Recently, The New York Times published a piece on a new marketing approach with which the author James Patterson and publishers are approaching customers: the “Book Shot.” These small, paperback, single-sitting books (i.e., novellas) are geared at consumers who normally feel too busy or intimidated by a longer work, but may be willing to make the investment for something short. The Times did a good job of making this move seem pretty sad and cynical, but neglected to acknowledge that little, single-serving books have been a trend in the world of high literature for years now. As much literature has gone digital, a few publishers like Melville House have made it their niche to actively market beautiful paper editions of novellas that have been traditionally printed in large “complete works” collections rather than as standalone volumes. Although they are certainly “book shots,” they are perhaps more about book fetishism than book fear.
This brings me to high-school students, the demographic that is most varied in its extremes of book fear and book fetishism. Every year for the last few years, I read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion with a few classes of freshman students. The collection of class texts was split pretty evenly between two editions: One set includes Dover Thrift paperbacks (the original high-lit book shot) and the other, thick Signet edition, whose heft is owed to the questionable choice to print the original play and the script of My Fair Lady, a musical based on Pygmalion, in tandem.
Each year, after distributing these sets of books to different classes studying the same curriculum, I would await the inevitable chorus of reaction and analysis. No room of kids was ever neutral about the meaning and the value of these differences. There was a majority who whined when they found that they had been assigned the thicker book and those who put up immediate defense in fear that receiving the thin volume signified that they were members of the “slow class.” Kids in both classes felt a mix of advantage and persecution, fluctuating with each other’s influence no matter how much I reassured them that the texts were identical. But the kids who were initially proud to have the larger text changed their attitudes as soon as they found the redundancy. They were puzzled that we would not read the complete thing, and frustrated that their text would contain something I deemed unworthy. When the overachievers decided they too wanted the small book, it wasn’t to avoid work or heft—the low profile was the equivalent of downloading a distraction-free browser extension.
Though I have no hard measure of which group felt more appreciation for the play, who read more in depth, and who remembered the best what they’d read, the one quantitative fact I know for sure is that over the course of the years, one set disappeared at a much more rapid rate than the other. Though its low profile may have helped it hide in folders and among photocopies bound for the recycling bin, students are usually much less conscientious about returning the books they really enjoyed. The Signet edition, complete with both original “squashed cabbage leaf” Liza Doolittle as well as plucky, singing Liza Doolittle, always made its way back to the bookroom shelf.