Last week I wrote here that I was 42. That was a mistake. I am actually 41, as my wife has kindly pointed out, and a goal I would like to achieve before I'm, say, 50 is the publication of my fiction in hardback. My novel coming out in August - The Blackpool Highflyer - will appear in trade paperback, a smarter version of the paperback format. I'm not complaining about this. I am very lucky (some might say) to be published at all, and the format has worked for me in the past, in that it keeps the price below a tenner. Also, most of the books that I myself buy or like the look of are in trade paperback.
But they do tend to warp when left for a long time in a damp attic (or so I would imagine), and there is something increasingly attractive about hardbacks as you leave behind the bohemianism of youth. Sir Arnold de Montmorency, a barrister who read the Daily Mail for libel (always while eating Kit Kats), who from 1968 owned the literary magazine the Contemporary Review, and whose obituary appeared in the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago, once visited a house whose owner he congratulated on possessing "the finest collection of paperback books I have ever seen" - a back-handed compliment if ever there was one.
I can identify dandyish people in the street and be just as certain that they have no paperbacks in their houses as I am that the man currently digging up the road outside my window does not own any abstract paintings. And the posher libraries - the London Library, for example - stock only hardbacks. (One of my own books, originally published in trade paperback, has been bound in hard covers by that library, and I sometimes go along just to feel it.)
Then again, the aspiration to line a room with smart hardbacks is surely on the wane. A friend of mine is a property journalist, and she says that the rich of today want a gym before a library in their homes; either that or a "wrapping room", in which all their Sellotape and wrapping paper is conveniently concentrated; or, in the case of one woman my friend interviewed, a walk-in refrigerated cupboard designed to maintain a temperature that would prevent her cashmere jumpers from "bobbling".
Basically, the rich don't read, so sod them. They can't expect us to pay lip-service to the hierarchy of formats. And in any case, paperbacks have been respectable ever since the first Penguins appeared almost 70 years ago. They were the brainchild of a man called Allen Lane, and were inspired by two things: his recently having attended a conference on how booksellers might reach "the new reading public" and his inability, one day, to find any good contemporary writing on Exeter Station bookstall after spending a weekend with Agatha Christie.
His idea was to publish books for the price of ten fags - sixpence - and it was important that they should fit into people's pockets as a portable shield against boredom and bores. The great breakthrough came when Woolworths took an order for 63,000 of them, the titles including The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers and Margot Asquith's Autobiography. Woolworths still sells books, of course, and the shelves of my local branch are dominated by the works of that well-known author David Beckham.
I love those old Penguins, the blue ones especially (blue denoted "biography"), which have the visual purity of spilt ink. I bought one last week in a Dublin second-hand bookshop: Confessions of a Young Man by George Moore. I had no real
intention of reading it. I just wanted to carry it around for a while.
Yes, it's fine to own paperbacks, and if they look a little scuffed . . . Well, that only proves you've read them, or at least that somebody has.