The Pleasures of Paperbacks

As you might be aware, Levi has been running a series, Does Literary Fiction Suffer from Dysfunctional Pricing? I’ve been reading along with and learning from it as it’s been happening, but today I wanted to write something that isn’t about the price of books, but is still related to the topic. I wanted to write about why I think paperbacks are better from a reader’s perspective.

Now, I am a reader. I have been a reader all of my life. Before I could read, I was read to, and when I figured it out for myself I took off into that world of words and never looked back. These days, my reading habits are a little haphazard: I’ll either be reading a couple of books at a time or I’ll read nothing but magazines and blogs for a few months, but either way, I’m always reading something. And I love books. Sure, I love them for the ideas and the stories and the wordplay and the things they give me to think about long after I’ve finished them, but I love them on another level too, one that is purely physical, tactile. I love the way books feel in my hands. The sound of turning pages. The way they smell. The way they look: letting my focus go soft and seeing them as a blur of text on a page, how they become abstract shapes, dots and lines.

So, I love books. But the kind of books I love, overwhelmingly, come in paperback form. Here, have a look at a very small part of my personal (quite disorganized) library:

(An aside: I worked at a public library briefly while I was in college and spent hours shelving books, or — and this was the real torture — standing and reading the Dewey Decimal Numbers on the spines, making sure that all the books were in the exact right order on the shelves, and rearranging them if necessary. Since then, I’ve never put my own books in any kind of order, maybe as some misguided form of rebellion. It’s okay, I can find what I’m looking for. Usually.)

I do own a few hardcover books. Three, to be exact (Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder — a review copy I received in the mail, Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — I shelled out for this one because I really wanted to read it right then, and A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov — It was highly recommended to me and I couldn’t find a paperback copy, but I never finished it because I think I have a mental block when it comes to Russian literature). But other than those, the rest of the books I own are paperbacks. Because I like them better. Here are my top five reasons why:

1. Paperbacks are easier to carry.
On average, paperbacks are lighter than hardcovers. They are easy to shove into my purse and take with me. I have known a few clunky paperbacks in my time (House of Leaves wasn’t really the lightest book to haul around) but in general, they’re pretty portable, and portability is important factor in entertainment — just as I’d rather carry my iPod than a boombox, so do I prefer carrying paperback books.

2. Paperbacks don’t have dust jackets.
Even while I’m reading a book, I like to go back and look at the cover. One might say that I’m an obsessive cover reader. I like to read all the little blurbs and quotes and information about the author. On a paperback, this is typically on the back cover (and perhaps also the last page or so), but with a hardcover, it’s all on the dust jacket. I hate dust jackets. Stupid damn dust jackets. They’re always in the way, sliding off, getting fingerprinty or torn, and it irritates me. Yes, I could remove them, but I already told you I was an obsessive cover reader, so that option doesn’t really work for me. I know that in the grand scheme of things in the world to get irritated about, dust jackets shouldn’t rate that high, but reading is supposed to be a pleasure, and, for me, dust jackets remove a great deal of the simple pleasure of curling up with a book. I hate them. With paperbacks, this isn’t a problem.

3. Paperbacks are easy to curl up with.
Maybe I don’t do all of my reading there, but I’d say that I do at least 95% of my reading in bed. Paperbacks are more curl-up-able. And if I can’t curl up with a book in bed for an hour or so before going to sleep, where the hell am I supposed to read? Sitting up at a table? Bah, I say. Bah!

4. As time marches on, paperbacks end up smelling less weird than hardcovers.
Like I wrote above, I used to work at a library, so I know all about that weird smell that old books get. That moldy dusty book smell that isn’t like any other smell in the world. It’s not necessarily a horrible smell, but it is weird. And yeah, paperbacks get an old book smell too, but it’s somehow not quite as extreme as it is with hardcovers. I don’t get it either, but it’s true.

