While there has been a lot of debate about how e-books will change the world and literature as we know it, I have to admit I’m still stuck in the past about books. And I’m not even talking about paper vs. electronic, I’m talking about current book publications vs. vintage publications.
As someone who frequents used bookstores and antique shops on a nearly weekly basis, I’ve seen my fair share of vintage books. And even here at Susquehanna University, our library is filled with ancient books and publications. And I’ve noticed something. Vintage books are a lot more simple, both in presentation and in the structure of the book itself, while today’s books primarily act as posters for intellectualism.
Today’s books are excessively colorful, made with thicker paper, and are full of extra pages to fluff them up. They are also much larger. This is reflected in the price. It’s appalling when a paperback costs over 15 dollars and it isn’t a graphic novel. It’s a plot to make more money. If the book is more attractive, the public will be more likely to buy it, even if it costs a lot more than it should.
The focus in vintage books seems to be the work itself—just the author, the title, and the story. The books are rather small. The simplicity of the book made it less costly than books today. I currently own a book of criticism about J.D. Salinger from the 196os. It cost 50 cents, which is approximately 4 dollars by today’s value. It is over 300 pages long. I sincerely doubt that a book of such length would cost less than 10 dollars in today’s market.
Now, books convey the illusion of intelligence and satisfy the consumerist desire of owning interesting, eye-catching books, rather than on owning books for the work itself. Books contain so many forewords and afterwords, and introductions and appendices that they add hundreds of pages, raising the cost, rather than letting the work stand on its own. This seems the fault of critical theory and snobby elitism, but I digress. The point is, books have lost touch with what they are.
I recently purchased a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass published in 1970 for a dollar at a local used bookstore. The cover is plain, white, and has green lettering in the top left hand corner that reads “Leaves of Grass: Selections. Whitman.” And then, in tiny print, the editor of the edition. That’s it. The title of the work, the author, and the editor. There is no fluff in the book’s presentation.
A current copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has a close up of grass as the cover, with a large central plate that looks like old paper, with a bright red border. In the middle of this plate is the title and the author’s name in large fancy font. Is this really necessary? We all know what grass looks like, do we need to include it on the cover? Does it add to our enjoyment of Whitman’s words? Not really.
Are we no longer drawn to the works themselves? Only by the images or ideas of them? Yes, it is true that book publishers did not include fancy pictures and type settings on their old books because they didn’t have the technology to do so. However, just because they have the technology doesn’t mean they have to use it. There has to be a marketable reason to use it, otherwise the cost outweighs the profit. As humans, we are drawn to pictures rather than words. In the “old days” the books that primarily had cover art were pulp novels and science fiction, usually showing some damsel in distress getting attacked or stalked by an alien or a man with a gun. These covers were used to draw in the readers and sell these penny-dreadfuls. Now, nearly all covers are marketing ploys, with some author’s face plastered on the cover, reaching out to the easily swayed. For a fantasy fan, a book with a dragon on the cover may be the reason to buy it. This is kind of sickening. Literature has fallen to the same level of marketing as a box of cereal.
Granted, this is a generalization based on personal experiences, but I have actually met people who have purchased a book solely on the cover art. Bookstores are not galleries. We are not buying the art, we are buying the words. Bookstores have become capitalist ventures, even more so than they already have.
We don’t need the extra presentation or the extra cost. Go to a used bookstore or a thrift store and buy the classics for considerably cheaper prices and you won’t lose any of the impact of the works themselves. An older edition might have some fascinating differences from the updated versions. Literature shouldn’t be about money or fancy pictures. Yet it has become so, and now with the advent of e-books, it has also become about convenience and keeping up with technology. But that’s a blog post for another time.