26 January 2013

Paperback writer

I watched Dan Snow’s documentary on railways this week, and one interesting story was how the birth of the railways fuelled a publishing/literacy revolution. W H Smith (it seems as if he was a real person or people) opened a bookstall at Euston station to supply reading material to passengers on the new and exciting mode of transport. Cheap editions of classics were produced, and for the first time ordinary people could read and own popular literature, instead of reading penny dreadfuls.

These were the precursors to the Everyman additions presumably, which in turn gave way to paperbacks. Without going off to Wikipedia I have no idea when paperbacks first appeared. I don’t own any from earlier than the forties so I would guess that they first appeared in the 1930s, maybe 1920s.

I have picked up a few Everyman editions on the way, mainly Dickens. I think they are the perfect size and are beautifully printed; they fit in a pocket although it does look as if you are hunched over a bible while on the top deck of a bus reading Robinson Crusoe.

But paperbacks must be the ultimate democratising literary innovation, cheap, accessible and portable. Nowadays we can buy any Dickens’ novel for one pound, brand new. The print and paper quality may be poor but you can own Oliver Twist for less than the cost of a decent newspaper. If there is such a thing as a decent newspaper.

In this particular Victorian terraced house hardbacks have arrived on the shelves usually as result of presents, either directly or by cashing in book tokens (remember them, a time before Amazon when it was all fields around here). Hardbacks are display books, reference books, books you intend to keep, books that you can show to your aunt with a ‘this is what I spent the book token on’.

Paperbacks on the other hand are transient; they come in and out of our house quite regularly, although the ebb and flow has slowed since the introduction of a couple of Kindles. Paperbacks are lent out with a blasé attitude to a return date. Paperbacks are replaced when they fall apart through age and use. Second-hand paperbacks have inscriptions to unknown people with dates from before you were born. Hardbacks are Kings, only able to move one place at a time, keeping themselves on the outside; paperbacks are Pawns, outnumbering the King eight to one, more disposable but more involved in the game, constantly moving forward.

I had this fantasy of owning a library; all four walls would be covered floor to ceiling with books. The only break in the shelves would be a window, with a writing desk in front, overlooking a lawn sweeping down to an apple orchard. The books on the shelves in this dream would be large hardbacks bound in red leather. In reality most of the books would be paperbacks, cheaper to acquire, easier to fill the shelves.

Although modern paperbacks seem to be on steroids so they would fill up the shelves very quickly.


  1. Oh good grief, what do I say? You missed the fireplace and a large table to spread out especially large books. I can even smell your apple orchard. Can I throw in a cherry tree or two?

  2. Actually there would be a snooker table in the middle where me and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would have a few frames.