Normally, I don’t buy paperbacks because I find hardbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks easier to read. Not long ago I saw an auction on eBay for a box old science fiction paperbacks, all anthologies. I love SF anthologies, and I love the covers of paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. Failing to resist the temptation, I made a small bid and eventually won. When they arrived, I was happy at first with my purchase. These old books were a delight to hold and admire for their covers, but trying to read one was altogether something else.
Most of the thirty books looked unread. I assumed this because their outer spines were still firm and unwrinkled. They seemed in great shape for being 50-60 years old, and reading them would probably cause them to fall apart. The few that had been read, had places where you could see the inside of the spine, and I knew if I handled them too much more the pages would start falling out.
Paperbacks don’t have wide margins near the spine, so the spines need to bent to read. Hardbacks have wider inner margins plus they open flatter for easier reading because they have many signatures sewn and glued together. Paperbacks are a stack of trimmed paper glued to a cover to make the spine, something not meant to last.
I wondered if this was an intentional design flaw of paperbacks so they wouldn’t hold up to multiple readings and sharing. Or maybe publishers just wanted to save paper and related costs and assumed paperbacks were disposable like magazines and newspapers. They probably never imagined a person like me in the 21st-century caring about them.
All that is beside the point now that I have a bunch of paperbacks that I want to protect, which means not reading them. To complicate thing further, I really don’t want to be a collector. I love their covers and I want to read their stories, but I don’t want to be a curator of their care.
I’ve been scanning the covers at 600dpi. I like seeing them on my computer’s desktop background — which cycles every ten minutes. I could just read these old paperbacks and not worry about what happens to their condition. But haven’t they become artifacts of the past worth preserving? Shouldn’t I be putting them into plastic sleeves and protecting them from the environment? I’m sure avid collectors would freak out by the way I just shelve them with my books.
I could convert these paperbacks to digital editions via scanning, but that would be against the law. Making them into ebooks certainly would make them easier to read for other people, but would destroy them for collecting. But that would preserve them for the future if I could find libraries that would take the scans. But what if these paperbacks are valuable, if not just in dollars, but to a lover of old paperbacks? I’ve already acquired a number of Groff Conklin anthologies, the start of a collector’s set maybe.
All possessions present a burden. Think of all the crap humanity has thrown away that historians, museum curators, and rare object collectors would dream of acquiring. There is a history behind these SF paperbacks I bought, maybe not a worldly significant history, but a piece of everyday history from the 20th century that might amuse someone in the 26th-century for a reason we can’t fathom now.
Even if I carefully preserve these artifacts of our genre’s past, my wife will probably call Goodwill to have them hauled off when I die. It would be nicer if the copyright laws allowed for scanning them for a library. I could also donate the physical copies to a library, but most libraries don’t save unpopular books anymore. And physical books in special collections might be protected for a while. But it’s rather inconvenient for users to have to travel to remote libraries to read a few pages of an out-of-print volume.
I have scanned items for the Internet Archive, but it’s recently been under attack by publishers. That makes me wary of scanning more stuff. It’s a lot of work to scan a book or magazine and to make it look nice.
Finally, I have to admit that when my generation dies 99.99% of the interest in these old books will die with it. Still, I feel a responsibility to protect my tiny piece SF history.
James Wallace Harris, 6/19/20