In praise of pulp
I love old books. And not just any old books: tatty yellow paperbacks with creased spines and somebody else’s name scrawled on the inside cover.
As long as they’ve got all the pages, they’re not annotated, and they don’t stink of tobacco, I don’t mind what condition they’re in. I even love old library paperbacks, entombed in plastic, sorry survivors of years of abuse by people who didn’t care how they treated them because they didn’t belong to them.
And one more thing: they mustn’t have a barcode. I calculate the turn of the tide to the early 1980s, when the paperback industry dipped into its long slow terminal spiral. Prices hiked up like phantom thermals, mergers and acquisitions clouded the view, ecommerce provided what seemed to be all the wind the industry needed, and nobody cared about the problem until suddenly we all glanced down and saw nothing but rocks.
Goodbye, traditional publishing. I’m not mourning you. You wore out our patience long before the end.
Just like LPs of the time, quality control all but dried up in those cheapskate days of the early 1980s. The LP was dying long before CDs came along, and it wasn’t just the Walkman that killed it off. Shoddy packaging and thin, substandard vinyl made buying new records a heartache. They were almost certain to be warped, to have surface defects, or to use careless masters.
The CD was a step forward not because the sound was better but because it was simply impossible to find good music on LP anymore — unless you bought it secondhand.
Today I still value the physical CD, and have far more of them than I will ever again be able to play. But I only own one LP record. I keep it in order to pass down to my son the obsession of my youth when I collected and adored those slabs of black magic.
Fittingly, it’s one of those I myself bought secondhand, an original 1976 pressing of Jon Anderson’s Olias Of Sunhillow on heavyweight vinyl with all the trimmings. You can’t imagine what a disastrous job was done on that album in the 1980s, now that LPs are again associated with high quality: it became a flimsy poor-sounding travesty in a single sleeve. (The original CD, to be fair, sounded just as bad.)
Oh, and incidentally, Jon: Zamran isn’t going to be the same, I know, but I just can’t wait.
How did I turn into a secondhand compulsive? I used to be a paperback prude. I’d be mortified if I heard that tell-tale crick as the spine ruptured. Just handling the paperback when you were trying to read it was a skill of full-finger contortion. I couldn’t bear to see old books on my shelf. But now I can’t get enough of them.
Nostalgia is an undeniable part of it. Reading old books reconnects me with a childhood spent immersed in classic pulp novels. (You can read more about this in my post Buy it for the cover.) Even the names of those long-lost imprints are evocative: NEL, Fontana, Futura, Arrow, Signet, Hamlyn, Sphere, Pan, Panther, Coronet, Corgi, and many more.
But then something nasty happened to the experience of curling up in a dusty school library with a paperback.
Those A-format books, as they’re known in the UK, became B-format or ‘trade’ size. The cute, blotchy, evocative (and often very small) typeface was either blown up or reset in ugly computerized type. Though the content itself didn’t change, the book seemed to both beef up and dumb down.
I had a moment of joy recently when I managed to find (in Japan!) an original 1979 copy of Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy like the one I first read, with its highly distinctive and appropriate script-style left-justified text. No other version has quite felt the same, or been quite so funny.
Old, tatty and yellow they may be, but secondhand paperback books are still cheap enough to fulfill their original function, which was to be tossed in a workbag and read on the train, or shoved in with the luggage for a holiday. That won’t always be the case, so I’m buying as many as I can think of while I can.
I intend to pass these mini-treasures down to my son, since he’s far more likely to pick up a physical book if he rummages through my shelves than get enthused by an anonymous file on his hard disk. (And there’s something awkward for a Kindle writer to admit!)
They also seem to have better quality control than reprints and new books. Okay, so the manual typesetting wasn’t so hot. Lazy people set them, lazy people checked them. But the books themselves were usually well printed. Today it’s a gamble buying a new novel, since they’re too often carelessly made. There hasn’t been a collector’s renaissance in books the way there has in LPs.
Even the pulp, the glorious cardboard-like paperback pulp, has given way to wispy leafs thin as cigarette paper. Recently I bought a new copy of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which was one of the most satisfying reads of my childhood if only because it was a big fat adult slab of a novel. The new edition was about half an inch thick and had no gravitas at all.
Same book, different perception. It made me hunger for a secondhand copy of the original.
And the covers! Don’t get me started on just how terrible paperback covers have become — and I’m talking about physical novels, not ebooks!
Fashions come and go, but I doubt we’re going to see a return to those terrific Penguin covers of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly not when, physical object or no, publishers design their books to suit the postage-stamp image on an Amazon page.
Which is, when you think about it, very similar to the way that modern music is produced — and, horror on horror, old music is re-produced — to sound optimal through the lousy soundcard of an iPhone and the ugly sonic processing of Beats headphones.
I’m waving my finger now, like an old man. Who’d you kids let do this to you?
I read books for lots of reasons, and I read them voraciously. I get through about three a week. The majority of non-fiction books I read on my computer or on a mobile device. But when I really want to immerse myself in a novel, when I want to savor every word the author wrote, to revel in his intelligence and wit, to empathize with his characters, and to be dazzled by his invention, the medium does matter.
And the simple fact is that whenever I have the choice between a pristine new copy and someone’s well-thumbed castoff, I always go for the old.
Old books have history. Tatty yellow paperbacks, the very epitome of disposable, have a gravitas that lasts. Good or bad, they’re literary love bombs. And the creased spine suggests somebody else felt the same way, once upon a time.