they figure if you’re going to get a paper copy of a book you are going to want a nice one, if not yet a hardback. So all the paperbacks are large. It almost seems pointless to bother making soft covers at all, the point of which, it seems to me, was to keep the weight (and price) down.

But the move to Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other book-readers doesn’t please everybody. In fact, it probably bothers any book lover who grew up before such things existed. It will be the children who become used to reading electronic versions of everything. And here is where it really gets scary.

Remember the Memory Hole of Orwell’s 1984? Winston Smith was charged with destroying “inconvenient” printed materials. His job was to rewrite history to fit the ever changing whim of Big Brother. But Orwell, as much inside information as he is likely to have had, couldn’t have imagined just how easy it would be – without even the need to destroy a single piece of paper! Electronic books can potentially be rewritten with the touch of a button.  And, I’m sorry to say, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that one day they will be. The temptation is just too great.

As a blog writer, I know myself the temptation to “fix” past material. After all, we are growing and changing all the time. What I wrote here on the blog in 2005 may or may not reflect my current point of view. I could, if it appealed to me, go back and change some of my previously written material. I’m a bit of a purist, though, so beyond fixing typos, I am un-inclined to do it. But that doesn’t mean the idea has never crossed my mind. Imagine that kind of power in the hands of those less considerate. Imagine a time when no one bothers to print anything anymore. When all your “books” are stored in a “cloud” somewhere. Those with access to the cloud can now rewrite history. It is almost a certainty that this kind of power will be used.

Of course, if this is on your mind, it’s probably NOT the mass market paperback you will want to stock up on. After all, it’s hardly archival. You will want to fill your archival library with the highest quality hardcovers with acid free paper. But as for me, I will also be holding on to a few MMPs. They may not be archival, but I’ve no doubt that some centuries from now archaeologists will unearth them from landfills fully preserved. I do wonder what they will think when they compare them to their then modern counterparts. I wonder what printer Ben Franklin would think if he could see the predicament ahead. As 2012 approaches, I can say, we are truly at the end of an age.

I'm a blogger.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *