Lazy Sunday – And Paperbacks As Early Web Pages

While on vacation I stumbled across a bookstore with new and used books.  There are so few bookstores nowadays that I went inside and they had an excellent selection of bestsellers and obscure choices.  I paid for my purchase and, on the way out, noticed a big box full of the Ballantine’s Illustrated History books that originally retailed for $1 (I have some that must have come from England because they were one pound) and had to select a few for lazy Sunday reading.

These books come from a series and I have read many of them over the years.  I picked up the Barbarossa 1941 book and it appears to be one of the first titles written by John Keegan, the famous author of “The Face of Battle” and many other works.  For such a small book it is able to distill the essence of that fateful year with great maps, photos, pithy text, and diagrams.

Certainly not all of these books hit that high mark; but many are fantastic.  Since they use every inch of the paperback for superb graphics and well placed text, to some extent they should be considered a work of art.

I looked a bit and Ian Ballantine was a visionary; on Wikipedia they mention that he was one of the first businesspeople to realize the power of the paperback book and how it could open the world to so many more readers.  He produced the first softcover of “The Lord of the Rings” and helped to popularize modern science fiction.

While this would seem like an extreme stretch to someone young today I can see many parallels with this and the early stages of the Internet.  Prior to the paperback, books were very expensive and access to them was limited to facilities (libraries and the rich) where you had to physically go and view them.  Certainly you had libraries (one of my earliest technological memories was being astonished at the bar code reader that was scanned in the 1970’s at our suburban public library) and this partially provided access to books but paperbacks meant that you could OWN books and build your own collections even on modest means.  Beyond that, the TYPE of books that were printed was changed; you weren’t just producing titles for the rich to read and / or keep on a shelf to prove that they were educated; topics like WW2 and science fiction that were of high interest to the non-wealthy also became prominent because they were economic to produce and market for the first time.

These titles, especially the best put-together ones – were like web pages of their day.  They fit all this information into a compact space with an eye for how the reader wanted to view the information most efficiently.  Maps, photos and diagrams were well integrated with the text; a fine graphic designer would recognize all of these principles with a modern web page (except, of course, that these books were static and permanent and did not enable user action).

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

10 thoughts on “Lazy Sunday – And Paperbacks As Early Web Pages”

  1. I once owned dozens of those monographs. Good stuff. I read all in your picture.

    Since you’re familiar with the Eastern Front in WW2, any comment on how Russia and Ukraine are fighting over the same territory as the Nazis and Communists, but with 1/10,000 the forces?

  2. Good heavens – I have three or four of these Ballantine WWII books as well – away on a top shelf. I think about the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. I might have had more of them, but stuck away in a box in the garage – which is long-unexplored territory at this point in time.

  3. I had a bunch of those. I recall one called Waffen SS: The Asphalt Soldiers — a quick check on Google confirms that it was by John Keegan, as I remembered. I may have had the one on Kursk you show here. I did have Panzer Division: The Mailed Fist. I also had The guns: 1939-45 by Ian V. Hogg, who wrote many books about weapons and how they worked and how they were used.

    Inexpensive, well produced paperback books were indeed a step toward the democratization of knowledge. They were cheap enough for a kid to buy even when they were new.

    I agree that the books in this series were somewhat like a website, always integrating maps, photos, and drawings.

    The Osprey series of military books is similar in that regard. I have several of them. Often they are the only book available on a narrow topic. For example, the one on the Battle of Assaye is excellent, including photos of the battlefield as it is today taken by the author.

  4. I love the Osprey series. I bought them on WW1 German battleships… and on many other obscure topics.

    That Hogg book I still pull out from time to time and read through again. It is a simply amazing summary of the WW2 guns of all type in such a small package.

  5. As far as the Ukrainian / Russian conflict…

    That is very interesting. They seem to be mainly fought by militias, with the regular Ukrainian military providing firepower (artillery) and skirmishes on both sides.

    When the Russians come in they rule the battlefield… but to what end? Are they going to hold the territory?

    What is likely really happening is some sort of ethnic cleansing… the Ukrainians that want to leave that area will move West and then the proportion of the Russians remaining will rise. Sadly enough there are many solutions to these sorts of disputes, usually with the loser packing up and moving out. This is the story of Crimea, and for many years was the story of the Baltics and much of Poland / Prussia.

    What will Russia really end up with? 100% of their revenues are based on oil / gas / mineral extraction and they are barely able to feed their people with their miserable agricultural production and broken infrastructure. They are just going to inherit a destroyed industrial set of cities that they will likely leave in a dilapidated condition that will just be more mouths to (barely) feed and with little to contribute to the economy (since it is wholly extractive).

    The rest of the Ukraine will be rabidly anti-Russia forever with borders that won’t be settled again in our lifetime. It seems like a bad trade for Russia – from a geopolitical perspective it would be as if the US and Mexico were having a war over Texas or adjacent Mexican territory – us fighting with an adjacent, integrated neighbor, creating destruction and ill will where there used to be a productive trading relationship – is a massive net negative for their strategic position.

    Perhaps Ukraine will also re-organize their super corrupt society in the face of this real and persistent threat. It is a hope, at least.

  6. “he was one of the first businesspeople to realize the power of the paperback book and how it could open the world to so many more readers”

    Amazing as it may seem today, there were people in the 1960’s who bitterly hated the very idea of paperbacks, litterateurs who feared books becoming affordable for ordinary working people. IIRC, Tolkien blocked publication of a paperback edition of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as this would “vulgarize” them.

  7. We had over forty of these books. They were unfortunately stored in a damp basement where few survived. I can’t see any reason why our current veteran’s stories should be untold or scattered all over the internet. I’d love to see a paper and ink version like Ballantine’s work, for our current veterans. Heck, I’d like to see the old versions reprinted on long lasting paper.
    Look at the prices – my Father bought me an education for a few dollars.

  8. “Ian Ballantine was a visionary; on Wikipedia they mention that he was one of the first businesspeople to realize the power of the paperback book”: either a visionary or someone who copied a foreign success.

    “Penguin Books was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane and V. K. Krishna Menon, as a line of publishers The Bodley Head, only becoming a separate company the following year. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. Penguin’s success demonstrated that large audiences existed for serious books.”

    And for all I know Penguin copied someone from somewhere else.

  9. Come to think of it, that point emboldens me to make a generalisation: the secret of success in business is innovation – preferably someone else’s.

  10. While on vacation I stumbled across a bookstore with new and used books. There are so few bookstores nowadays that I went inside and they had an excellent selection of bestsellers and obscure choices.

    A local used book store had a 20% off sale for Labor Day weekend. I bought some hard bound books @ 80 cents, such as War and Peace, Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “A Few Bloody Noses’ [Brit take on the American Revolution], Kenneth Clark’s CiviliSation. And more. Now I need to read them.

    A lot of the paperbacks of that era were very cheap, but not of good construction. I remember reading C. Wright Mills’s Listen Yankee, a propaganda piece for Castro, which within ten years of publication was already in 3-4 pieces.

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