PRINT April 2010


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 André 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 conglomerization of concerns and distribution networks since the Reagan years has jeopardized not just the future of the book but democracy itself.†

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.”†† Husked in the decay of the public space its brilliant covers once plumbed, the paperback revolution nests comfortably inside deteriorating human habitations.

Mark von Schlegell is a writer living in Cologne and Los Angeles.

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

† London and New York: Verso, 2000.

†† The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murders (London: Heineman, 1975), 146.

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