doublearticulation

On Reading Out of Time

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2008 at 9:49 pm

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.

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