Eighty five years of too many books


By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer

Janice Lindsay
Janice Lindsay

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the start of what is sometimes called “the modern paperback revolution,” which made it possible for people like me to accumulate way too many books.

Not that there is such a thing as too many books, in my opinion; the problem is more likely to be not enough shelves.

This opinion is shared by many book-lovers, but not necessarily by their less enamored, more practical, significant others, who might view the growing book piles with skepticism, if not alarm.

Soft-cover books had been around for a while, but the real paperback revolution began in 1935, when the first Penguin paperback was issued in England. The trend leaped to the United States. Then, as now, hardcover books were expensive. With the advent of widely marketed paperbacks, practically anybody could plunk a few cents down on the drugstore counter and walk away with hours of good reading.

The new paperbacks were usually small enough to fit in a pocket, so for a long time they were called “pocketbooks.” Their low prices meant that ordinary folks could grow their own libraries and hear their significant others ask, “Do you really need to keep all these books? Will you ever read them again?” Answer: (a) These books are my friends, and I can’t part with my friends; (b) I don’t know if I’ll read a book again, so I’d better keep it just in case.

I’ve read that the first mass-market pocketbook in the States was Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” Definitely a keeper.

The oldest paperback in my collection was published during World War II, when publishing was a challenge because so many commodities were rationed. It’s James Hilton’s “Random Harvest.” (The movie starred Greer Garson and Ronald Colman.) It’s a “Genuine Pocket Book,” printed in 1944, “a wartime book…produced in full compliance with the government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials.”

It’s 4 inches by 6 by ½. The paper is thin, the small type is crammed onto as few pages as possible. Behind the title page, a bold-stroke line drawing of a fierce, flying bald eagle fills a third of the page. It is viewed from the side, eyebrow (?) curved with determination. It holds a book in its talons. From its beak flows a banner reading, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

On the back cover, white letters on a black block state, “Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere in the U. S., only 4 cents.” Our soldiers were encouraged to read, though I’m not sure how they’d feel about the story of a man who had entirely lost the memory of three years of his life due to wounds received in World War One.

The next big revolution for book-lovers, decades later, was the electronic reader. Imagine, an almost infinite number of books, for very few dollars, available on demand, to carry conveniently anywhere in the world. Initially, many people thought the electronic reader would be the end of paper books. 

But it didn’t turn out that way.  It turns out that book-lovers love not just the content of their books, but also the form.

I could read “Random Harvest” on a little gray screen. But then I couldn’t feel the softness of the worn pages, smell the sweet mustiness of almost eight decades, wonder who owned the book before I bought it for a quarter at a secondhand book shop, or hold a piece of history in my book-loving hands.

Or see the American eagle assure me that book reading is my patriotic duty.


Contact jlindsay@tidewater.net.