From Contempt to Success, A Little Paperback History

Like Sartre, who was critical of paperbacks before changing his mind when he found that his works in this format were being bought by the thousands, the advent of the paperback made people cringe. Between class contempt and enthusiasm, a look back at a difficult birth.

In France, we like to date the invention of the paperback to 1953, thanks to Henri Filipacchi’s marketing of the “Le Livre de poche” collection, but it’s a story that actually begins much earlier.

Almanac of 1814, paperback and covered with blue paper, Carnegie Library (Reims). [Wikimédia]The paperback as we know it today is the descendant of the colportage literature that has existed since 1600. In France it’s the Blue Library, a kind of little pamphlet printed on the poor blue-grey paper used to pack the sugar. Not much is known about its reception, but in view of the literacy rate of 20 to 30% of the population, there must have been public readings at the time.

A horoscope in advance

We read almanacs, astrological forecasts, practical advice of all kinds, but also poetry, novels and various facts not so far removed from our current “true crimes”. Francophonie is not alone, there is also the “Chapbook” in Great Britain and the “Volksbuch” in Germany.

Popular literature, that circulation of stories printed outside of great literature and the aristocracy, has therefore always existed. It’s important to be precise, because when the paperback became widely democratized in the mid-20th century, it was accused of distorting literature, as if it would lose its standing if made available to all.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Michaux, Julien Gracq or Maurice Blanchot, for example, are very much against their publication in the bag. Note that Sartre will change his mind later when he realizes that his works can be bought by the hundreds of thousands… out of pocket.

Reissue of the classics

In fact, the real novelty of the paperback is neither the format, nor the moderate price, nor the mass production, but rather the re-edition of works that are otherwise not available to the general public. The great classical and modern texts of literature, philosophy, human sciences, all knowledge becomes accessible to almost nothing.

We can measure the power of this revolution by the reactions it arouses.

You need an aristocracy of readers: The paperback brought many people to read who didn’t need to read.

A medical student on The Future is Yours in 1964

We read here all the class contempt and elitism that underlies criticism of paperbacks. But the publishers, for their part, quickly realize that there is an enormous economic opportunity. In Great Britain, Penguin Books published successfully in pocket format from 1936 on the model of Albatross Books, founded in Hamburg in 1932.

The cover of a novel published by Zulma. [Collection Zulma]The cover of a novel published by Zulma. [Collection Zulma]Among the authors there are still some who are happy. Jean Giono says the bag is “modern civilisation’s most powerful cultural instrument” and Marcel Pagnol considers it “as powerful as radio or television”.

The beginnings of the colored dust jacket

Since books need to be made attractive and popular, publishers hire illustrators to turn the book into a playful and colorful object. The visual language is that of cinema and show posters. And since class contempt is never far away, many see this choice as highly touted and vulgar.

However, given the readers’ attraction to this format and the need to stand out now that there are dozens of pocket collections out there, we’re seeing a return to beauty. To give just one example, Zulma and its extremely neat abstract graphic covers with the white triangle pointing down for title and author.

Pascaline Sortet/mh

#Contempt #Success #Paperback #History

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