I happened across an odd little story today. Apparently, books made of gold are a fad among the super-rich in China. There is also concern that the books, which cost upwards of $1,000 are becoming a “means of bribery,” according to a story from Xinhua, as they are given as gifts to public officials. None of the English-language stories had photos of the books so I did some searching to find out what they look like. You can see pics here and here.
If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you’ll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner’s novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner’s work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.Maybe it’s the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving’s masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects – a nurse’s uniform, a motorcycle – that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving’s books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving’s covers.
For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big “V” on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut’s novels.
Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami’s fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.
In January I posted scans of a bunch of fantastic new editions of classic books from Penguin with covers designed by famous comic book artists. I’d heard that another batch was on the way, and I finally got my hands on the images so here they are. They come out this fall:Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Cover by Yoshihiro TatsumiWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Cover by Thomas Ott The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Cover by JasonLady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Cover by Chester Brown Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Cover by Frank MillerPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade, Cover by Tomer HanukaSee the full-size pictures hereSome other notes: I first saw some of these covers posted at the Fantagraphics blog. Tomer Hanuka has a really cool post about designing his cover at his blog Tropical Toxic.
If you thought books were just to read – to entertain, educate or enlighten – then think again.Macleans Magazine ran a piece recently on a little bookshop in Old Montreal that displays its wares as museum-pieces. Librissime offers Dante’s Divine Comedy, “bound in buttercream-white calfskin leather, a hand-chiseled brass rendering of the crossing of the River Styx by Italian sculptor Alessandro Kokocinski on its cover.” Priced at $36,200, it “looks best bathed in indirect halogen light.” The thinking behind all this is that the prospective customer has already read the book, and now “wants to honour it by turning it into art.” If you are indeed brave enough to walk in off the street, and if something on display catches your eye, apparently gloves will be required before daring to touch the “artified memento.”At the other, more utilitarian, end of the spectrum, books can be a handy substitute for a weapon. A number years ago I was visiting my friend Doug in Britain. He’d been living with friends in a big old house, and in that life of dilapidated grandeur, a music room of sorts was doubling as his bedroom. I was asleep on a futon at one end off the room; Doug was slumbering on a mattress at the other end. Evidently my snoring became so unbearable that Doug awoke, picked up the closest object – a hardcover book – and with remarkable and unprecedented marksmanship, he propelled the book across the room toward my invisible bull’s-eye, clonking me in the head, silencing my snoring, and returning peace and quiet to the South London night.More Books as Objects: Limited Editions, A List of Bookish Objets, Books by the Foot, The Ultimate Prop
I happened upon this story about a scheme to smuggle drugs into a Michigan prison using library books. From the Muskegon Chronicle:Inmates at the prison in eastern Montcalm County communicated with somebody on the outside, providing titles to check out from the Madison Square branch library on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. The outsider was to check out the books, cut open the bindings, tuck drugs inside, then reseal them. Then, the accomplice would return the books to the library and contact the inmates, telling them which drug-packed books to request.Luckily the plot was foiled before any books could be mangled in its service.
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.