Mass-market paperbacks: a one-week beach-reading marathon.

One week at the beach, 23 pocket paperbacks.

I must’ve been 11 when my brother pressed A Spell for Chameleon on me, telling me, “I think you would really like this.” I had been a precocious reader, racking up pages in my local library’s summer reading challenge by rereading The Chronicles of Prydain and exhausting the school librarian with requests for “something like The Westing Game.” But A Spell for Chameleon was different than what I’d been reading before. This fantasy novel by Piers Anthony looked like a book for grown-ups: It was a mass-market paperback.

Even if you don’t know the terminology, you know what a mass-market paperback is. It’s a pocket book, a pulp novel, a spinner-rack book. It’s the cheapest, smallest paperback format—the book designed for impulse purchase in the airport or drugstore. As a child, I read plenty of larger-format, or trade paperbacks—most of the middle-grade or young-adult novels I bought from Waldenbooks with my allowance money were printed at that size. And everything I took out from the library was a hardcover.

Books in bag.
My mission.

Photo by Alia Smith

But when I saw adults reading books—at Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan, on the No. 15 bus we rode to my dad’s office downtown—they were mass-markets. Dog-eared, spines broken, they fit in a purse or a pocket, and fit into the busy lives and schedules of the grown-ups in my world. (In their portability and impulse-buy cheapness, they were the e-books of their day.) When my brother handed me A Spell for Chameleon, with its 340 pages of teensy print, I realized I was entering a different world of reading. I may have been all of 11, but I wasn’t a kid anymore.

As an adult reader, I’ve always fetishized mass-markets. I treasure crummy 1960s paperbacks the way real book collectors prize their Philip Roth first editions. My wife has learned that while I always love a good used bookstore, I’m a lot more likely to force her to wait around while I peruse the shelves of Goodwills and church bazaars, where piles of mass-markets go for a quarter each, donated by readers to make room for the new Grisham or Oprah’s Book Club selection. (My wife is also very tolerant of the rainbow of mass-markets on our living room shelves, organized by color.)

I’m infatuated by the way that mass-market publication maps the mainstream taste of American readers; after all, no one publishes a book in mass-market unless they think it’s something Joe Schmoe might buy while he’s hustling to catch the 5:48 to Ossining. And so the last 60 years of American reading habits can be seen in the kinds of books that were published in mass-market, bought in mass-market, read by the pool in mass-market, and eventually given away to the thrift shop.

Genre fiction, of course, always appears in mass-market. Sci-fi and fantasy, like A Spell for Chameleon. Mystery, romance, Western, thriller. Pop fiction for all audiences, from chick lit to legal thrillers to horror novels. The mass-market has always implied a certain kind of disposability. Just read the message on the title page of most mass-markets: “If this book is coverless, it may have been reported to the publisher as ‘unsold or destroyed’ and neither the author nor the publisher may have received payment for it.” Why is that message there? Because mass-markets are so cheap that it’s not worth it for a bookstore to pay shipping to return unsold copies to the publisher; they’re so flimsy that it’s not worth a publisher’s while to receive thumbed-through, un-resellable mass-markets in a box. So when a mass-market doesn’t sell, unlike with a hardcover, the store doesn’t return the book for credit with the publisher. It rips off the front cover and sends that in. The rest of the book goes in the dumpster—or, perhaps, is re-sold by unscrupulous bookstore employees. (Hence the warning.)

But mass-market doesn’t just mean pop. (Or trash.) For many readers, the signature mass-market is the mid-century Bantam edition of The Catcher in the Rye, with its yellow type on a maroon background. And while I read Piers Anthony, Stephen King, and Clive Cussler in mass-market, that’s also the format where I first encountered Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Julian Barnes. Indeed, given the number of highbrow mid-century writers whose work I find in mass-market paperback, the format seems to have been the way publishers once introduced literary writers into the broader public consciousness—or maybe it’s just that once upon a time the broader public had a greater interest in what the literary writers were up to.

All 23 mass-market paperbacks, ready to be packed for the beach.

All 23 mass-market paperbacks, ready to be packed for the beach.

Photo by Alia Smith

I’m at the beach for a week with my family—usually the only time all year I get to read for pure pleasure, not for work—and this summer I’ve packed a bag full of nothing but mass-market paperbacks. I’m starting with A Spell for Chameleon and the first literary novel I ever became obsessed with, John Gardner’s Grendel; after that I’ve got 21 beat-up paperbacks I’ve never read before. They range from genre novels (Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues) to memoir (Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time) to literary short stories (Ann Beattie’s Distortions) to the beautiful Bantam paperback of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I pledged I’d purchase and read this summer.

I’m going to read as many of them as I can, spurred by the page-reading competition I’ve launched against my oldest daughter, an homage to those long-ago summer reading programs at the Whitefish Bay public library. And I’ll be blogging all week about the books I read: the stories they tell, the language they use, the readers they once seduced, and the pleasures of stuffing a book in the pocket of your swimsuit and then cracking it open under the hot sun.