Artist Dawne Michelle Watters has created a set of book jackets bearing fake titles. So now you can fool public transit eavesdroppers (like myself) into thinking you’re reading classics like How to Overcome Nymphomania, Laser Eye Surgery at Home and Fast Track to Prison – Exploring the Many Benefits of Life Behind Bars.
Like many avid readers, I’m a sucker for book covers. I drink in everything about the dust jackets on hardcovers and the skins on paperbacks — the font of the title and author name, the artwork, the flap copy, the author photo and bio, the credit for the cover designer, even the blurbs. Yes, I’m also a sucker for blurbs, especially if they’re written by somebody I know, admire, or envy.
Lately I’ve been noticing something that might qualify as a trend in book covers. Though wildly different in concept and composition, these covers share something I find irresistible: the words are typewritten, usually on erratic old machines that result in subtle imperfections. The letters don’t quite line up, the spacing is uneven, the darkness of the impression varies from letter to letter because the keys were struck with erratic pressure. Many of these covers include x’ed-out or crossed-out words. They were made by a machine but they reveal a human touch, and they’re the opposite of the chilly perfection of computer-generated type, including that ersatz, too-perfect font known as “American Typewriter.”
No doubt one reason I’ve noticed these book covers — and responded so warmly to them — is because I write on a Royal manual typewriter that was built in 1948 and still works like new. But the bigger reason these covers have caught my eye and captured my heart is because they’ve so ingeniously captured the essence of the writing process. Simply put, these covers convey that writing is a messy business, a jumble of ideas, a string of false starts and dead ends and restarts. They also hint at the most central of truths: no piece of writing is ever truly finished.
So here are a few of the typewritten covers that have caught my eye recently. It’s my little analog hymn to the human touch and to the eternal beauty of ink on paper.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
This is one of those rare instances when the story behind the book is almost better than the cover or the book itself. Lee Israel had written biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder before her writing career hit a rough patch in the 1990s. So she acquired a small arsenal of manual typewriters — Royals, Remingtons, Olympias — and after some judicious research began forging typewritten letters and the signatures of their famous “authors,” including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, the silent film star Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, and many others. Israel then sold the forgeries for about $100 apiece — until she was arrested and sentenced to probation and house arrest. Below is a sample of Israel channeling Dorothy Parker, including the line that became the book’s title. With its mention of a hangover that’s “a real museum piece,” is it any wonder that Israel’s work fooled so many people for so long?
The cover of Can You Ever Forgive Me? includes the typewritten, x’ed-out names of several of the prominent people whose letters Israel forged, including Parker, along with Israel’s signature, which, presumably, is genuine. She died last year at the age of 75.
Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
Nobody does compression like Lydia Davis, and the 41 words on the cover of her latest collection of short stories could almost be a Lydia Davis short story. In fact, if you add just seven words — “I was recently denied a writing prize…” — to the beginning of the fragment on the cover, you would have the three sentences that make up the collection’s title story. (Some of the stories consist of a single sentence.) This cover relies not on cross-outs but on the clever use of color to get its message across. Against a white backdrop, the typewritten letters are green, until you get to the titular contractions and the author’s name, which are black. Those conventional black letters are the ones that jump off the cover. Very clean and concise and counter-intuitive, just like Davis’s stories.
The Way It Wasn’t by James Laughlin
James Laughlin, the patrician founder of New Directions, called his autobiography an “auto-bug-offery.” Unfinished at his death in 1997 at 83, it’s actually more like a scrapbook, full of snapshots, snippets of published works, reminiscences, rants, and lists. The cover — just the typewritten title and a photograph of the handsome author under his signature — is far more understated than what’s between the covers. Laughlin knew, worked with, published, or had an opinion about absolutely everybody. He went to a New York Yankees game with Marianne Moore. He went butterfly hunting with Vladimir Nabokov. He was capable of delicious invective, as with this string of epithets for Paul Bowles, who he called a “hashish-eating scum-bag,” a “dog’s-behind licker,” a “vomit-drinker,” a “snot-sniffer,” and a “dribble-pisser.” This book is a welcome reminder that snark is not something new and, when done right, it can be a thing of beauty.
