Thursday, April 19, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Great American Paperback by Richard Lupoff Review

Penzler Pick, October 2001: There may be some irony in the notion that a book devoted to paperbacks (the most inexpensive book format--small, easily transportable and disposable) is a huge, expensive, beautifully produced hardcover volume that is certain to be a gem in any collector's library.

For several centuries books in America customarily were pages bound between hardcovers and, in this century, had dust jackets wrapped around them, initially just to protect the cloth covers, but eventually as an attention-grabbing advertising poster.

In 1938, an experiment was launched. The cloth cover was exchanged for a paper one, and the colorful illustration and information that appeared on the dust jacket (author, title, publisher, a few lines about the book) was printed directly onto those paper covers. Cheaper paper was used, since these artifacts were no longer expected to form part of a permanent library, but were to be as disposable as a newspaper or magazine. And they were cheap: a 25-cent price made books affordable for a huge portion of the population. They became immeasurably successful almost overnight.

Today many of those books are highly sought-after collectors' items. In spite of the huge numbers printed, they are scarce now simply because almost no one ever thought to save them in colorful, pristine condition. The Great American Paperback illustrates in glorious full color more than 600 of the most interesting and collectable paperbacks, each with an informative caption that provides as much fascinating anecdotal information as the text, which is a masterly and scholarly history of the American paperback, tracing its roots to the early 19th century and concluding with a look at the future.

There are samples of the paperback originals of Ed McBain, Richard Stark, Jim Thompson, Harlan Ellison, and James M. Cain, as well as illustrations of such rarities asThe Maltese Falcon, which was issued as a paperback with a dust jacket, and Ellery Queen's Halfway House, which was offered in two formats by the publisher, one bound the usual way, the other bound at the top edge.

If this massive work hadn't been produced in Hong Kong, it would have cost twice as much and is, believe it or not, a bargain, even at a price as hefty as the book itself. --Otto Penzler

Ed here: Dick Lupoff has distinguished himself as a writer of both mystery and science fiction and fantasy. He has also been and editor and biographer of great renown. I first heard of him when he and his lovely wife Pat began publishing the legendary science fiction/comic book XERO back in the early 1960s. If you'd like to know (or remember) what genre fiction as all about in that lost age I suggest you but the hardbound collection of XERO's including Donald E.Westlake's scorching goodbye to his science fiction career.

But this magnificent history--because it's nothing less--of paperbacks books in America would be enough to make you well known and respected. The covers are knock-outs and the text is packed with stories and tales of writers and editors and publishers are told with Dick's usual wit, high style and erudition.

There are many books about paperbacks but I can't think of any that come even close to this sprawling, hilarious, melancholy, fact-packed tribute to the highs and lows of American publishing.

This is a singular accomplishment and Dick Lupoff should be honored for it.


Scott Cupp said...

Truly a wonderful and lovely book assembled by someone who knows and loves paperback books.

Jacobus Gideon Hanekom said...

I was wondering what effect e-books will have on collectors efforts the more popular they (e-books) become globally. The trend seems to be heading that way in any case, it will make paperbacks even more collectable i'm sure, but what will the follow on effect be as the years pass on the lesser amounts of actual books being produced in favor of e-books and how ill this diminishing ratio effect collection of classics yet to be written....

Kent Morgan said...

I have always wanted a copy of this book, but the only time I ever came across one (actually more than one) was in a bookstore in the Welsh booktown Hay-on-Wye. I had already bought a few books and just couldn't see trying to squeeze it into my backpack for 20-mile bus ride to a train station, then a train ride back to South Yorkshire where I was staying. Then I would have had to find space in my suitcase for a train ride to London and a flight back to Canada. Since then I realize I should have found a way as I keep searching for a copy in stores in both Canada and the US without success. I've read a couple of Lupoff's mystery novels about collectors and enjoyed them.

~ said...

I was given this book in HC as a present over 10 years ago when I was first getting into vintage paperback collecting. It served me as a wonderful introduction to the hobby, and is also a very entertaining cultural history; I still refer to it often. Mr. Lupoff does not merely focus on writers, but also publishers (including many obscure ones) and cover artists. Sorry to learn it's no longer in print, it definitely deserves a reissue. One small caveat: it is an informal, anecdotal guide, rather than an exhaustive reference. For that I would recommend the Antique Trader book, as well as the website Bookscans.

With the advent of the ebook, how long before these cultural treasures become museum pieces?