Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On Reading Out of Time

So, I was sitting in Tim Horton's this morning reading a paperback copy of Mordecai Richler's Cocksure.

It was a new Tim Horton's for me, in a different part of the city, because I had taken the kid for a long walk to let his mother sleep. I like Tim Horton's, whatever one might say about the coffee. And--if you're a self-involved, slightly full-of-himself new dad on the a.m. stroller circuit who expects the entire world to fall on its knees to pay homage to the kid as you pass because, obviously, it's never seen a grown man with a baby before--Tim Horton's is a fun place to go. The counter staff always seem genuinely interested in checking the kid for cuteness, unlike Starbucks, where 90% of the employees look grim, or too cool for this shiz, and won't even smile at you, much less at your carriage.

So, yes, I'm sitting in Tim Horton's, reading Cocksure, enjoying hot black coffee in a paper cup, with the kid (my kid!) beside me, aware that I will probably only make it through about two of Richler's very short chapters before his nibs tires of the beautiful expensive baby toy that was a gift from his grandparents and needs me to furnish him a rice cookie or a bottle or a funny face, any of which--all of which--I would and do, willingly, immediately, gratefully. And that's how many chapters I get though, too. Exactly two--the first two--on this beautiful perfect sundazzled morning.

And, while I'm putting my book away, in the diaper bag, and pulling out a package of Baby Mum-Mums that I opened yesterday, in a different coffee shop, somewhere else in the city, because it still has half a cookie in it, and handing it to this little boy who is sitting in the stroller beside me, his arms taut and quivering with excitement about the rice cookie that I'm placing in his hands, I think: this is the most fun I've had reading a book in quite a long while.

It isn't that Cocksure is such a great novel. It's entertaining. It does the Richler thing, but with a little extra weirdness, which I appreciate. The reason I enjoyed those two chapters so thoroughly had more to do with the snug fit between that particular book and the little fatherly reverie I had going in Tim Horton's there. It mattered, it occurred to me, that I was reading an old paperback copy of the novel. This one:

The third printing of the Bantam Edition (1969, twice; 1976) of a novel originally published in 1968. Just look at that cover. And those puffs! This isn't a book, it's a time machine. I loved it before I even cracked the spine. The page edges are yellow of course. You know how they smell. And the size. It's literally a "pocket" book--which is the size that all fiction should be. Little wonder that, reading a book published shortly before I was born, in an edition published shortly after I was born, in a coffee shop with an attitude that feels like 1972, sitting now with my son, soaking it all in, I would find so much pleasure in the old, dirty pocketbook. This is what it feels like to dwell, for a little while, out of time.

And on my way home, after the kid had been fed, and cuddled, and cooed over (this last, by the ladies behind the counter), I got to thinking. When, exactly, did the old pocketbook die?

Whoever masterminded the publishing industry's shift from pocketbooks to trade paperbacks has a lot to answer for. Why on earth would I want to read an ugly oversized copy of a novel and pay twice the price for my trouble? McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library--which for years has been one of the holdouts, publishing attractive, cheap, pocketbook-sized editions of classic Canadian works--has just this year begun to shift into publishing trade-sized books and charging double what they used to.

Yes, yes, I know why it happened--or some version of the story, anyway. No one was buying books, the internets attacked, or videogames did, or tv, or something, and how could the industry save itself except by charging us double and turning every paperback on the shelves into a dreary-looking Oprah's Book Club clone with a photo cover of daisies, or food, or a soft focus picture of a human figure running through a field?

Sometimes, when I'm desperate, or forget how it is, I walk into Coles and just stare at the wall of fiction, searching vainly for something that I won't feel embarassed to pick up, something that doesn't look like it's been processed by Martha Stewart's marketing hacks. And, yes, I realize that there is a terribly gendered dichotomy emerging in my little rant, here, which makes it doubly atrocious that Cocksure is my example of the lost greatness of the pocket paperback.

