Charles Brasch and the Paperback Revolution

The invention of the printing press gave thousands of people access to information that was either previously too expensive or inaccessible. The invention of the paperback, however, gave millions of people access to both inexpensive and portable information, enabling an unprecedented global democratisation of knowledge.

In his lifetime, Charles Brasch accumulated over seven thousand books, many of which were paperbacks. During the time he was collecting––from before the Second World War, right up to his death in 1973––Brasch witnessed many trends in literary publishing, and his collection generally reflects those trends. In today’s blog, I focus on the era of paperback publishing, comparing what we know historically with what we see in Brasch’s library.

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Brasch’s collection of the “Penguin Modern Poets” series.

According to Melinda Gormley, “The year 1939 marked the beginning of a new era for the American publishing industry that by the mid-1950s was being referred to as “the paperback revolution”” (2016, 26). This publishing revolution could not have happened without certain technological developments that enabled cheap printing and ‘perfect binding’. In order to understand the significance of the paperback, we have to take some time to examine its history.

The History of the Paperback (1400-1870)

Before the invention of the printing press, only the educated Latin-speaking elite in Europe had access to the written word. Driven by capital, publishers began printing books in vernacular languages––allowing knowledge to move beyond the Latin-–speaking classes. As Benedict Anderson notes, in Imagined Communities, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500 . . .  If manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (1991, 52–3). Publishers and booksellers chose to expand sales to the broadest possible markets, allowing knowledge to flow freely across geographical and class borders. 

From 1840, printers moved to completely mechanise book binding, sending prices down even further and sparking increased competition between publishers. George Routledge released The Railroad Library in the late 1840s to compete with Simms and McIntyre’s Parlour Library. Both sold popular reprints for cheap prices. According to Frank L. Schick “both series sold at one shilling a copy and were displayed in railroad bookstores. . . . The profusion of titles and large editions forced a reduction in price of regular trade publications, particularly of popular novels” (1958, 11). This set the stage for the first paperback, the yellow-back.

The railway store yellow-back popular between 1955

The railway store yellow-back popular between 1855–70. They were sold for just one shilling

Simms and McIntyre’s Parlour Library was among the first to release yellow-back novels. They were “bound in strawboard covered with glazed paper, usually but not always of yellow color” (ibid), and were most popular between 1855–70. According to Schick, the yellow-back was so popular that “Routledge published The Life and Enterprises of R.W. Elliston in 1857 bound in yellow cloth, imitating the yellow-back look to the last detail, but priced several times as high” (ibid.). They were partly so popular because they allowed the public to access high-quality literature at very affordable prices. With its striking front cover, the yellow-back was designed to catch the attention of the traveller passing through the train station – it was designed to sell. 

The Penguin Paperback (1935) 

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Charles Brasch’s collection of books by Evelyn Waugh is almost entirely made up of Penguin paperbacks.

Sir Allen Lane set up Penguin Books London in 1935. Offering reprints and originals, Lane sold a selection of ten titles to Woolworths to expand the market outside traditional bookstores. His idea was:

First to select books that were both first-rate entertainment and also really good quality, to build up a really representative list of good modern literature; secondly to keep the standard consistently high, so that the Penguin should, in time, stand as a hall-mark of excellence. (Lane in Lynton Lamb 1952, 40)

Penguin was able to produce high quality paperbacks at affordable prices only because of certain technological innovations. Gormley notes,  “both ‘perfect binding’ machines and the development of synthetic glues made it possible to bind a greater number of books in less time. . . . Book covers were improved in the late 1940s when Pocket Books replaced lamination coatings that tended to peel off” (26). Gormley also points to the “voracious reader base” and the demand from The Council of Books, during the Second World War, for “portable, cheap, and disposable books” sent to the front (ibid.).

The Start of a Paperback Revolution?

