FORCED to move my library recently, I came hard against the necessity of paperbacks. I agree with Montaigne: One must keep one's boots on and always be prepared to depart. And yet, I do accumulate books: As a book critic, books have been my livelihood as well as my passion. But modern circumstances leave little room for a library.
Think of Thomas Jefferson, arranging his mind as he rearranged his library! Think of all the thinkers for whom their libraries have been living extensions of their all-too-human memories. For a book person, walls of books are like mountainsides to rock climbers, full of history and risk.
Paperbacks are symbolic of modern life in all its profound mobility, its irony (many homes have a shelf full of classics in cheap bindings from college days), its antipathy for memory, degree, standards. Paperbacks level: The same pocket money that one shells out for Virgil's Georgics from Penguin buys Tom Sharpe. One must do one's own thinking, and not trust appearances.
The cheapness of paperbacks is announced with an infuriating CRACK when one opens the treasured volume, only to have it fall apart, the pages flying like so-many Sybilline leaves as once did my paperback copy of Ronald Syme's Roman Revolution. What if that had happened to Keats when he first read Homer?
The paperback is not just a paperbound book. The paperback is a cheap paperbound book. Paper bindings were common in the 19th century; one thinks immediately of the yellow dust jackets on French paperbound books. Sewn, not glued, these did not prepare the French reader for the ``pocket revolution'' that seemed to degrade literature by dressing it in cheap clothes. Pocket books were not introduced into France until the '50s. Simultaneously, the first television show devoted to books appeared.
As I went through my books, I found myself lingering over the paperbacks: my collection of ``Les Fleurs du Mal'' in paper editions; the worn New Directions ``paperbook'' edition of Ezra Pound's poems that I read under the lamppost outside Fillmore West in San Francisco as my brother remained inside to hear another set of Janis Joplin; the compact Meridian paperback Etienne Gilson Reader (alas, it cracked when I opened it: the glue had fatigued). And I found, still fresh looking, J.V. Cunningham's ``The Problem of Style'' (a Fawcett Premier Book, 95 cents) and the book I cut my prose teeth on, ``The Federalist Papers,'' a Mentor Book. Twenty-five years ago I had copied on the end papers Publius' statement that ``Experience is the oracle of truth'' from essay 20 by James Madison.
Paperbacks, too, have a bouquet; paperbacks, too, store memories. What matters with books is not, ultimately, the binding, but what's in them - which includes both what's in them that we find inspiring, and what we put in them from our own experience.
And yet, we must move on.
Moving my library really meant dispersing it, giving it away. Who has room for a library anymore? No doubt, we'll collect more books, discriminating among fine paperbacks as well as cloth editions, relishing the feel of the pocket book in one's pocket as we go. We will browse in used-book shops, looking for the fine old paperbacks, not quite mocking the connoisseur, for paperbacks, like almost everything else, really were better in the old days. Better designed, better printed, more satisfied to be paperbacks - or rather, pocket books. On the road, the soft cover makes a fine pillow, too.