But it's too late to go back and start over now. Sometimes, the chips just have to fall where they fall, and if that means running a "shocking, disgusting, scatological, dirty, clever, near-pornographic, funny, embarrassing, nauseating, bewildering, cynical, uninhibited, unruly, unabashed, and very interesting" bit of macho late-sixties provocation up the flagpole to flip the bird to the crummy state of today's precious trade-dress for popular fiction, well, sometimes that's just what it means, true believers.


Richard said...

You're so right. Just seeing the typography and design of that cover takes me right back to those days.

Anonymous said...

Jim, if you were wondering if you were still capable of writing those long, lugubrious dissertations on form and meaning that you were wont to before the little junior genius arrived...

A thing that I -- confession! -- was wondering too...

Well, damn it, wonder no more! Only, you've conquered concision now, as well.

I'll have more to say about this shortly (am way out in the woods just now). In the meantime, and in a weird way off-topic, may I draw your attention to two books published in the last three years or so by Penguin? One, a biography of the man who was in charge of the Penguin cover-design strategy...and a very beautiful cover that one's got, too...and the other, about young Mr. Penguin himself, and the huge economic chance he took on the idea of "paperbacks", with his family's money.

And, oh yes, I still wonder what Mordecai's review of recent Christopher Hitchens books would have been like, and indeed Martin Amis' "Koba The Dread". I miss the guy, truly. A skilled writer and forceful thinker. I almost can't bear to admit it, but ol' Creepy Conrad did me a big favour with that National Post, by getting our man in Montreal to write a column for it...

It had Carol Lay strips in it too, for a while, sigh...

Anyway...some more of these, thankyou. Not that I'm saying anything against the pop-tart insanity of your recent posts...I think you know, Jim, that I need you to continue in this vein. But it's nice to see the old Jim hasn't lost his touch, either.

Okay, enough backchat from me. Next trick, please!

Anonymous said...

I empathize with your desire to be noticed for your beautiful child.

We were just discussing this yesterday--when we take the kid out, it sometimes really bothers us that no one pays attention to her! Not saying that's something I'm PROUD of, mind you...but she's almost two and so she's proudly declaring "Hi!" to whoever passes by.

And there's people who just won't say "Hi" back. And man, that's troubling. You can't say hello to a baby? What's your major malfunction?!

Re: tiny paperbacks--I've been searching high and low for a print-on-demand outfit that will do books this size and this type for not too much money. I would LOVE to put out something in that format, just for shits and giggles, and for only friends & family to probably buy. I love that format.

Great post.

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks, gents!

Plok: I had plenty of doubts, believe me! And as usual you are too kind, but I'll take it! The books you mention have me totally excited; they sound amazing. I assume that the bio of Mr. Penguin is Jeremy Lewis's The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Is the other one (about the Penguin cover design strategy) Phil Baines's Penguin By Design? I checked these out on Amazon and I'm pretty much ready to break my newly instituted rule about not buying books that I don't have time to read...

Hey, Matt: kids and grownups, huh? I have to admit that I always used to be terrified of little children, and could be sent into a minor neurosic fit by a friendly two-year-old. Ack, she's smiling at me--oh God--WHAT DO I DO??? That is, until me and the Mrs. had a baby, and, suddenly, I'm Mr. Mom or something, cooing and smiling at all the babies on the block. But that's just me.

About the paperback publish-on-demand thing--if you find one, let me know! I've long toyed with the idea of putting together a carefully-edited text-only version of some of my favorite double articulation pieces (for the internet-fearing fam, mainly, since everyone else can read them for free!). That'd be neato.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jim, those are the books in question.

Kindly read them immediately, and then write a post on them.

Sorry, rather brisk; am running from place to place right now.

And would it be too much to ask for a review of a Daniel Pinkwater book? Maybe the Snarkout Boys?

Hint hint!

Josh said...

What killed the mass-market ppb? The Mid-List Collapse of the late 1980s. A bunch of factors were involved in causing that, including rising costs of paper, bookstore consolidation, and the US Supreme Court's decision in Thor Power Tool (no connection to the superhero). Never heard the "No one was buying books" explanation.

I love 'em too: thanks for the très symp account!