Paperbacks or Hardbacks?

Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin

Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin

Lately I’ve read a lot of paperbacks.

When you read Balzac, you want a nice paperback. You want a Penguin or Oxford (or whatever you can find).

You are going to spend a lot of time with each novel.   You want to get comfortable. You want to enjoy the look and feel of it.   You want to be able to stuff it in your purse or read it lounging on the couch.  You want to be able to read it at meetings while everyone else is playing on his or her phone.

You don’t want something that weighs a ton, like the two hardcovers (top) pictured below.


You have to sit at a table with these.

I weighed one of them and it is approximately 2 pounds.

I picked up these Balzac hardcovers for $2 each.  They were published by A. L. Burt Company in New York, with the prefaces by George Saintsbury, who commissioned the first translations of Balzac in the late nineteenth century.  There is no copyright, but the title page says “Centenary Edition.” They’re slightly foxed, corners bumped, etc.  It was a Balzac desperation move.  I couldn’t find these in paperback.

I have found my other  Balzacs in paperback.  Penguins, Modern Library.  If only our Modern Library College Edition of Eugenie Grandet didn’t have that marginalia!  A family member wrote all his notes in the margins because he didn’t bring his notebook to class.  Everything is organized:  circled, underlined, notes.

I replaced it.

I was a little upset when I found highlighting in a used copy of Balzac’s A Murky Business.  But there wasn’t THAT much highlighting, and I remembered, Wait, I’m not rich.

Oh, dear.  Perhaps I have Balzac’s collecting habit after all.  He spent 100,000 francs in three years buying antiques.  I’ve spent–well, not that much!–collecting a few Balzac paperbacks.

I used to take extremely good care of paperbacks so I could sell them.  Long ago, when I had my first job (posh, but paid nothing), I sold books to used bookstores so I could buy more books and, yes, tampons.  It was no big deal, but now I think back and laugh.

Now I’m having a fling with paperbacks.  I read them in the bath.  I read them in bed.  I read them in the kitchen.  Occasionally a coffee stain appears.

This is what a typical Balzac looks like after a few days.  Poor Cousin Pons!


Are you scandalized?

Yours doesn’t look like this.  I know.  You’re not supposed to splay them open.

This is no longer Mint Condition, or Like New. It is a Good Reading Copy.  Certainly it is a better reading copy than many I buy online, but I couldn’t possibly call it anything else.

In 2010, Smithsonian Magazine ran an article about the history of paperbacks, mainly about Penguin.   In the 1930s, Sir Allen Lane had a brainstorm: while waiting for a train from Exeter to London, he could find nothing to read except pulp fiction or magazines.  So he decided to publish paperbacks classics, mysteries, and literary fiction. He founded Penguin in 1935.  Among the first books he published were Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Goodness, if I could only find those at train stations now!

I’ve spent a life with paperback books.  I’ve purchased most of Hardy, Kurt Vonnegut, Adrienne Rich, Aristophanes, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and Janet Evanovich in paperback at:  Iowa Book and Supply, Howards, Second Story Books, Prairie Lights, Christopher’s, Jackson Street Booksellers, and many used bookstores whose names I don’t remember.  There are also the online bookstores.

Why paperbacks?  The joy of the Norton editions with the great notes.  The great introductions to Penguins.  The great pop fiction without introductions:  Ngaio Marsh and the Poldark books.

I read hardcovers and e-books, too.  Used hardcovers are sometimes cheaper than used paperbacks.  E-books are often free.

I love paperbacks.

I could have a Year of Paperbacks challenge.  Read nothing but paperbacks!  I’m satirizing online life just a little.  I love it, but, you know, I don’t do challenges.   I read what I want to read.

Which do you prefer:  hardcovers or paperbacks?

8 thoughts on “Paperbacks or Hardbacks?