5. Paperbacks are friendlier.
I know that seems like a stupid statement, but think about it for a minute. Hardcover books are serious. They’re heavy. They’re permanent. They are archive copies forever and ever amen. But paperbacks are casual. You can pick them up, you can toss them in your backpack before you go away for the weekend, you can fold the cover over so that you won’t have to explain the plot of what you’re reading to that nosy-ass lady sitting next to you in the waiting room at the doctor’s office — you don’t feel like talking because you’re not feeling well (that’s why you’re in the doctor’s office, after all) so just leave me alone, lady! Leave me alone! Ahem. Sorry, I think I got a little carried away there. But my point is that there’s something more immediate and accessible about paperbacks. And shouldn’t books be immediate and accessible? Yes. They should. Who could possibly disagree with that? (I don’t know, but I’m sure there’s someone.)

13 Responses

  1. pockets are a key issueWell
    pockets are a key issue

    Well said, Jamelah. I really want to emphasize the importance of your point #1. The fact that I can put a paperback book into my pants pocket makes all the difference in the world. I walk around the city a lot, I take subways and trains and buses, I walk up and down a lot of stairs. The ability to shove a book into my pocket when I feel like it can be the difference between an enjoyable journey and an annoying one.

    It’s also amazing how easily even a thick standard-size trade paperback can fit into a pocket. Can’t be done with a hardcover no matter how thin the book is.

  2. PaperbacksAll good points,

    All good points, but can the way a wall full of hard cover books fill the library of a frescoed Italian villa be anything other than absolutely beautiful? Not that I ever get invited to one for the weekend but if I did I would savour the view like a sponge soaks up water. There was one library like that in the film Mondo Vino I think it was. It was nice.

  3. That’s a nice image. May I
    That’s a nice image.

    May I add a glass (or bottle) of 2005 Cecchi Chianti to round it out?

  4. That’s because hardcovers are
    That’s because hardcovers are unyielding whereas paperbacks are flexible and friendly and therefore the best.

  5. Apples and ApplesNot apples
    Apples and Apples

    Not apples and oranges, but apples and apples. It’s like comparing hot cocoa or a glass of cold chocolate milk.

    Yes, books should be “immediate and accessible.” Timeliness is an issue for me. If you wanted to read the new Junot Diaz, what would you do? Track down a paperback galley? Or just wait? Hardcovers last longer. Important books should be owned in cloth editions. So I’ve got classics like Moby Dick in trade cloth editions as well as trade paper. (90% of the books in your photo I own in both cloth and paper.)

    One would be mad to argue against your points regarding paperbacks. Their size, weight, appearance and “friendliness” are part and parcel of their very creation and existence. As much as I’m loving the new Diaz, it is extra weight in my bag. But it weighs less than Rimbaid Complete, which is a paperback. Of course, one of the reasons I still haven’t read Against the Day is that it’s so damn heavy I can’t take it anywhere.

    I cringe when I see people folding the cover of even a cheap mass-market paperback. That’s just plain “book abuse” to me. It curls the cover, weakens its join to the spine, stretches the glue of the spine and weakens the join to the pages, and increases the likelihood of permanent damage. I’d never loan a book, paper or cloth, to a person who folds the cover.

    You gotta watch that book-sniffing thing though, Jamelah. That could become a nasty habit. Snorting books will kill you. 😉

    This is your brain: .

    This is your brain on books: *

  6. Bad design cuts across
    Bad design cuts across formats

    I don’t find non-fantasy-novel size hardcovers that much harder to read than a penguin paperback. If the story is good its curlupable. Infact I find them easier to handle than those pretentious almost A4 sized popular harpercollinses. Or those weird squat box-shaped paperback omnibuses. I agree with the dustjacket irritation – the only good solution is to go to the book shop and they put plastic (non sticky) over it. By the way I’d peel off those “used” stickers Jam, with industrial strength used glue sticker remover. I can’t bear a girl with “used” stickers on her favorite paperbacks. But yes I’ll choose a good quality paperback over the hardback most of the time. Although I find the fascist book design of penguin classics rather depressing. Those Kundera books look lovely.

