- Artist Nina Katchadourian, in a take off on the sometimes serendipitous placement of books on bookshelves, has created micro-stories told only in the words on the spines of books.
- At the site of UK bookstore Any Amount of Books (which also runs the blog Bookride), one can view “The Incredible Bookman,” a bookshelf that takes the form of a human, one who is perhaps charged with enticing you to read more books.
- The Guild of Book Workers is a 100 year old organization created to “establish and maintain a feeling of kinship and mutual interest among workers in the several hand book crafts.”
As we've done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world -- sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored -- but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I've always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments. So this is interesting. It would seem that us American readers require more orbs to get us interested in a novel of Victorian scope and heft. I like the slightly more subtle U.K. look The U.S. version is a little dull though it has a pleasing spareness to it and I like the vintage botanical illustration thing going on there. I far prefer it to the U.K. cover. I get that there's a handmade motif happening but the colors are jarring to my eye. I don't think you would ever see a cover that looks so "genre" on a literary novel in the U.S., and it kind of makes sense with Hamid's self-help-inflected title and the "Filthy Rich" in a giant font. The U.S. cover is aggressively boring. Both are bold, but I prefer the U.S. cover. The burnt tablecloth is a more original image than the lobster. I suspect I may be in the minority here, but I prefer the U.S. cover which seems to bank on the Lahiri name, rather than the U.K., edition which seems to telegraph the subcontinental content. Neither of these seems to be exerting much effort to break out of the Western-genre tradition, but the U.S. version's painterly affect at least gives it a little intrigue. At first glance, both of these appear to be going for the creative use of classic Asian motifs, but the British cover is actually pretty wild, using something called "Blippar technology" to produce an animated effect when you look at it with a smartphone. So, points for innovation in book cover design. Both of these are pretty great, but I love the U.S. cover. It's clever to have a YA book with a cover that looks drawn by the hand of a precocious teen. It kind of reminds me of the similar design philosophy of the 2007 movie Juno. Drawings inspired by vintage botany texts must be in this year. Here we have two different versions of the same idea, but the U.S. take is more lush and interesting. Atkinson is a superstar in the U.K. (as opposed to merely having legions of devoted fans in the U.S.) so that may account for the foregrounding of her name on the U.K. cover. Regardless, the U.S. look is far more intriguing. The Flamethrowers unaccountably didn't get a Tournament bid, but it should have, so we'll include it here, especially because it's a great example of some seriously bold cover design going on on both sides of the pond.
“Forty-five?” “Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.” “How much is that going to cost?” “Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.” “Jesus.” “But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what's in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?” “Not pillows.” Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge. I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner. I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons. It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate -- Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun. In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly. Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard -- I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don't quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car. Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them. After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail. “Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter. “I understand.” “If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.” (Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?) “Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies -- not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.) Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform. I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready. But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild -- twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well. I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles -- one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash. The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?) I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner. However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received. They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work. The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed. Image Credit: pixshark.
