Friday, January 4, 2013

Cultural Indicators Revisited

The indicator I have in mind today is the pocketbook—more generally the pocketbook distributed, thus where you could casually find it, more specifically yet pocketbooks holding the culture’s treasured literature.

There was a time when I would visit drug stores to buy books. Drug stores in those days had names like Rexall, Katz, Thrift, and SupeRx. They devoted quite a bit of space to books, arranged on rotating racks, and what you could find in these places was quite astonishing. Novels, of course. Science fiction? Yes. But also literary novels, books of philosophy, history. And all modestly priced, just sitting on racks, humbly, much like boxed spaghetti at the grocers. Up to the 1960s and mid-1970s, I routinely bought very valuable paperbacks at such stores and at airports. And the situation was much the same in Europe; in Germany RoRoRo ruled, but there were lots of others. We were refugees in Germany and immigrants to the United States. We had at best modest means. But not only the publishing world but even retailers like drug stores brought us cultural riches at affordable prices.

Click to enlarge
The first ever present that Brigitte gave me, for Christmas 1959, was a pocketbook holding selections of Jakob Boehme’s writings. I still have it and show its image. It’s 7 x 4.5 inches in size, published by Goldmanns Yellow Pocketbooks, a RoRoRo competitor. That was still the world of manual typewriters. In that same year Xerox introduced its first copier to the world. Computers in those days were still at the maturing ENIAC stage. That little book fully retains its utility today; indeed it’s featured here because it happened to be laying next to me on the computer desk having been consulted about a week ago. Meanwhile electronic goods purchased much, much later, not least music records, diskettes, and recording devices have lost all of their utility (although they still clutter up the archaeological digs of this house).

Pocketbooks like the one I’m showing have essentially disappeared, replaced by trade paperbacks of larger size and much higher prices. Is the content still available? Yes. Indeed more so. There are books, e-books, Google books readable online, and much else. But not at the drug store. Chance encounters with classics while finding something to read on the plane? Gone. I still continue to check—a kind of animal reflex. What CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens have to offer is, in the context of the 1950s, 1960s too pathetic even to mention. In the 1950s drug stores still served readers at every cultural/intellectual level; now they serve only the lowest layer. And, indeed, most of the time, visiting Barnes and Noble for instance (Borders having crossed the border into Bookseller’s Paradise), B&N almost never has the book I’ve come to buy. But they can get it for me online. Thanks. I can do that too, and cheaper.

I’d emphasize, here, the structural differences. Looking at the situation around 1959, a substantial market for upscale literature at modest pricing existed. Many providers competed. Many channels delivered the goods down to every neighborhood. Today a vastly expanded content is available but based on what is, ultimately, a centralized (and hence vulnerable) electronic medium, itself requiring expensive tooling to use, tooling that rapidly obsoletes itself. The readers seem to have vanished. And as the age of fossil fuels reaches its end—which should be visible in another fifty-three years from now, this system may not survive it. But in those years, my little book, echoing the voice of a sixteenth century mystic, may still be around somewhere, still readable by someone who knows German. And along with it my many dictionaries.

Yes. And I would also emphasize the economics here. Cultural wealth was once accessible easily to those with modest means. Modest means, yes, but equipped with a sound education which made them look at books at the drug store. And opened vistas no longer visible to those thumbing tiny screens.
The text on the shown book translated: On Divine Revelation/Jakob Böhme/The Silesian Mystic/Introduction and Selection by Charles Waldemar/Goldmanns Yellow Pocketbooks. The book was also published in 1959.


  1. Hard to believe that already 70 some odd years have passed since Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that lovely poem that we used in the Introduction to our series Social Trends & Indicators USA. I was reminded of that poem reading this post...

    The Information Age indeed...

    1. An interesting association, there, Monique, but pondering it a little, the light went up in my mind too...