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For the holidays: These titles travel in packs
A few months ago, a reader sent me an edition of Anthony Trollope's "The Claverings" printed in the United States in 1866. It weighs a pound and has about 210,000 words and 210 glossy pages, with an eight-point typeface. Even though I always choose Trollope for enjoyment over any other author, I couldn't read it. Maybe I needed to have spent years scouring the Bible to be able to track small print in two columns, or, for that matter, to keep a heavy book from falling into the bathtub. But I have been spoiled by the paperback, one of the great unheralded inventions of the 20th century.
The paperback in its modern form was first issued under the Penguin imprint in 1935 by English publisher Allen Lane. If, in our day, publishing is about to go under, as many pundits say, then it will go under with a flourish, because if the 1935 paperback was convenient and cheap, the 2009 version is beautiful to look at, enjoyable to collect and alluring to read.
It is, in fact, the paperback that has made our era a reader's paradise. From Oxford World Classics, I can get "The Female Quixote." From the University Press of the Pacific, I can get Ivan Goncharov's "The Same Old Story." Madame de Lafayette's "The Princess of Cleves" is available from at least five publishers, while New York Review Books Classics offers any number of enticing reprints. Just this fall, in fact, the press has put out its "10th Anniversary Complete Collection," which, for a retail price of $3,943.40, includes 250 titles such as "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" by Iona Opie and "The Unknown Masterpiece" by Honoré de Balzac. At a book a week, I will never read them all, but I want them.
And here come more, from that old standby Penguin, although, as if to confound expectations, the paperback publisher has issued a collection of eight classics in hardcover, including "Sense and Sensibility" (410 pp., $20), "Wuthering Heights" (354 pp., $20) and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (254 pp., $20). They are beautiful, they are tactile, covered in cloth with embossed designs. When I invite my friends over, they look at the covers, flip them over, feel the deckle-edged pages, open them to see the typeface. One friend, busy and involved with the newest of new media, at once imagines herself reclining on a brown leather couch and reading "Jane Eyre" (578 pp., $20) at her leisure -- 26 ounces, black covers embossed with shiny red leaves, a red ribbon bookmark twinkling from the bottom edge. Another friend picks up Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 novel "Cranford" (258 pp., $20) -- a green volume stamped with images of pea pods. Like every series title, it has been designed by noted book designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Each has its own motif: "Great Expectations" (514 pp., $20), for instance, features a pattern of chandeliers.
But for some of my guests, this series is busy, cumbersome. Their hands -- and it is always their hands -- go to HarperPerennial's brilliantly colored Olive Editions, which include "The Crying of Lot 49" (178 pp., $10), "The Bell Jar" (284 pp., $10) and "Everything Is Illuminated" (382 pp., $10). The thickest, an orange edition of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" (520 pp., $10), weighs about 12 ounces. The covers feature small print and an evocative image: a single railroad track for "Everything Is Illuminated," a man's tie and balloon for Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (342 pp., $10).
And then there's Penguin's Great Ideas series -- a set of you-should-read-this-but-you-won't-unless-they-make-you books, such as Soren Kierkegaard's "The Sickness Unto Death" (176 pp., $10), Adam Smith's "The Invisible Hand" (144 pp., $10) and William Morris' "Useful Works v. Useless Toil" (112 pp., $10). Ten of these together weigh less than 2 pounds: You can carry Edmund Burke's "The Evils of Revolution" (96 pp., $10) with you for the rest of your life and suffer less than if you buy that issue of Vanity Fair. The matte covers are sophisticated, cool and complex, the sort you don't mind being seen with even if you're in high school. Nevertheless, none of my friends hugged one (or took one home).
Oh, books! May they circulate as ubiquitously as quarters or flu viruses, passed from hand to hand, friend to friend, alluring, surprising, occasionally dangerous. If need be, for the sake of forests, may they be shredded and reborn, only to be dropped in the bathtub, fished out, dried, read again, disdained, overlooked, remembered, loved.
Smiley's most recent book is "The Georges and the Jewels," a novel for young readers.