Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big dreams and grand visions of my distant relative, Robert Fair DeGraff—a publishing innovator who co-founded Pocket Books in 1939. His idea was a simple but game-changing one: reprint bestsellers and classics in small paperback editions and sell them for just 25 cents apiece. The success was instant and lasting. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, Pocket Books sold around 300 million volumes annually.
But Robert DeGraff didn’t start Pocket Books because he wanted to make money. What drove him was a much deeper and larger cultural ambition: he thought that by making classic books so easily and cheaply available to masses of people, Pocket Books would eliminate illiteracy. Of course, this didn’t happen. The proliferation of accessible and low-price books did not change American literacy rates. (more…)