I own a mass market paperback copy of The Grapes of Wrath, but only because a teacher who was retiring a few years ago left it on a table in our work room with a note saying that his books were free for us to take.
I own a mass market paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but only because I found it left on the floor after a meeting once, and nobody responded to my email asking the rightful owner to come pick it up.
I own a mass market paperback copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but only because I bought it a year before Oprah picked it for her book club, after which it has only been available as a more costly trade paperback.
That last one, I think, is the key to understanding why so many great classics are no longer available in mass market paperback and, indeed, haven’t been for some years. The cheap, durable, accessible mass market paperback started going the way of the dodo, as I recall, in the mid nineties, just as things like $5 cappuccinos at Starbucks were becoming trendy. See where I’m going with this? As our society’s appetite for overpriced luxuries reached its fever pitch, we also acquired a tolerance–even a demand–for fancy, expensive versions of things that had previously been more common and affordable.
Try this: go to Amazon.com and search for “Sound and the Fury mass market paperback.” Look at the years next to the entries that come up. Sad. It seems there hasn’t been such an edition available for over twenty years.
Those three books I mentioned earlier were all quite old printings–even the “newest” were just reprints of editions from the seventies. When I ordered a mass market paperback of Moby Dick a few years ago, my only option was a copy that was older than I was…for which I’m grateful. I’ve come to prefer older copies of books, which tend to have better cover art and introductory material, not to mention the nostalgic value of carrying prices like 75¢.
I went into a Border’s last month for the first time this year, and was shocked to see how far this mighty giant has apparently fallen. The front area of the store carried tables of drastically discounted merchandise, advertised by crude signs, the sight of which would have been unthinkable in the fashionable hey day of ten years ago. Shelves had clearly been rearranged to cover the open space on the floor created by reduced inventory. The economy has taken its toll.
Is it time for the mass market paperback to stage a return? One sign pointing to yes–for several years now, Barnes and Noble has produced a fine series of mass market paperback classics. I’ve read several–they’re terrific.
Of course, there’s one barrier to our old friend the mass market paperback recaliming its place on the throne of democratic literacy–even those that are left have jumped up in price to a position now nearly as vaulted as the trade paperbacks and even the hardcovers that they should be undercutting. In college, I came into a class one day ranting to the professor that I had just bought a paperback book that bore a cover price of nearly eight dollars. Eight dollars! Have the intervening ten years been kind to our wallets? No, they have not.
At least I had bought it used. Ah, the used bookstore. Now there’s a democratic institution whose time has come!