Browsing through a bookstore, taking a train or catching a flight; in any and all of these situations we are constantly confronted with the paperback implicitly questioning of the fate of the hardback. It might be that considering such as thing as a fate in this case is slightly melodramatic, but seeing the pricing of hardbacks as compared to paperbacks and even the comparative degeneration of modern hardbacks in comparison with their properly bound predecessors I can’t help but wonder if the hardback is meeting its maker any given Sunday.
The real question when discussing such a mundane thing as the format of books seems to be how we ought to look at the book in itself. Is it merely merchandise or should it as an art form be appreciated for its sheer esthetical value? It is important to put the book and the consumption of it in a modern context. Noting on a slightly more informal note that the volume of novels seem to correspond roughly to the volume of women’s skirts (a truly interesting question of causation) it is possible to ask oneself is it is the novel itself which is the subject of attack? Although the role of the novel undoubtedly has changed since its popularization during the 18th century, and this change most definitely is intertwined with the way through which we view books at a more material level, it would be flawed to jump to the conclusion that the novel is no more. Instead, it seems more appropriate to look at it through the viewpoint of David Shields, who noted that “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were”. This is the natural consequence of a move from a world of words to one of information, but is there a concrete difference?
What is so special about the book is that it is a medium which has undergone remarkably little change. The means which we utilize to make them have improved but the end product remains the same and even as the content changes the cover remains uniform. It has survived the introduction of paper, the invention of the printing press, the reformation, the development of the English novel in the 18th c and two world wars. Before the introduction of Penguin books, the brainchild of Allen Lane, the hardback was the primary option, with paperbacks being released only after the original edition had been published and circulated. This has changed since 1935, and the accessibility of literature as well as the change of the look of the paperback and opportunities have transformed with it. Telling of this recent and rapid change is the American publisher John Wiley’s comment in 2007; “the American publisher John Wiley said they had tried more business models over the last 10 years than in their previous 200 years of publishing”.
In the end it is probably a question of something as basic as human needs. For we need “the unnecessary”, and we indulge ourselves in things that have no value other than the sheer joy which they confer through associations and aesthetics. Just as children make toys out of clay and rubbish adults crave love and beauty, even if both phenomena may take slightly different forms in the eyes and lives of different people. In the end it therefore becomes a highly personal question of preferences and priorities. To the people who see the book merely as merchandise forming a part of the modern day wear-and-tear mentality, the hardback will never be an appealing option. It is expensive, heavy and unnecessary. To the person who finds beauty in the execution of a book as well as in the idea of preserving it for himself or even for a future audience, the hardback will provide an option for self-expression and care. As the industry grows more and more competitive there might be less room for the latter, but as technology advances it might also be cheaper.