January 7, 2009

By Roger Emile Stouff

Though both of my books have been published in paperback, I have a deep dislike for the model.

Itís not been that way always. I have a bazillion paperback books. And itís not the authorís fault, or the publisherís, even.

But a hardback book, thereís something you can hold onto. I mean, you set it in your lap and it finds a comfortable niche between your knees and stays open so you can read it. You may have to crease it a little by opening it wider than it was meant to, but a quality hardback will tolerate this without a whimper. You canít do that with a paperback book.

Hardback books are like Zippo lighters, paperbacks are Crickets. Hardback books are monuments, paperback books are flyers nailed to telephone posts.

Iím going to get a hardback option on my next book if I self-publish. I should have done it on the last two. Itís not too late. When I have the cash and own enough fly rods, Iím going to get both of them available in hardback. Iíd like to think someone will hold a hardback copy of Native Waters and feel the substantiality of 10,000 years of my history as the spine rests between their knees. Or that the surety of the visions in Chasing Thunderbirds isnít fleeting, or possibly, even imagined.

The first book I ever owned was hardback. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Find a kid nowadays that even ever heard of it, I challenge you. My second was Black Beauty. I donít think I owned a paperback until I started reading sci-fi, and my first one was Arthur C. Clarkeís Imperial Earth, a soft cover book made heady and substantial by the very weight of Clarkeís words.

Over the years, my collection grew into a library, and now these ill-conceived children overrun the house. Paperback books, I mean. They have bad manners, most of the Stephen Kings, Dean R. Koontz, Peter Straubs and Richard Mathesons. The better-behaved earn places on the bookshelves, the rest end up in boxes. The spines of Norman Maclean, Havilah Babcock, Thoreau, Carson and of course home-grown varieties such as Cooper, Broussard and Lewis, and such genteel specimens are allowed roam of the house.

I decided a few years ago that I had to have hardback copies of all my Harry Middleton books. Had to. I only have three of his five published works. The other two are rare and very rare, respectively. I did find and secured copies of The Earth Is Enough, On the Spine of Time and The Bright Country. They are among my most prized possessions, and their soft cover forebears are demoted to loaners.

Most elements of this world are mystery to me, but I am very certain of a few things. Beer, bourbon and scotch should only be served in glass, never, ever plastic, and J.R.R. Tolkien should never, ever have been published in paperback.

Read it, I dare you. Read any chapter from Tolkien in hardback and the same chapter in paperback, and youíll see that the hard cover version sweeps in great vistas, roars like lions and trumpets and thunder, swallows you up like a ravenous creature. The softback gets the point across, for you canít hide or diminish Tolkienís incredible voice, but it canít compare to the hardback. Those big, gothic letters, the feel of the woven or leather bindingÖman. Thatís a book.

Certainly, the Beatles probably held me in disdain as much as any "Paperback Writer" and it has only been a matter of economy for me to publish in paperback so far.

E-books? Donít get me started on e-books. Every tried to read Walden on a computer screen? Itís probably the ultimate sin. Pour yourself a Glenlivet and 7-up in a Styrofoam cup if youíre reading Thoreau on a computer screen. E-books, egad!

Read stock market reports on your Blackberry or Palm Pilot. Read the news on your iPhone and go chat with someone on your PDA. But curl up in your favorite chair with a warm incandescent lamp beside or behind you for Hemingway, please! Yes, no fluorescent. Who can read The Old Man and the Sea under a dizzying, blue-blinking fluorescent light? Treason, pure treason.

Few things are nicer than a copy of Chapmanís Piloting and Seamanship or Robert Ruarkís The Old Man and the Boy in tightly bound hardback on a morning with coffee on the patio with the dog by my side. I still buy paperbacks, once again, itís a matter of economy, but I regularly will read one, fall in love with it, and buy the substantial, solid version if itís available.

I donít think magazines should be printed on newsprint, thatís for newspapers. I donít think newspapers should be too narrow, and thatís a matter of economy thatís beyond my control, but Iíve seen newspapers these days so narrow it feels like youíre holding the sales pitch for a condo. Newspapers havenít been called "broad sheet" in size for all these decades to shrink up to trifold tourist brochures.

I dislike CDs because of their size. LP records, were not nearly so durable, of course, but the advent of compact discs has destroyed decades and decades of tradition in album art. Who can see true album art on a CD case? Even if you reproduce the covers of Bostonís first album, Gerry Raffertyís City to City or the great Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band cover by the Fab 4 on a CD, it just looks about as bad as George Dickel in a red Dixie cup tastes.

So yeah, Iím going to get my books in hardcover when I sell enough paperbacks to afford it. And when they come in, Iím going to go sit on the patio in bright sun light with a spot of highland single malt in real glass and listen to Boston on LP.

UhmÖsoon as I can find a used turntable record player, I mean.