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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Train-plane-beach books

What characterizes a book you take to the beach or on board an aircraft or train to while away the hours as pleasantly as possible? Dan Zak of the Washington Post picked up the phone and asked a handful of bestselling writers who faithfully produce a "beach book" on an annual basis (surprise, surprise, they are published in June), and asked them what they thought. Readability came top, along with Diana Gabaldon's rather charming comment that the book must be interruptible too, as children tend to tag along on vacations, and have demands on the reader's time, too. The conclusion is that they might be potboilers, but they are entertaining, undemanding, and fun. They also sell a lot of copies.

Zak then goes on to claim that beach reads -- aka train or plane reads -- began with the advent of cheap, portable, paperback books in 1945, when publisher Ian Ballantine started Bantam Books. Maybe so in America, but Europe beat Ballantine by quite a few decades -- ninety-two years, to be exact.

In 1853, when rail travel became available to the common crowd, a Paris bookseller by the name of Louis Christophe François Hachette launched La Bibliothèque des Chemins de Fer―"The Railway Library," France's first chain bookstore―and pioneered the practice of putting stalls in railroad stations stocked with cheap, light, readable books. Soon these were supplemented with travel guides―"Guides Joanne," now known as "Guides Bleus."

A man of humble origins, Hachette's meteoric rise was directly due to his mother, who ensured he had a good education by enrolling him at the prestigious Lycée Imperial, where she worked as a linen maid. There, despite the obvious social difficulties, Louis justified her faith by doing well scholastically, and making influential friends. His ambition was to qualify as a professor, and when he managed to win admission to the foremost teacher-training institute in France, École Normale Superieure, it looked as if a glowing future in the classroom lay ahead. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), he was foiled. In 1822 the school was closed down by the authorities, being considered too left-wing, and young Hachette was unable to claim the teaching certificate he had earned.

This was where the friendships he had made in the gracious courtyards of the Lycée Imperial began to play an important role in his life. First one old schoolmate, and then another, gave him a job in private tutoring. Then, in 1826, his current employer, Pierre Foucault de Pavant, loaned him 13,956 francs to buy a little bookstore at 12, Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, from a man named Brédife. Of the small stock the most valuable item by far was the license to produce and sell books. This was the entrée to Hachette's brilliant business career.

Renewing the license was difficult, but Hachette persisted, until at last he held the vital certificate in his hands. It was a moment of triumph. Cheated of his ambition to teach dozens of pupils at a time, he now saw the means of teaching thousands all at once. Adopting the motto, "Sic quoque docebo!—Thus shall I teach!" he launched into publishing educational books, becoming the first man in history to specialize in producing texts for elementary school children.

With the profits, Hachette persuaded friends who were now professors to translate worthy books, and published works by Victor Hugo and George Sand. Louis Hachette also produced lavishly illustrated magazines, focusing on "healthy and good reading," with the intention of educating as well as amusing his subscribers. A pivotal moment arrived when he joined forces with a man who shared his deepest ideals. This was fifty-two-year-old Édouard Charton, a philanthropist who fervently believed in the goals of the Age of Enlightenment: equality, education, and respect for human dignity. Hachette appointed him director of publications at once, just in time to edit a new weekly, Le Tour du Monde, which was launched on February 1, 1860, and proved a stunning success.

However, Hachette's greatest achievement was the introduction of cheap, portable, readable books for the vacationing public, the idea that was so profitably emulated by Ian Ballantine. Unsurprisingly, when he passed away in 1864, Louis Hachette was one of the richest men in France.

Evidently this is my week to write about Hachette . . .

Cheerfully cribbed from an article I wrote for the splendid book collectors' periodical, Fine Books and Collections, which appeared in print back in March.


Bookman Beattie said...

For me the first criteria for a plane read is that the book has to be big! Like Bright Shiny Morning for example.
Then of course all the other usual criteria that one applies when choosing a book come into play, but if it is not at least 350+ pages then I'll read it at home, not on the plane.

Amber said...

Perhaps there's hope for the rest of us who went from teaching into the book world too. What a very appealing history you write!