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Twentieth Century Paperbacks Collection

Twentieth Century Paperbacks Collection

Collection Number: 
Collection Length: 
1929 to 1978
Finding Aid: 
A collage of eight books from the collection


Writing in Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks, Geoffrey O’Brien summarizes the rise of the modern American paperback book:

Cheap reprints and books bound in paper arose and flourished sporadically in America from the nineteenth century onwards.  Although most of these were purely commercial efforts, a significant percentage were associated with a zeal for bringing culture to the masses.  Nevertheless, and despite the obvious practicality of cheap mass printing, no one had been able to give that kind of publishing any permanence until June 19th, 1939, when the first ten releases of Pocket Books saw the light of day.  Robert DeGraff, the company’s founder, may have been influenced by the success of Penguin Books, which had begun publishing several years earlier in England (33).

Commenting on the cover art, Mr. O’Brien wrote:

What surprises in the end is how much of paperback art of the Forties and Fifties conveys a sense of reality and a warmth of emotion.  Even the fantasies have a homespun texture, and the most unreal of them are brought down to earth, if only by the crudeness of their execution.  Today’s spell-casters have more elaborate tools at their disposal for imparting a magical aura to the every more efficient packaging.  The success story of the media has culminated in a kind of computerized aesthetics not programmed for loose ends, in which considerations like corporate image and demographics are part of every image.  When the bright lights and synthesized soundtracks of today’s conglomerate marketing merge into a single vast blur, it is comforting to rest a while in the clear lines of the ramshackle porch on the cover of Erskine Caldwell’s Journeyman, or to sit with Studs Lonigan in the park on a warm summer night.  In retrospect, it is hard to believe such simplicity once sold books (65).

Scope and Content

This collection consists of 220 paperbacks, published between 1929 and 1978.  They represent 19 publishing houses, most notably Pocket Books.  The cover art represents the work of a score of anonymous illustrators.  The heft, feel, smell, and aura of the books embodies the iconic place these everyday objects have in libraries and people’s lives.