From contempt to success, a little history of the paperback –

Like Sartre, who strongly criticized paperbacks before changing his mind when he observed that his works were bought by the thousands in this format, the advent of the paperback made people cringe. Between class contempt and enthusiasm, a look back at a difficult birth.

In France, we gladly date the invention of the pocket book to 1953, thanks to the marketing by Henri Filipacchi of the “Le Livre de poche” collection, but it is a story that actually starts much earlier.

Almanac of 1814, paperback and covered with its blue paper, Carnegie Library (Reims). [Wikimédia]The paperback as we know it today is the descendant of colportage literature, which has existed since 1600. In France, it is the Blue Library, a kind of small brochure printed on poor blue-gray paper used to pack the sugar. Not much is known of its reception, but it is likely that there were public readings at the time, given a literacy rate of between 20 and 30% of the population.

A horoscope ahead of time

We read almanacs, astrological predictions, practical advice of all kinds, but also poetry, novels and miscellaneous facts not so far from our current “true crimes”. The Francophonie is not alone, there is also the “Chapbook” in Great Britain and the “Volksbuch” in Germany.

Popular literature, this circulation of stories printed outside of great literature and the aristocracy, has therefore always existed. It is important to specify this because when the pocket book became widely democratized in the middle of the 20th century, it was accused of distorting literature, as if making it accessible to everyone was a way of depriving it of its prestige.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Michaux, Julien Gracq or Maurice Blanchot are for example very opposed to their publication in pocket. Note that Sartre will change his mind later on realizing that his works can be bought by the hundreds of thousands… out of pocket.

Reissue of the classics

In reality, the real novelty of the paperback is neither the format, nor the moderate price, nor the mass production, but rather the re-edition of works otherwise inaccessible to the general public. The great classical and modern texts of literature, philosophy, human sciences, all knowledge becomes accessible for almost nothing.

We can measure the power of this revolution by the reactions it provokes.

You need an aristocracy of readers: the paperback has made a lot of people read who didn’t need to read.

A medical student on the show “The Future is Yours” in 1964

We read here all the class contempt and elitism that underlies the criticism of paperbacks. But publishers, for their part, realize very quickly that there is a tremendous economic opportunity. In Great Britain, Penguin Books publishes in pocket format from 1936 with success, on the model of Albatross Books, created in 1932 in Hamburg.

The cover of a novel published by Zulma. [Collection Zulma]The cover of a novel published by Zulma. [Collection Zulma]Among the authors, there are still some who rejoice. Jean Giono says that the pocket is “the most powerful instrument of culture in modern civilization” and Marcel Pagnol considers it “as powerful as radio or television.”

The beginnings of the colored dust jacket

As books have to be made attractive and popular, publishers hire illustrators to transform the book into a playful and colorful object. The visual language is that of cinema and show posters. And as class contempt is never far away, many consider this choice to be highly touted and vulgar.

Faced with the attraction of readers for this format and the need to stand out now that dozens of pocket collections exist, we are however seeing a return to beauty. To take just one example, Zulma and its extremely neat abstract graphic covers with its white triangle pointing down for the title and author.

Pascaline Sordet/mh

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