Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor
In a nutshell, sex sells. This isn’t news to anyone. Just check any paper, any magazine, or any television channel. People have used sex and sexual imagery to advertise whatever they’re trying to sell since the Dark Ages, if not before and hey, it works.
Nowhere is this better exhibited than in those glorious vintage paperbacks from the 1940’s thru the 1960’s. This was a golden era of books, as the mass-marketing of literature kicked in, and cheap paperbacks, sometimes costing only a dime, where now available to the masses. Sold at gas stations, drug stores, anywhere a book looked liked it belonged, all could afford to read. (Or all men, at least, as these books were aimed primarily at returning GI’s and blue-collar workers.)
Most of these books were genre fiction: mysteries, science-fiction, and sleaze, all with those sexy, provocative covers so well-loved by collectors. The consumer’s eye had to be grabbed, and nothing grabs like sex. But where the real laughs come in is when the old classics were repackaged, sensationally, luridly, to appeal to these new readers.
Check out these covers. Don’t remember that female torture scene in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?” Well neither does Mark Twain, and he wrote it! Heck, even Faulkner’s “Wild Palms” gets the treatment, with a half-naked gal on the cover. Or how ‘bout Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with a woman spread out on a bed, about to spill out of her dress, while Frankenstein himself stands there, hands out, ready to grab. Other authors met similar fates with similarly lascivious covers. Pretty much any paperback by Erskine Caldwell during this time period had a half-naked female hillbilly (gorgeous, of course) on the cover, grabbing the reader’s attention and luring him in. And ultimately luring the customer was what it’s all about.
It reminds me a little of the classic comic book bait-and-switch, where you buy a comic for the cover only to find no such scene exists within. This could be irksome. But, when you got down to it, the most important thing was, and is, the reading. Get people to start reading, and it snowballs; people want more. Reading is self-perpetuating.
GI’s returning from WWII, and the nation as a whole, were thirsty to read and paperbacks filled that void. But to stand out at the newsstand you had to be edgy, sexy. And to top your competitor you then had to be edgier and sexier. The history of these vintage paperbacks is a history of the time as the books from the 40’s were tamer, the ones from the 50’s began to get sleazier, and those from the 60’s were pushing the limit to those from the 70’s which were borderline pornography.
Sure, there were paperbacks before and there’ve been paperbacks since, but it was during this short period in history that these particular kinds of books were produced and packaged this way, with these amazing covers, vintage paperbacks helped spread the love of reading to all.
You just had to stop staring at the front.