Penguin may have started the first waves of the paperback revolution, but the process had been in motion for hundreds of years. Technological developments broke down barriers of literacy, giving larger and larger audiences access to scholarly and literary knowledge. In America paperbacks were:

Available in nearly 100,000 outlets . . . found in drugstores, variety stores, stationery stores, cigar stores, confectionery stores, supermarkets, railway stations, airports, bus terminals, hotel stands, and army and navy installations, as well as in bookstores, department stores and public libraries. (Kurt Enoch in Gormley, 26)

Educators began using paperbacks for required readings, using the same books sold at the local supermarket (27).  The paperback was championed, especially by Kurt Enoch, as “a beacon of democracy” (29). Had the Penguin, with its shrewd business strategies and focus on literary merit, finally broken down the wall between high and low culture?

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Paperbacks of French Verse from the Brasch Collection

The paperback was certainly a key factor in the democratisation of knowledge within modernism; however, it did not break down the barrier between high and low culture, as Enoch supposed. According to Ben Mercer “the most sophisticated attack on the paperback charged that it produced and packaged the illusory promise of open access to high culture” (emphasis mine; 2011, 624).

The French philosopher behind the attack, Hubert Damisch, claimed paperbacks “procure and guarantee” access to aristocratic culture, but limit the reader’s involvement to a mere transaction. Damisch argued, “the transaction was doubly treacherous, not simply for reducing access to high culture to the act of purchase, but providing it only in abridged and edited texts” (idid.). The paperback revolution may have put more books in people’s hands than ever before, but its egalitarian promise was more a construction than a reality.

Alan Roddick, Brasch’s literary executor, recently mentioned to me that Brasch “valued the quality of good book production” and “wouldn’t have lacked money to buy more expensive books.” Brasch certainly could have avoided paperbacks if he wanted to; nonetheless, their high concentration throughout his collection point to a time when the paperback was king, even if just for a moment.


Appendix:

Paperbacks of Note from Brasch’s Library

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The Mersey Sound (1967) is book ten of Penguin’s Modern Poets series. It went on to sell over 500,000 copies and “become the bestselling poetry anthology of all time” (Penguin 2007). John Brannigan attributes the success of The Mersey Sound  to the “vogue created by the Beatles (and others) for the Liverpool scene. [And the idea of] creating poetry for a wide audience, who cherish the same values of accessibility, relevance, and lack of pretension” (2001, 692).

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Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us is one example of the many books of popular science released in paperback form. The paperback gave scientists the opportunity to popularise science that was ordinarily too dense for the average reader. Gormley’s essay “Pulp Science: Education and Communication in the Paperback Revolution” (2016) provides some excellent reading on this topic. Brach has many popular science books in his collection.

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We do not know exactly how Brasch ordered his books, but A Book of African Verse may give us some insight. As part of The African Writers Series, A Book of African Verse was probably sold as part of subscription service. Even if Brasch did not subscribe directly to the series, his local book store may have been subscribed to a list of broad-interest topics. This is just speculation, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

Here are some other photos from the Brasch Collection:

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References

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Brannigan, John. 2001. “XIV Modern Literature: Post–1950 Poetry.” Years Work Eng Studies 80(1): 605–702. Accessed online June 24, 2016: [doi: 10.1093/ywes/mae014]. 

Gormley, Melinda. 2016. “Pulp Science: Education and Communication in the Paperback Book Revolution.” Endeavour 40(1): 24–37. Accessed online June 24, 2016: [doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2016.01.002].

Lamb, Lyndon. 1952. “Penguin Books—Stlye and Mass production.” The Penrose Annual XLVI: 40. London: Lund-Humphries & Co. Ltd.

Mercer, Ben. 2011. “The Paperback Revolution: Mass-circulation Books and the Cultural Origins of 1968 in Western Europe.” Journal of the History of Ideas 72(4): 613–36. Accessed online June 20, 2016: [http://www.jstor.org/stable/41337156].

Penguin. 2007. The Mersey Sound. Penguin.co.uk. Last modified June 7, 2007. Accessed online June 23, 2016: [https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/41393/the-mersey-sound/].

Schick, Frank L. 1958. The Paperbound Book in America: the History of Paperbacks and Their European Background. New York: R. R. Bowker Company.

 

 

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