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Books old and new (or, classics versus the Kindle 2)

March 6, 2009 |  8:39 am


If you were waiting for a train in Victorian England, you might be inclined to throw a shilling to the fellow at the W. H. Smith bookstall for one of his brightly colored paperbacks, called Yellowbacks. Popular and cheap at the time, they've become collectibles today, going for $50 to $500 apiece. Why so much? Partly because of their striking design, partly because they tended to get beat up as they traveled with their readers.

In a feature on the Yellowbacks, online bookseller AbeBooks explains that the striking woodprint designs of artist Edmund Evans gave the books a trademark appeal. The name "Yellowbacks" came from the bright yellow paper on which the front and back covers were printed; the back covers often served as ad space (others on the train with nothing to read -- well, they'd be looking at the back of your book).

There were cookbooks and mysteries and reprints of authors like Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, who welcomed the opportunity to be introduced to broader audiences. And because copyright laws between England and the United States were muddled at best, American authors who made the trip across the pond might have been surprised to find pirate versions of their books on display.

As the name implies, the appearance of Yellowbacks was, as contemporary marketers say, intrinsic to the brand.

So a Yellowback publisher might be entirely confused by the Kindle, which makes a cover design mostly irrelevant. But a Kindle 2 can do a lot of things a Yellowback couldn't: contain multitudes, get new periodicals, read aloud. In this video from the new Jimmy Fallon show, the Kindle 2 reads Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven."   


--Carolyn Kellogg

Image credits: AbeBooks