I’m seriously digging these new cover designs for the British editions of John O’Hara classics BUtterfield 8 and Appointment in Samarra. They were done by illustrator Tomer Tanuka, and he shares his inspirations for the covers at his blog Tropical Toxic (where you’ll also find posts from his twin brother Asaf, who is also an illustrator).
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 one of my first posts for the Millons, a post on books used for purposes other than reading, I mentioned the British artist Su Blackwell and her book cut sculptures. Blackwell's work is enchanting and I find myself (in week six of a post-dissertation/graduate school illiterate malaise in which I have read nothing, nothing, nothing and now fear I will never read or want to read again - though reading and books have been the defining activity and object of my life until now) drawn again to Blackwell.Blackwell's work recollects the shoebox dioramas of cut paper scenes that children make in grade school, but in Blackwell's sculptures all of the two and three-dimensional figures are cut out of the printed or illustrated pages of books and seem to spring out of the book from which they were cut (a single volume is often the platform on which and out of which her little still-life fairytale scenes spring). Occasionally, she incorporates lights into her sculptures and her scenes are often housed in wooden boxes, but otherwise Blackwell's sole medium is books.While cutting old books apart might seem a bit sacrilegious to a bibliophile, the results are so delicate and beautiful - so suggestive of the other worlds that good books make real - that you'll easily forgive the iconoclasm. In their surprisingly literal way, Blackwel's sculptures remind us of the vistas of imagination that art, particularly literary art, allow us to encounter - worlds that are in some sense, Blackwell reminds us, made from such paltry ingredients: ink and paper. In the throes of my ongoing bout of illiteracy, I find this reminder comforting - an enthralling approximation of the readerly places I can't get to myself just now.
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"I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself" – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand” 1. Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain. This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum. The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity). My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets). 2. At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands: “It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.” The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world. I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand. What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization's greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book. 3. This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar. So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence. No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save. Image via the author
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When I worked at the bookstore in Los Angeles,we would occasionally get customers who would by books based not on their subject matter or on who wrote them, but by the color of their spines. Somebody would come in looking for light covered spines. Another would peak behind dusk jackets looking for books that conveyed a "vintage look." More often than not these shoppers were Hollywood set designers, trying to fill the bookshelves that would provide the backdrop for the action in a movie or television show. Ever wonder why movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make? It's because these guys were paying full price for these books and not picking them up cheap at a Goodwill store. But other people shopped like this to fill their homes because full bookcases look nicer than wallpaper. One celebrity would routinely buy multiple copies of dozens of books, so that his bookshelves would be equally full in each of his multiple homes.According to a Knight-Ridder article, this book decor trend is filtering down to the masses:Perhaps the ultimate signal that books are decor came when a recent Pottery Barn catalog showed an entire bookcase with the books turned backward, annoying mismatched spines facing inward, all in an attempt to achieve a neutral, uniform look.Luckily the article is mostly skeptical of this trend, but it goes on to mention Book Decor, "a California company that sells foreign books by the foot for the express purpose of looking at them rather than reading them. Danish books cost $100 a foot, German are $150 a foot and French are $200."In a way they're right. Books look great on the walls, elegant and inviting. A well-stocked library makes an impressive statement about one's taste, but of course, lest we forget, each of the books is filled with stories. Walking into such a room, one can almost see all the words and characters peaking out from behind the book covers and floating through the ether. It strikes me as insane that anyone would fill shelves with books that they would never be able to read. After all, books are multitaskers of home decor. They look great, but you can read them and share them with friends, too. Try to do that with wallpaper.
Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book. It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel -- a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop. The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky -- or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example. Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there -- to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks. While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed. I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye. A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily. The chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs. The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one. The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one -- not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 -- could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book. Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.
Like we did last year, we're going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it's interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments. At first glance, these are both a little cheesy, but closer inspection of the American cover reveals a clever trick: the shadow of the cake is the silhouette of our despondent protagonist. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is a bit too on the nose. Lemons, check. Cake, check. Particular Sadness, check. These are both appropriate creepy, and while the U.K. cover gets points for the claustrophobic smallness of the toy house, I think the U.S. cover is better here. there's something harrowing about that crayon scrawl on the stark white background. These are both pretty great. The U.S. cover is simple and memorable with those curly guitar strings hinting at the drama within. The U.K. version is more playful, and I love the slightly sunbleached and tattered effect. Franzen's Cerulean Warbler on the U.S. cover has become somewhat iconic stateside. In the U.K., they give us a feather and a big "F" instead. The U.S. cover is awfully bland here, while the U.K. cover is pretty stunning, with a clever visual pun. The U.K. cover has a cool throwback sci-fi vibe going on, but the U.S. cover is one of the more visually arresting efforts in recent years.