  7. reasons1. Paperbacks are

    1. Paperbacks are easier to carry.
    (Still backpacking my ass toward Nirvana.)
    3. Paperbacks are easy to curl up with.
    (The main place I tend to read..
    Umm still waiting on my Goddess.)

    These two are (defiantly) reasons why I like soft cover better.. the only thing hardcover really has (4me) to offer is a different texture to draw on.

  8. ::::SEVAEL:::FO:::ESUOH::::Ni

    Nice picture.

    Hey, you’re not kiddin’ about House of Leaves. I like this quote from page 425: “It’s as if I’m moving along a surface that always tilts downward no matter which direction I face.”

    Nevertheless, I was enjoying House of Leaves until I ran into a sheet of drywall somewhere in the den. Had to carve my way out with an exact-o knife. Probably wouldn’t have made it through a hard cover.

  9. Back in the day (I can’t
    Back in the day (I can’t possibly be dating myself, you already know I’m older than dirt), when I was just a kid, paperbacks were called “pocket books”. They were much smaller then, printed on paper that quickly turned brown and the type was so small you had to have perfect vision or a magnifying glass to read them.

    I’m glad they have expanded the publishing of pocket books/paperbacks. I tend to shop by book cover, and I personally hate hard cover books. I don’t think I’ll get over it. Even at the library, I’ll ignore hard cover books and peruse the titles of paperbacks only. You probably figure I’m missing out on a lot. Whatever! at my age I can afford to indulge my idiosyncrasies.

  10. In agreementI agree with all
    In agreement

    I agree with all of your reasons why paperbacks are preferable. For me, the fiscal economy is the most important thing. Why spend $25 on a new hardcover when you can spend the same amount at a used book sale and come away with 50 or so used paperbacks- basically a year’s reading…? Also I love to mark in my books- highlighting passages and interesting words- this seems more paperback friendly.

  11. Devils advocateThere is no
    Devils advocate

    There is no way that everyone on this site thinks paperbacks are definitively better than hardbacks. To me, it depends on the book. As paperbacks’ better attributes have been overly lauded here, I feel hardbacks need some defending. A huge part of me opines for the good old days where books were treated with the reverence they deserve. As I understand it, people used to read books standing up in front of a lectern, by candlelight or near the window. I don’t think Tolstoy ever intended for you to take his life’s work via pocket onto the subway and read it while being nudged by the people on either side of you (though I am certainly as guilty as anyone else). Certain books are great for shoving into your pocket and hopping a train, certain books don’t deserve that sort of punishment.

    Yeah the prices are horrendous, but can you put a price on giant margins? And as much as I like a big mismatched library, paperbacks lack the substance and old world authority of hardbacks. The OCD in me loves the sight of a bunch of hardbacks lined up. And I consider the smell of a room full of hardbacks to be a plus. It adds personality just as the texture adds flavor. My favorite book I’ve ever owned is a Paul Bowles novel that smelled of Morrocco. I keep it away from my other books just to keep the scent intact.

    There are some books that deserve to be revered, that deserve to be read in silence, that need giant margins, and that demand concentration. For those books, you have hardbacks. I am not suggesting you buy a mahogany lectern and candelabra, not yet at least, but that there is a place for hardbacks in our world. Plus, a nice cloth covered book makes a much better pillow on park benches than a slippery paperback.

    And I will never get over seeing people fold back the covers of paperbacks, it kills me every time.

    I enjoy and respect a good paperback, in fact, I have boxes and shelves filled with them. I travel constantly, so they come in handy. But I love a good hardbound book.

  12. DeteriorationPaperbacks wilt,

    Paperbacks wilt, crumble, and spoil over time. They rip, stain and become unreadable. The glue deteriorates and you lose pages. The ink fades until you lose whole paragraphs.

    Which is fine. For, you know, crap books.

  13. I have some old paperback
    I have some old paperback books that smell like Morocco. The covers have little pin-holes in them.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!