The Vanishing Paperback?

The paperback is on the wane, according to recent reports. Publishers of the small-format, mass-marketed books find sales dropping a few precious percentage points year by year. Since 1995, the number of 4-1/2 by 7 inch volumes bought by Americans has plummeted 9 percent.

That's still 484 million books. But there's little doubt popular tastes have shifted to discount hardcovers, so-called trade paperbacks (essentially soft-cover hard-bounds, and priced accordingly), and, more tellingly, to movie videos and Web surfing. Leisure time, sadly, is much less given to curling up with a book.

The significance of paperbacks, which debuted in the late 1930s with classics like "Wuthering Heights" and "The Good Earth," is that they made that pleasant pastime available to everyone. For a little pocket change you could board the Pequod with Ishmael, or ride the range with Louis L'Amour - or educate yourself with "pocket" histories.

The screen of the mind, activated by the printed word, is ultimately much more engaging than a TV or computer screen. So books for the masses are far from out, even if somewhat eclipsed by the new information technology.

And if the supply of inexpensive paperbacks ever seriously ebbs, not to worry. There's a flood of potential "reissues" waiting in attics and dusty bookshelves everywhere.

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