Magazine article Artforum International

The Paperback Revolution: A Selection

Magazine article Artforum International

The Paperback Revolution: A Selection

Article excerpt

Life has no shape; literature has.

--Northrop Frye, "Renaissance of Books" (1976)*

NOTE: Some say publishing is dying. But the paperback revolution (1932-) isn't threatened by new technologies like the e-book and print-on-demand. To generate titles, the revolution promotes revolution in all fields. The revolution works alongside all other modes of content distribution, such as the book-club edition, the comic, the chapbook, the hardback, and the magazine, to locate the real-world minimum value of a book. There's been a counterrevolution, however, and it is threatened by the new technology. The true-crime story of this counterrevolution is best told by distinguished publisher Andre Schiffrin, ex of Pantheon Books, in his harrowing The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. Writing on the eve of the 2000 American presidential election, Schiffrin demonstrates how a conglomeration of concerns and distribution networks since the Reagan years has jeopardized not just the future of the book but democracy itself. [dagger]"

Has venture capitalism killed off the open society? To the paperback revolution, this wider apocalypse may be just another Hammond Innes-era genre story. For one thing, hard times are good times for cheap books. By virtue of the revolution's pursuit of nothing but content's current real value, its mass-market foot soldiers are not quite trash. They're stolen, left in boxes on the street, donated to used-book stores, traded among fans, sold for coppers in thrift stores, or given away as libraries dissolve. "I was more a resident by hereditary seat," the insect narrator of Patricia Highsmith's 1972 tale "Notes from a Respectable Cockroach" records, "than any of the human beasts in the hotel. "[dagger][dagger] Husked in the decay of the public space its brilliant covers once plumbed, the paperback revolution nests comfortably inside deteriorating human habitations.


* In Spiritus Mundi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

[dagger] London and New York: Verso, 2000.

[dagger][dagger] The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murders (London: Heineman, 1975), 146.

1. Cornell Woolrich (writing as George Hopley writing as William Irish), Night Has 1000 Eyes. New York: Dell, 1935. ($0.25)


2.Eroch Auerbach, Scenes from the Drama of European Literture. New York: Meridian, 1959. Begins with the seminal essay "figura." ($1.35)


3. Rachel L. Carson, The Sea Around Us. New York: A Mentor Book, New American Library, 1960. In the 1930s, Kurt Enoch's Hamburg-based Albatross Books sparked the paperback revolution by printing classics in stylish cheap editions (providing the model for London's Penguin), but he was soon expelled by the Nazis. In New York, Enoch cofounded New American Library to continue the revolution's goal of bringing high, culture to the common market. First-rate science, history, and genre titles were sold in supermarkets, schools, bookstores, and stations at the lowest possible cost. …

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