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In Praise of Paperbacks

Thursday, June 12th, 2014 | Posted by Thomas Parker

The Chessmen of Mars-smallFirst, a disclaimer. The Luddite rant that follows is my personal view only. I acknowledge the many benefits and advantages of electronic reading devices and to all of the people (many of them dear friends of mine) who would never think of parting with their Kindle, iPad, Nook, or whatever, this is in no way a judgment or condemnation of you or your reading preferences. It is simply about me and my preferences. Now, let the rant begin.

I teach elementary school, and when I began that job, ten years ago, I was faced with the “problem” of what to do with my summers. Yardwork? Get the garage in order? Any of the thousand other home projects that clamor for attention during the working week and never get done for lack of time or energy? Attractive as these options are, I quickly hit upon the happy idea of passing my summers in the same way I did as an adolescent, in reading through as many SF/fantasy paperbacks as I possibly could in the allotted time. Though age does take its toll, and gone are the days when I had the stamina to read The Chessmen of Mars or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel through in a single sitting, as I did when I was thirteen, I still manage to do all right. The choice to spend my extended vacations reliving those great days of blissful, carefree reading is one of best I’ve ever made.

A couple of summers ago, having just finished one book (I think it was one of E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra novels), I looked around for my next read. There on the shelf was a paperback copy of The Stars Are Ours by Andre Norton. My copy is a 40 cent paperback, published by Ace in 1954. The book is great fun and I quickly zipped through it.

Following a familiar pattern for much 50’s SF, the story is set in a post-nuclear holocaust world in which the survivors, blaming science for the disaster, turn against learning and technology itself. Those scientists who are left are a persecuted minority. Young Dard Nordis’s brother perfects a kind of suspended animation that permits a handful of people to escape this decaying and repressive Earth to seek a new planet to settle on.

The Stars are Ours Andre Norton-smallOnce there, Dard and his companions find evidence of a civilization-destroying war and establish contact with a friendly sea-dwelling race. Everything in the novel is very well done; Norton excelled at this kind of fast moving, optimistic SF adventure.

However, I’m not really here to talk about the story, which was wonderful fun – instead, I want to talk about the book.

As I said, it was published by Ace in 1954. It’s in beautiful shape for a sixty year-old paperback. (It’s in better shape than I am, truth be told.) These old Ace books had their own unique character – for one thing, they were smaller than standard paperbacks, just the perfect size for carrying with you. (Aces of this era were six and a half by four and a quarter inches.)

I bought this one in 1972, at Powell’s Book Exchange and Thrift Shop, on Eastern Avenue in Bell Gardens, California – some of my old Bell Gardens friends may remember the place, though it’s certainly long gone now. It was right around the corner from my middle school, Bell Gardens Intermediate. Every day after school, I would take the seventy-five cents I was supposed to spend on lunch (sorry, Mom) and go to Powell’s, where I would buy two or three or four used paperbacks – this one probably cost me twenty or twenty five cents.

I love everything about this book (quite apart from the very enjoyable story). I love the gaudy cover, with its iconic pulp SF imagery (in a shadowy future lab, a gorgeous redhead emerges from a suspended-animation capsule – c’mon!). I love the breathless blurbs peppered on the back cover and opposite the title page, words that enticed a young reader almost as much as the cover – almost. I love the ripe, musty smell of the cheap paper. I love the memories that it arouses of a unique time and place in my life, when I spent countless adolescent after-school afternoons poking around the dusty, dimly lit store, searching the shelves for hidden treasures.

Pirates of Venus-smallOut of that store I carried home Citizen of the Galaxy and The Martian Chronicles, Childhood’s End and Pirates of Venus, Paingod and Stranger In a Strange Land. One day a shelf was filled with dozens of issues of Astounding Science Fiction from the 1950’s. I had the fun of reading Double Star and Martians, Go Home in the magazine that originally published them. Every day I showed up at Powell’s with a pocketful of change; I left with worlds, universes.

And beyond all these pleasures of association, I love the fact that when I open The Stars Are Ours, the name Jim Buchanan is neatly written on the inside of the front cover. Whoever Jim was, he loved these Ace paperbacks as much as I do; he had a lot of them and he took good care of them.

How they wound up at Powell’s I don’t know, but I bought as many of them as my lunch money would allow; I have a couple of dozen of them and they formed the beginning and the core of my SF collection. They give me a tangible connection to another human being, a man I never met but will always be grateful to.

After I bought The Stars Are Ours, I put it on a shelf, where it waited for four decades. (Then as now, I bought books faster than I could read them.) Fifty-eight years after it was printed and 40 years after I bought it, it was ready when I was, ready for me to pick it up and read it.

I wonder – will a Kindle or iPad bought today carry any memories or deliver any pleasures other than the text itself, half a century later? Will it and the books purchased for it even still be viable, or will its technology have been superseded twenty times over in the intervening years? (Gotten rid of all your floppy discs and VHS tapes yet?)

Will it bear any trace of the person who owned it, convey the faintest hint of the life that it touched, hold any attraction for children or friends years later? (in a severe family financial crisis some years ago, I tentatively talked about selling my books – that tells you how severe the crisis was. My oldest son made it absolutely clear that we would get by any way we could, but would not under any circumstances sell my books. They will be me to him when I am gone.)

The march of time and technology can’t be stopped, of course, nor should it be, but we can still make room for things that have their own irreplaceable, individual worth. That’s why I’m keeping my paper – books are more than texts, and convenience isn’t the only legitimate value.


Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, silver age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife.

17 Comments »

  1. 100% agreed. I have a Kindle Fire, and I do use it read some books (mainly a lot of stuff that just isn’t available in print anymore). But I have almost a crack-fiend addiction to purchasing used paperbacks, and a book shelf in the living room to prove it. Currently reading a paperback that I have owned since 1995, but never read before.

