In modern times, there is a tendency to think of reading as a great equalizer, of crossing all socioeconomic strata. People of lesser means can go to public libraries, or borrow books at school. We don’t think of reading as the property of the elite, but as a way for anyone to learn and to experience things beyond their own personal daily lives.
That certainly wasn’t always the case.
Until Gutenberg, books couldn’t be mass produced easily.
Still, it was centuries before widespread literacy and cheap production led to the rise of the “penny bloods” in the 1830s, later called “penny dreadfuls” in the 1860s.
British Library reference page
Those were followed by “dime novels” in the USA.
1896 saw a major change, with Argosy becoming what is widely recognized as the first of the “pulp magazines”.
The pulps were called that because they were printed on cheap paper (paper is made in part by “pulping” wood). That’s something that should be clearly understood: pulps were unashamedly cheap. Early pulps had no illustrations. The pages had ragged edges and the magazines would fall apart after (hopefully) a reading or two.
Authors were paid very little. Still, they were paid, and some would later become famous (Robert Heinlein, Erle Stanley Gardner, Upton Sinclair…). Many of them would turn out prodigious amounts of fiction under different names…not to fool the publishers, but sometimes in collaboration with them. A publisher wanted to appear to have a variety of authors of short stories in the same issue…not be seen as a one-author publisher.
Certainly, short story collections were very common…but it is important to note that there were also a lot of full-length stories (sometimes serialized across several issues, sometimes whole in one).
That’s important to note: the pulps are literature. They are about words and ideas, feelings and thoughts. There is a tendency to tie them together with comic books, but they are really two very different things. Comic books (and this is not a criticism of their worth or significance) are pictures with words. Pulps may have a few illustrations, but not more than you would see in many books. It’s writing.
That’s not to say that it always deathless prose. Doc Savage, one of the leading pulps (and soon to be a major motion picture starring the surging Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, People’s Sexiest Man Alive and one of the leads in Disney’s Moana), is one of my fictional heroes (I would not be the person I am today without being inspired by Doc to try to improve myself to help others). Still, with writing something like a novel a month most months for years, Lester Dent (writing under the “house name” of Kenneth Robeson…and when Dent didn’t write the adventures, the author generally wrote outlines for them), there were some repetitive descriptions. We Doc fans enjoy that…reading of Doc’s eyes being like “stirred pools of fleck gold” or muscles being like bundled piano wire. While themes might repeat, though, plots didn’t…each Doc adventure has its own value.
Many pulps (but notably not Doc Savage) are now in the public domain (no longer under copyright protection). Like all literature published in the USA prior to 1923, early pulps are. When copyright renewal was required, many pulps were not renewed…either the companies weren’t still around, or it didn’t seem worth it to pay the fee.
That means you can get many of them as legally free e-editions, or read them online.
One source I recommend is
The Pulp Magazines Project
It was created by Patrick Scott Belk, an Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown in Pennsylvania.
You can read the roughly 320 issues online on a tablet, phone, or computer, or download them as PDFs, which would mean you could read them on many Kindle EBRs (E-Book Readers).
In addition to the magazines themselves, there are some context articles, biographies, a cover gallery, and more.
The only thing I’d say that might be confusing is that a magazine’s home page lists the number of issues…that’s the number of total issues published, not the number that they have on the site (which is typically much lower). That’s a minor point, though, and it does have historical importance.
Before I make a few suggestions, I just want to mention that it was a different time, with different cultural standards. There may certainly be character descriptions and plot elements which modern audiences could find offensive (see The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum). Some of these may also be pretty scary or perhaps a bit racy.
I think you’ll find these interesting, sort of like time traveling…speaking of which, I will eventually be linking appropriate ones from The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project.
The need for a site like The Pulp Magazines Project, especially for something which was once so popular, points out a different cultural attitude. There was once something called “ephemera”, which was only expected to be valuable for a very short time. They weren’t expected to have lasting value…here today, gone tomorrow. Now, everything could possibly last forever. 🙂 I find it likely that if copyright still had to be renewed, the percentage of people/organizations doing it would be much higher. Even shows that are fifty years old or more are being remade, and original works are being watched/read/heard.
One more thing: we may see a resurgence of interest in pulps when the Dwayne Johnson/Shane Black version of Doc Savage releases. I’m really hoping that they release the original Doc Savage adventures (there are 181 of them) as legal Kindle books. I would pay $100 for a bundle of all of them…hint, hint. 😉
Don’t forget, we are still in a huge period of sales, and that will continue through tomorrow (Cyber Monday) and beyond. Keep your eye on these three Amazon pages:
Amazon Black Friday deals (at AmazonSmile*)
That’s the one with frequently changing deals which may sell out and which may only last for a limited time.
If you have an Alexa-enabled device, check these deals:
http://www.amazon.com/alexadeals (at AmazonSmile*)
Then, starting Monday:
Amazon Cyber Monday deals (at AmazonSmile*)
Reportedly, Amazon is having a great sales weekend, volume-wise…and I expect it to continue! Especially look at the deals on Amazon devices!
Do you have any pulps you’d recommend? Seen any Black Friday weekend/Cyber Monday deals you’d suggest? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.
Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!
All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Do you have what it takes to be a Timeblazer?
* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help! By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.