Last winter I found myself lost in a draft of a novel, unable to keep track of the events in my book and getting hung up on unimportant logistical details. I felt kind of stupid because my story was simple, one that only took place over a few months in 1996. I had a list of scenes and an outline of what I had written but the only way I could really get my bearings was to Google old lunar calendars. Finally, I took a big piece of paper from my son’s easel and drew a three-month calendar that I could look at as I worked. In the calendar squares I wrote the events of the story, like a diary. After I did that, it was much easier to write. It was as if my brain could finally relax once the events of the story were organized in a familiar way. Shortly after I drew this calendar, I read an interview with Michelle Huneven on this site and smiled in recognition when she explained that “the difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Then, last fall, I was reading The Millions interview with Emily St. John Mandel and was fascinated by the spreadsheet she created to organize her novel Station Eleven. I got curious about the other visual aids that novelists create to manage their books, so I asked around and gathered a variety of notebook pages, diagrams, and timelines. In my search for material, I was often stymied by two factors: 1) writers had thrown out notes and materials related to finished novels and 2) writers were nervous about sharing their notes, especially for works-in-progress. I can certainly understand this vulnerability, and in fact I still feel a little silly about the calendar I’ve shared above. I doubt I would feel so foolish if I were working on a biography or reporting a complicated story from a variety of sources. But there’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional. So, I thank the writers below for sharing (and saving!) their peculiar and illuminating designs. And if you’re in the midst of a novel now, and stuck, maybe the answer is not to keep typing but to get a blank piece of paper and start drawing. Claire Cameron, notebook pages for The Bear I am always underlining, clipping and making notes. Sometimes I decide that it's time to put some of these little bits of paper into a notebook. I like to think that I'm working on my visual side, but lately I've realized that I'm actually thinking. When my hands are busy, my mind is free to run. These are a couple pages that I made around the time I was writing my recent novel, The Bear. It's a survival story of two young kids who are lost in the wilderness after their parents are killed by a black bear. [caption id="attachment_73762" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, from top: Man with Bandage (1968) from Fred Herzog: Photographs; Kotjebi “fluttering swallows” children in North Korea.[/caption] This page gave me a feel for the mix of vulnerability and resilience of the kids in The Bear. I read about Kotjebi or 'fluttering swallows' -- street kids in North Korea. Apparently they are often seen with a tube of toothpaste in hand as they believe it will help with the constant indigestion that comes from garbage-based diets. It's crushing to think about, but it's also the opposite of helpless. The kids are forming their own culture to help them survive. The stark, blocked composition in the Herzog photo spoke to me of a certain toughness. And that women. No one is going to mess with her, right? [caption id="attachment_73766" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, clockwise from top left: The Tent by Tom Thompson, I cut it from a calendar from the McMichael Gallery; a slightly smaller Coleman cooler, I’ve lost track of who owns this particular one; a purple flower; Cat Power; a note, typical of the specimens that I find on my bedside table each morning ; Cat Power again.[/caption] The Bear ends with a short epilogue where the grown kids revisit the site of the bear attack. I knew the exact note that I wanted to hit -- I could hear it -- but I couldn't find it in my keyboard. I made this page while I was thrashing through that part of the edit. I thought, what do I know? And I stuck that all on a page. Lauren Groff, notebook pages for Fates and Furies (forthcoming from Riverhead, September 2015.) This is a page of my notebook that I used in writing my next novel, Fates and Furies. I've thrown out the enormous eight foot square wall-maps of incident and character that I relied on during the first three years of writing this novel; this page from my notebook is from just after I discovered I hadn't been writing the two slender novels I thought I'd been writing, but rather one (much fatter) novel. I love revising, but am easily overwhelmed, and I have to make lists and only concentrate on one change at a time to get through it all. Though this page is incomprehensible to me now (more god? Fat man -- & Dwight?), at the time it was my roadmap for the things I needed to do, from most urgent to least. The drawing under the notebook was given to me by my next door neighbor and friend, the kick-ass cartoonist Leela Corman, and it powered me through finishing the manuscript. Tania James, notebook page for The Tusk That Did the Damage I wrote a novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, that involves three different perspectives, that of an elephant, a filmmaker, and a poacher's brother. Even with these differing perspectives, I wanted to keep the story flowing forward, to have the tail end of one section feed into the next. Hence my predilection for arrows. Scott Cheshire, notes from High as the Horses' Bridles I found this page, one of about five pages I used to occasionally and desperately display on my desk because they apparently helped me keep things "in order." Scrawled with phrases like "cell-phone logic," "truth!?," and "BOIL X2," I have no idea what they mean anymore. They look embarrassingly like those pieces of paper you see on cop shows, pinned to walls behind the desk of a brainy detective working on a tough case. My favorite phrase from this page: "This is the thing -- Joe." Joe is underlined, and circled. I have no idea who he is. Katherine Hill, timeline for The Violet Hour I began this timeline to keep track of all the narratives I'd started when I was drafting The Violet Hour. The early versions were really messy and full of question marks and speculations. But by the time I was making my final revisions, the timeline had grown shorter and tighter, and I was using it as a kind of retrospective blueprint: a file I could reference to make sure everything in the world of the novel was in line. It's a document of the novel's events -- or most of them -- but it's also, in a very real way, a document of the novel's process. By the time it was done, I knew the novel was basically