Steinbeck's essay on books is one of a collection of essays--The Author Looks at Format--solicited from various established American authors and edited by Ray Freiman, and published in 1951 by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The essay (27-34) may seem dated since it addresses the book buying habits of 1950s America. And while it addresses artistic issues rather prosaically, Steinbeck's thoughts on censorship, given the history of the reception of his own works, bear more than a little interest. It is quite ironic, too, that Steinbeck denigrates the book club industry since most of his novels were Book-of-the-Month Club selections, including the Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, some of his animosity towards the trend of turning novels into movies seems disingenuous considering the frequency with which his own novels were filmed (and that Elia Kazan's film version of East of Eden would arrive in theaters three years later).
This is the age of the package. Everything from dressed and stuffed fleas to locomotives is packaged. And by a slow and steady process, the package is becoming more important than its contents. And why not, since your modern purchaser buys by package?
American books constitute packages and I imagine that the same rules which apply to pill boxes and canned food must apply to books. It seems to be true that if you put identical pills in yellow boxes and white boxes, purchasers will buy the yellow boxes.
We have three kinds of packages for books--those which attract as flowers attract insects, those which establish their profundity with stern, dull covers (since profundity is generally believed to be dull), and finally, those which by illustration on their jackets indicate or lie about the contents. All of it is a fly-catching process.
It is generally understood by publishers that if a one-pound book is offered beside a two-pound book, the heavier, thicker article is more desirable. The same instinct applies which makes every child at some time or other trade his dime for a nickel. Thick heavy books are more in demand than light, thin books, regardless of the content.
This last fact once caused me to make two suggestions to my publishers which they have stupidly failed to follow. If leaden covers were used, the weight problem would have been overcome. And if the book were printed on rye bread it would be very much thicker. Further, your bread book would solve two problems. The reader would never lose his place since he would eat each page as he finished it; also the lost profit of the borrowed book would be eliminated. And people do like to read while they eat. A few years ago, a public librarian in Birmingham, England, earnestly requested the subscribers not to use bacon or kippers as bookmarks because the grease soaked through the pages and the odor might repel future readers. I feel that bookmaking is far from completely exploited--cellophane bags of marmalade or liver paste glued to the inside of the front cover, for example.
But I shall return to the business as it is practical. Recently some translations of my own work came in from France. The covers were not of cloth but of a black cardboard and the designs were bright and fresh and charming. One's first impulse is to say, "Why can't we do this in America?" The answer is that no one would buy them. We have conditioned our people to look for other values in their purchases.
Original manufacturing costs have increased so greatly that only a temporary publisher can or will take a chance with innovations. Volume is necessary in publishing. This alone will keep our publishers from undertaking any violent experiment. The book clubs, whether they admit it or not, must not go out on a limb. They have entered into a kind of contract with their millions of subscribers not to shock or startle them with great departure from mediocrity. And finally the cost of the book alone will keep innovation out. To have a book you must have three-fifty or four dollars. If you have four dollars, after tax and necessities, to spend on a book, you are solvent at least temporarily. If you are solvent for any length of time you are likely to be conservative, and if you are conservative you damn well do not trust newfangled ideas or experiments. The French books mentioned above did not look like other books. They were obviously unsound.
I do not believe that any change can take place quickly. Your historical novel must have jacket blurbs and illustration to indicate that sex was better and more prevalent in those days. Your "sound" novel must be dressed in dour colors with no gaiety to draw the reader away from the solid chore of reading. Your humorous books should have a man, woman or cat laughing on its jacket. This indicates that H. Allen Smith is funny and if you know it is funny, you will laugh.
Perhaps the blurb does not set the book. I remember a book which had the following line in the text: "Then they went to bed together." However, the blurb said "a night of tempestuous love." The time may come when one will not have to read books. If the blurbs were on sale separately it might be a good and profitable venture and if the blurbs were then digested we would have the ultimate.
I myself am a hater of jackets. My impulse is to get them off and thrown away quickly. They crease and get in the way. I suppose they were originally put on as a wrapping and also to keep the dirty hands of prospective customers from spoiling new books. Why could there not be a display copy in a cellophane jacket? Does the jacket contribute anything to a book beyond adding to the cost? It would be interesting to see. And why is cloth necessary? I have heard that it adds greatly to the cost of manufacturing. Would not a treated board be as durable and much cheaper? Is not the increasing cost of books an actual selling deterent? The two-fifty book is now four dollars.
It has happened that when I have thrown away the jacket because it was in the way, that I wanted to go back to the account of the author. Could this not be bound in the book so that it is a permanent part of the volume?