  1. I endorse your remarks. I like them all, all forms of books that is. If you buy on-line some used hard covers are cheaper than the new paperbacks. In the hand, especially when traveling, paperbacks are better. In our younger days when my husband and would go on long trips, I packed a stack (or double stack) of paperbacks. As I read them, I discarded them or gave them to other travelers. That way I had suitcase space for souvenirs or other books acquired along the way. Now I must admit my Kindle is very good for travel, and also for hospital waiting rooms.

    I recommend Project Gutenberg as a source for free books, mostly classics.


  2. I splay my paperbacks and also refuse to feel guilty about it. I buy hardbacks if it is a new book I really want to read and can’t wait for the paperback. I also bought the six Austen novels in hardback and they are the first things I would rescue in a fire (after family and cat of course!)


  3. Back problems mean that if I have to travel with a book these days it’s on Kindle. Preference doesn’t come into it. Otherwise it’s a question of whatever I can get hold of in order to read the story I want to read. As most of my books come from the library the choice is very rarely mine.


  4. Like you, I’m a lover of paperbacks – democratic, available to all, portable and easy to handle. If it’s say, a posh non-fiction book, I might prefer a hardback, but my main library is definitely softcovers. Nowadays, I go for the cheapest option but as long as I can read it, at the end of the day I’m not too fussy!


  5. I found this intriguing and it brought back memories. I remember when it was not so easy to find a book in paperback: I had to go to a drugstore to find them. I did not live in a neighborhood with a good bookstore. When I was about 11 the first flood of paperbacks appeared so that they became far more numerous than hardbooks.

    Of course I love them since they made so many many more books available to me. I used to take the dust-jacket off hard covers when I owned them since often I didn’t like them. I’ve noticed over the years the front cover of paperbacks of classics has improved so they have often good reproductions of beautiful or appropriate paintings.

    I won’t use kindle. It’s just not the same experience at all. No pages, no chapters, no notes, no pictures. Much of the happiness of holding a book is gone. The sense of being in a permanent realm, of reaching some inner space that matters and is meaningful.


  6. SilverSeason, I like your idea of traveling with books and giving them away. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she carries a few books on the Pacific Crest Trail and tears out the pages she has read so the books will be lighter in her pack. I thought, Oh, no, I could never do that! I love Project Gutenberg: one of the best ideas for e-books anybody ever had.

    Nicola, I know how much you love your Austen and remember when you blogged about those beautiful Everyman editions. We do have a lot of hardcovers, too, and since most of the books I own seem to be my “favorite books” I could take Austen or practically any of them to a desert island.

    Alex, the Kindle (or Kobo, Nook, or whatever) are all good for back problems, eye problems (enlarge the print), and travel. But my old e-reader got seriously rattled in the bike pannier, so I can’t take it along on bike trips.

    Kaggy, yes, all books are great! Hm, our library is mostly hardcovers…

    Ellen, I know what you mean about the first paperbacks. Libraries didn’t stock them when I was growing up, so I was first aware of them at places like Woolworth’s. How interesting that you don’t like book jackets! At one time I heard that hardcovers were MORE valuable without their jackets, but now it’s definitely the other way around.


  7. When I was in high school, my mother used to tease me that whenever I went shopping with for clothes I always returned home with a paperback book and a 45 rpm record. Never any new clothes!

    Nowadays I try to keep to the hardcover editions when buying used books. I have given away hundreds of paperbacks and still have many on my shelves. Sometimes I get lucky and find a hardcover edition to replace a softcover one. That makes me so happy. Sometimes the only edition available is a paperback one.

    I am a big fan of the library and will take whatever edition of a book it happens to have although the mass markets are getting harder to read with my aging eyes.


  8. Belle, yes, the old 45 records! I had forgotten about those. All gone…

    It is a great idea to replace books. Hardcovers do last longer. I prefer paperbacks, so I end up replacing paperbacks with paperbacks. Kind of silly! When I wanted the new Pevear-Lar. translation of Dr. Zhivago a few years ago, I had to give away my perfectly good Everyman hardcover of the old translation so I could have the new one. Now that kind of replacement is silly.

    Yes, libraries are wonderful.


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