done, too. Alexander Chee, drawing for The Queen of the Night (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016) This is a drawing I made in the back of my copy of The Kill by Emile Zola, which I was reading for research at the time. One of the hardest things for me to figure out with The Queen of the Night was how to structure the story. The novel is about a woman searching her memories of her past, identities she's adopted and discarded in order to survive a world that wasn't made for her to survive in. My narrator is the kind of woman I would glimpse in little glances to the side in novels like The Kill, and I wanted to make a novel that put her at the center. But it is very tricky to write a novel about someone who lies to themselves and others in order to live -- telling the truth even to herself is dangerous. When I did this, I had written several drafts, writing and then discarding sections until I realized the discard file -- where I saved everything -- was the novel. It was a novel composed out of rejected selves. This drawing then was one attempt to get the structure right. It's not what ultimately happened for the structure, it's a middle version I moved on from, but it helped me get there. I took a learning styles test once that told me I was a visual mathematician, and while I doubted it at the time, I think that it is true. I first did it to diagram a novel whose structure I was trying to understand while working on my first novel. I do it on chalkboards with my students now, to explain the way the force of the narrative moves the reader's attention. Looking at this now, I might have to get this made into a t-shirt to wear while on tour. Michelle Huneven, binder notes for a work-in-progress I am writing a novel about a church’s search for a new minister. I am following an actual process as determined by the denomination, which means I have a series of events in a set order that I have to somehow make dramatically interesting. I have all of these pamphlets and brochures and guidelines outlining the process; I have timelines, I have interviews with people who’ve conducted searches and those who’ve been hired (or not). And then, I have seven characters on the search committee who all have stuff going on in their lives... For a long time I had two or three manila folders of notes and any number of “notes for novel” files on my computer. A good portion of my writing day was spent trolling through these files for the nugget I needed, which was fine for a while because it familiarized me with all the stray bits I’d accumulated. Then, I started writing the book itself by hand on legal pads. And not on the same legal pad. Which meant that, when I wanted to write, I had to go through various legal pads to find where I wanted to work. That, too, was fine for a while, because I was constantly reviewing what I’d done. But at a certain point the accumulated disorder had me whimpering. Down to the floor I went. I had inherited my mothers three-hole punch (she was an elementary school teacher), and I had an empty three-ring binder sitting around, so I printed out all the notes on my computer, and put them in the binder with all my other notes and pertinent papers. Soon, it came clear that having research and writing in one binder was inefficient -- too much paging back in forth. So it was off to Office Depot, where I bought more binders and file dividers, and spent some very happy hours on the floor punching holes and organizing. (Since then, I also created separate binders for short stories and journalism...and, yes, recipes.) The floor of my office, as you can see from the picture, is my largest flat surface, so I’m down there when researching, and also when punching holes in new material. I can also work from both binders while writing...which proves that, at certain points, the floor is more useful than the computer screen.
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I've always thought that British book covers, generally speaking, are nicer looking than their American counterparts, with the latter seeking to target a demographic rather than to dazzle the eye. With this in mind, the following is an incredibly unscientific experiment in aesthetics. I've taken as a sample the Tournament of Books contenders whose American and British editions differ. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert commentary is welcomed in the comments.Both are dark and complex, but I think I like the American one here. It's the big red 2666 that does it for me, and I'm not crazy about the digital clock action on the British cover. The American cover wins this one going away. I love the serious elegance of the bent arm and smoky cigarette and the mysterious juxtaposition of yellow and red lights. I appreciate the playful fonts and colors of the British version, but it is treading too far into "chick lit" territory for my taste. Even though I find the color a bit jarring, the boldness of the British cover is something you rarely seem to find in American covers. The American cover meanwhile seems to be trying terribly hard to be interesting. The American cover has a nifty diorama quality to it, but I love the British cover with its bold yet grainy font and its washed out, almost painterly quality. The American cover is nice enough, but it seems to be begging to be named an Oprah pick. The British cover, meanwhile, is my favorite of this little exercise. The wave motif is Eastern, but closer inspection shows that it is not merely an appropriation of the style. There's a charming, cartoonish, anthropomorphic quality to the wave crests that I find really engaging. And the colors are terrific. In this case, its the reverse. The British cover looks like the Oprah pick, while the American cover offers up more mystery. I particularly like the font on the American cover, all pock-marked like that of a 300-year-old text.
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