For myself, I like the whole theory of the twenty-five cent book. For one thing the very cost of a trade edition encourages a degree of selfishness. Such a book must be hoarded and put on the shelves. It becomes property and property must be protected. I must know who borrows the book and I must see that it is returned and many friendships have been crushed on the rocks of the unreturned book. With the cheap editions the opposite is true. You load your friends' arms with books. You say, "When you are through with them, pass them on." This is a very fine thing.
I don't know how many writers have the feeling I have about books. I do not love books for themselves. I like to have certain books about me to refer to but only because of the text. I have never collected books for their physical selves. I have never asked for nor wanted an autographed book. Sure I love to see a library walled with the lovely backs of finely bound books, but this is decoration to me, not literature. The prettiest volumes have not been opened, the most valuable firsts have not been cut. I would for myself much rather have thousands of cheap, dog-eared volumes filed in closed cabinets like phonograph records. It is much easier to browse through filing cards than to climb on the arms of a chair looking for a certain book which you remember was green. You think it is on the top shelf. The book turns out to be brown and after you have lost interest, you find it on the bottom shelf behind a bent copy of the London Illustrated you had always intended to go back to. No, for real accessibilty, I like the card index.
The book itself took on its magical, sacrosanct character at a time when there were very few books and those possessed by the very rich or the very learned. Then the book was the only release of the mind into distant places and into golden thinking. There was no other way of going outside one's self except through the talesman of the book. And it is wonderful that even today with all the competition of records, of radio, of television, of motion pictures, the book has kept its precious character. A book is somehow sacred. A dictator can kill and maim people, can sink to any kind of tyranny and only be hated, but when books are burned, the ultimate in tyranny has happened. This we cannot forgive. The use of the book as propaganda is more powerful and effective than any other medium. A broadcast has little authority but a book does not lie. People automatically distrust newspapers. They automatically believe in books. This is strange but it is so. Messages come from behind the controlled and censored areas of the world and they do not ask for radios, for papers and pamphlets. They invariably ask for books. They believe books when they believe nothing else. This being true, I wonder taht governments do not use books more often than they do. A book is protected and passed on. It is the rarest of things for a man to destroy a book unless he truly hates it. Book destruction is a kind of murder. And in the growing tendency to censor and control for the problematical good of the people, books have escaped more than any form. A picture can be cut to ribbons, but any restraint laid on a book is fought to a finish.
I wonder very much about the future of books. Can they continue to compare with the quick, cheap, easy forms which do not require either reading or thinking? I must say they do, or some of them are trying to do just that. So many books now are written with motion pictures in view. It is said that some publishers will not print a book if there is not a possibility of a motion-picture sale. And even the writer in many cases is concerned as part writer and part salesman. He should stand in a book store labeling his product with his name. He should go on television shows and become a performing ape. He should subject his private life, his sex life and his muscle, even his body hair to the adenoidal stares of his prospective readers. He is said to be letting the book down if he does not do these things. He is being anti-social if he will not permit one of the picture magazines to record his breakfast and his wife or wives on slick paper.
I do not believe that a book can compete with its rivals on their terms. On the other hand, they cannot compete with the book on its terms. No other form save music can so "invite the mind and the emotions." One cannot conceive of a motion picture as being personal as a beloved book is personal. No television show is a friend as a book is a friend. And no other form, save again music, invites the participation of the receiver as a book does.
What a long way to get around to the subject of format. I do not know much about manufacturing. It seems to me that your physical book should be as like the abstract book as possible. There should be warm books and cool books, gay books and somber books. If a book is full of pain, let it be painful in color or design, if it is beautiful and sharp, these should design its clothing. Just as a title should catch the essence of a book, so should its format.
The yellow-pill-box theory will in the long run contribute little to books for books must be true in one sense or another and merchandising must be largely untrue. The yellow box will subtly force a customer to eat a bread pill and perhaps take some good from it. And perhaps a book can be forced to do this job, but I doubt it. A book is a naked article. A book is only read when you are alone. No group audience starts the laughter or the tears for you. It is a communion of two and as such it is unique.
And so I think that a book should feel good in the hand and gladden the eye. Its shape and size should be designed so that it is not clumsy to hold nor difficult to see. Its price should be low enough so that no crime against economics is committed in buying it. I am not speaking now of the books which are simply pauses on the way to motion pictures but of the books that were written to be books and nothing else but books. There is something untranslatable about a book. It is itself--one of the very few authentic magics our species has created.