The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The title and author of this 2009 paperback are typed on a sheet of paper that’s in the carriage of a typewriter that’s in serious trouble. The machine looks like it has just been gnawed on and spit out by a great white shark. It looks mangled and wet. Which is not a bad metaphor for Fitzgerald’s state of mind during his messy, booze-marinated decline, so poignantly captured in these writings assembled by Edmund Wilson.
Scissors by Stéphane Michaka
This French novel is spun from the testy relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish, whose heavy-handed cutting gives the novel its title. Beneath the title and author’s name, a string of typewritten words, inspired by the title of a Carver short story collection, are crossed out with a red pencil: “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we are talking about when we talk about love.” The maraschino is a hand-written blurb from NPR across the top of the cover, which calls the book “(An) empathetic exploration of an author’s soul.” It’s also an exploration of the Faustian bargain Carver made with Lish in order to secure his fame.
Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley
The cover on this 2013 hardcover shows a woman in a black dress, seen in profile, sitting on a park bench and gazing longingly into the distance. There is no man in the picture. The word “marriage” in the typewritten title is crossed out twice in lower-case letters before it survives as “MARRIAGE” in capitals. This is the high-WASP story of a man’s obsessive dissection of an old friend’s marriage, which he had believed, wrongly, was kissed by happiness. Since the novel is a quest for a narrative that requires constant revision, those repeated cross-outs of “marriage” are a perfect touch.
Disgruntled by Asali Solomon
Asali Solomon’s debut novel is the coming-of-age story of Kenya Curtis, a black girl in Philadelphia who’s trying to rewrite the conventional, confining narratives of race. The title and author’s name are typed on three sheets of colored paper — one pink, one green, one turquoise — that have been torn apart and unevenly patched together, just like Kenya’s world.
The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson
Scott Donaldson’s new book is a meditation on his 40-year career writing biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Charlie Fenton, and John Cheever, among others. This cover may be my favorite of the bunch. The title and subtitle are typed in capital letters over the suit jacket of a man whose face is obscured by a great cloud of unintelligible typed letters. It’s a deft way of illustrating the book’s two warring premises: that “knowledge of (a writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa,” even though, as Donaldson admitted to me in an interview, “you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.” No wonder that poor biographer on the cover is drowning in gibberish.
The cover of this past week’s New Yorker, “Shelf of Life” by Adrian Tomine, could be a visual entry in our “Books as Objects” column. An avid reader of the magazine (NOT our fearless editor and self-professed NYer junkie, Max) examined the cover art and observed that it carried a “cynical” message. It’s a panel cartoon depicting the progress of a young writer, her agent and enthusiastic publisher, the production of the book itself on an assembly line, its display in a store, a young man reading it on a park bench, then discarding it in a cardboard box, as you often do see – books in cardboard boxes sitting at the curb, waiting to be picked up by a lucky passerby and thus passed from one open mind to another – in places like Brownstone Park Slope. Except in the cartoon, the passerby is a scruffy man in an old army coat who takes the book, and, in the final frame, is shown tossing it into an oil drum fire, he and another man making warmth on what appears to be a dark, snowy night. Is this a cynical take on the commodification of art? A morality play? Or dark comedy, book burning for the general good? Or perhaps it’s just harsh reality: for some, a book’s best use is as fuel for a fire that will help them through a cold night when they have nowhere to go. I did notice that there appeared to be other potential tinder in that cardboard box, including the box itself. Maybe our homeless vet did read our young author’s work and found it worthy of the burnbarrel. Whatever the message, and I think the cover is open to a wide range of overlapping interpretations, it certainly says one thing with emphasis: books are objects to be consumed, one way or another.
In an effort to merge two loves of mine — writing and photography — I recently began this photo series that pairs snippets of novels with fun visuals that expand upon their cover art. To see more of the ongoing series and the prose captions that accompany each image, please follow @lifeserial and check out my #lifeserialreads tag on Instagram.
Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
California, by Edan Lepucki
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Reunion, by Hannah Pittard
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer