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In Praise of Mass Market Paperbacks

In Books on April 30, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Like I said in my last post, I recently read Anathem. I enjoyed it, but one of the things I liked most about it was that even though it was a nearly a thousand pages, it was fairly easy to carry around. The edition that I had was a mass market paperback with rather small type. It fit easily into my bag, was lightweight, and generally not troublesome to read whilst in a coffee shop or bar. I appreciated it not only as a fun book about alien science-monks, but also as a convenient object.

Which brings me to Infinite Jest.

So far, I’m very much enjoying David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus. I’ve read several of his essays, and (like Neal Stephenson) have a gigantic man-crush on the dude. (I hope that his being dead does not make that creepy.) Anyway, the book so far is absolutely a joy to read, but I continually wish that it was smaller.

Not shorter. Smaller.

The edition of Infinite Jest that I have is an enormous bricklike doorstop of literature, a weighty tome in every sense of the word. I can feel my satchel eating into my shoulder because of its weight, and when I’m reading it in a coffee shop it takes up a prodigious amount of table space. As a book, it’s wonderful, but as an information-delivery device, it is somewhat lacking.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Infinite Jest is about the same length as Anathem, and could just as easily have been published as a mass market paperback. However, the publisher has deemed it fit that DFW’s book be an inconvenience to the reader, a ponderous and massive object. This is unfortunate, really. I would enjoy the book far more if it were not so physically troublesome, if I could actually put it in my satchel and have room for other things as well.

So, why isn’t it a mass market paperback?

Trade paperbacks are an attractive intermediary between mass markets and hardcovers. They are cheaper than hardcovers, but maintain a bit of the same gravitas that traditional unpaperback books tend to have. Mass market paperbacks are usually associated with disposable bits of entertainment- genre fiction. When one thinks of mass market paperbacks, one usually imagines lurid mystery novels with the author’s name stamped in gaudy raised type, or romance novels that are only a few steps removed from outright pornography. One thinks of SF novels based on licensed IPs such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and masturbatory jingoistic military fiction by the likes of Tom Clancy and his ilk. Horror novels and westerns are brought to mind, all genres that are (unfortunately) regarded as unliterary, unthoughtful, unworthy.

To publish a trade paperback is to announce that a book is not pulp. It is not a disposable entertainment or an unliterary bit of genre flotsam. To publish a trade paperback is to announce a book as somehow worthy. It is obvious that DFW’s publishers wished him to stand apart from novels that feature vampires and spies, and that his august work was quite literally heftier than that of the average author.

Which is a shame, really, since his book is such a pain in the ass to lug around. Mass market paperbacks are wonderful at what they do, and do not deserve their stigma. As a format, I pity them, and wish they were more highly regarded.

Of course, this whole point will become moot in a few years, when everything’s on e-readers anyway…

  1. I figured it out based on context, but don't forget – not all of us have worked in a bookstore. I had no idea there was a difference between mass market and trade paperbacks…

  2. Yeah, trade paperbacks make Seph a sad panda.

  3. I am having a similar issue with Hitchhiker's Guide & Co. Luke owns this monstrosity of a book that has all five that I'm reading. It's hard back and huge. I need an entire bag just to carry the book. I'm looking forward to reading a trashy paper back after this!

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