Richard A. Lupoff,
The Great American Paperback:
An Illustrated Tribute to Legends of the Book

(Collectors Press, 2001)

Those who pick up this hefty and beautiful $60 volume might think that it's merely a compendium of gorgeous pop art, a coffeetable book of vintage paperback covers. They'd be wrong. The Great American Paperback is glorious to look at, but it's also a delight to read. Richard Lupoff has written fiction in a number of genres, and is also an authority on many aspects of American pop culture, and his expertise is in evidence in every page of this well-written, nearly comprehensive look at the American paperback book.

Lupoff starts with the modern paperback's predecessors, and then delves into the creation of the true paperback book, with individual chapters on Pocket Books, Signet, Armed Services Editions, Bantam, Gold Medal, a massive chapter covering Avon, Popular Library and Dell, and another covering Ace and Ballantine, as well as a chapter on miscellaneous houses, one on paperback sleaze, and another on the future of the format. There's an enormous wealth of information here, and Lupoff does a brilliant job of organizing it, and making the various moves of editors and publishers from one house to another fascinating reading.

But the stars, of course, are the books themselves, and Lupoff touches on most of the classic and highly collectible books from the various houses, concentrating on a large number of authors and works. Here you'll find brief essays on such paperback luminaries as Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, Jim Thompson and many others, as well as much information on the key paperback artists.

The icing on this very substantial and filling cake are the illustrations, and they are a joy to behold. Rendered in full color, many are reproduced larger than their original formats, and can be seen as the mini-posters they were intended to be. The covers are exquisite, and I suspect there has been some digital touching-up to create the universally mint images found here. There are lengthy captions for every cover, more than 600 of them, as well as a number of little book symbols indicating the title's collectibility, on a one-to-five scale. As a long-time paperback collector, I found some of these values questionable, with some books overrated and some underrated (for example, the Pocket Books edition of The Werewolf of Paris, a devilishly tough title to find, receives two books, while a number of run-of-the-mill westerns receive three), but that, after all, is the fun of such ratings, since everyone has their own experiences and opinions. The only other caveat I have is the use of colored pages for type. There's not a white page to be found, and often you're reading black type on a stark red background, which is less than easy on the eyes.

But it's a small price to pay for the superb information and the crystal-clear images found in this wonderful volume. If you have any interest in vintage paperbacks, this is a must-have, and if you're a fan of popular 20th-century art, you'll find much to delight you here. Highly recommended.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 23 November 2002

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