    Comment by TDoolan - June 12, 2014 3:25 pm

  2. i’m with you 100% on this…until in came time to move a couple years ago.

    So many boxes to be carried up stairs…

    I only use my wife’s kindle when there isn’t something that is only available in ebook. like Wells of Eternity.

    The one exception is for some reason i read a princess of mars on ebook before the movie came out.

    Comment by Glenn - June 12, 2014 3:59 pm

  3. I should also say that I understand that I have the luxury of space, which many people don’t have. If I had to live in a small apartment – or if I had a job that involved constant travel – I would certainly have a device of some kind. But I would also have as many physical books as I could get away with!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 12, 2014 4:07 pm

  4. When I was a teenager, there was a great little bookshop in the heart of Templebar in Dublin called ‘The Alchemist’s Head’ that sold a wide array of SF and Fantasy, first-hand and second-hand. Back in those days a bookshop specialising in either was a genuine novelty. The project was lent additional credibility by its owner, a pleasant American lady – Americans (or at least, Americans who weren’t tourists but had actually elected to stay in Ireland) were nearly as exotic as bookshops specialising in SF and Fantasy. An indication of how many books I actually bought during that period of my life can be gleaned by the fact that my dad hired a dumpster shortly after I left home and filled it to the brim with my various purchases.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - June 12, 2014 6:16 pm

  5. Ouch! I hope you still spoke to your father after that, Aonghus! When I went in the Army, we bought a prefabricated shed and put it up in my sister’s backyard. It was filled with my boxed-up books, awaiting the day of my return…

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 12, 2014 6:21 pm

  6. Well, I don’t think he was being vindictive (he hasn’t a vindictive bone in his body) – but we had a lot of books and he probably needed the shelf space!

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - June 12, 2014 6:54 pm

  7. Some folks might be interested in this discussion thread, over at Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles Forums, relating to books one has had for many years — and does mean to read — but hasn’t read even yet.

    http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/537022-from-way-way-back-in-your-book-backlog.html

    Comment by Major Wootton - June 12, 2014 7:16 pm

  8. I went full-on e-book several years ago. I just don’t have the space for more physical books in my house. Now, on the other hand, my sister still owns the family house, and that attic is filled with boxes upon boxes of the book my parents and I bought over the decades.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - June 12, 2014 8:03 pm

  9. I heartily agree. I’ve lived in tiny apartments crowded with books, and my house now isn’t too big, but I’ll never get an e-reader. I’ve tried, but I just can’t read that way. Old habits, I guess.

    Old paperbacks are the best; publication before 1980 is a must. Cover art just went downhill from there, in my opinion. My favorites are the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I really like the wrap-around covers. Sometimes slightly crude, but often beautiful, in a dreamy, psychedelic sort of way.

    Comment by Raphael - June 13, 2014 12:06 pm

  10. Here’s the deal, Dad – you’re not allowed to be “gone” until you’ve read every single one of those books. Kapeesh?

    Comment by Samuel Parker - June 13, 2014 3:54 pm

  11. There was also a similar discussion (books that one has owned for many years before reading) on SFSignal. Maybe something in the water?

    Myself, I’m torn. I love physical books, but I’m running (some might scoff at my choice of tense) out of room, and I’m at the point where for most things I actually prefer reading on my Kindle. (Which makes me really conflicted regarding the Current Unpleasantness between Amazon & Hachette.) I still wish there was an easy way to extract eBook versions of all of the physical books I currently own.

    Comment by Joe H. - June 13, 2014 4:06 pm

  12. > Some folks might be interested in this discussion thread, over at Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles Forums,
    > relating to books one has had for many years — and does mean to read — but hasn’t read even yet.

    Major,

    That was, indeed, a fascinating read… thanks!

    Comment by John ONeill - June 13, 2014 4:22 pm

  13. Joe, your comments bring up another issue I didn’t even address in my piece – if you own a physical book, you own it. It can’t be “taken back” or altered. It fully belongs to you and you may do with it as you wish, up to and including loaning it or giving it away. No third party can say nay – but that’s not completely the case with ebooks, at least so far.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 13, 2014 4:30 pm

  14. I love old school paperbacks. Especially the Ballantine Adult Fantasy era and the competition it forced from other publishers.

    Now, for moving around and at my day job, I do use my tablet since I read parts of many books at the same time – from software/technical manuals to classic fantasy stories and I’d have to have a wheelbarrow to carry the stuff I read around otherwise. But at home I do have tons (probably a ton, or close) of those books and publications.

    Frankly, I’d like to have some of the stories I’m writing printed out in that format – like Ballantine/DAW books, some line art B&W interior illustrations. Just that I want it published in the USA, not printed in CHINA.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - June 14, 2014 4:06 pm

  15. I’m of two minds on this. I have more books than I have shelf space for, something that is constantly under my wife’s skin. And when I moved 2 years ago, I realized I couldn’t do that again.

    So I favor electronic editions for convenience. OTOH, you raise some good points. When I was in high school (mid 1980s), a new antique store opened in the small town where I lived. The owner had acquired a number of old paperbacks from the 1960s which he sold for 40% of cover. Since none of them had a cover price of $1, I made out like a bandit.

    Comment by westkeith - June 15, 2014 11:20 pm

  16. I understand your situation, westkeith. I also have more books than space, combined with the irksome necessity of having to consider the needs of those I live with. And so…for Father’s Day, my kids took me to The Last Bookstore (in Los Angeles – if you’re in So Cal, go now!) and I returned home with thirty five paperbacks. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, “God, give me self-control…but not now!”

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 16, 2014 12:10 am

  17. […] Black Gate praises the paperback. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Links, June 15, 2014 | Like Fire - June 16, 2014 3:09 am


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