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.
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.
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.
Neither of these is especially appealing to my eye. The U.S. version uses a travel poster-type image, but at least the bold font and title placement are intriguing. The U.K. goes for realism and the result is pretty dull.
Another pair that I don’t love, though the U.S. version has an appealing painterly quality to it. The U.K. version feels a bit slapped together.
I like both of these a lot. The U.S version is bold and somehow feels both vintage and very current. The LP label motif in the U.K. version is clever, yet subtle enough to avoid being gimmicky.
The U.S. version does a great job of setting a mood, but my nod goes to the U.K. version. The black dog is eerie and sculptural and the receding landscape is haunting.
These covers are very different and I have loved them both since I first saw them. The tents on the U.S. cover are both magical and, in the context of the subject matter, unnerving. But I love the bold, poster-art aesthetic of the U.K. cover too.
Sometimes simpler is better. I like the mesmerizing quality of the U.S. cover, with the tantalizing golden apple peeking from its center. The U.K. version is clearly trying to capture the mad tumult of the book’s plot but it is somehow too literal.
The U.S. cover is clever and intriguing, with those circular windows on repeated words, but I love the U.K. cover and the subtle suggestion of madness in its Jenga/Tetris puzzle. Update: I had initially posted the paperback U.S. cover, but looking now at the hardcover design, I agree with our commenter Bernie below that it is very striking.
The cropping of the sculpture gives the U.S. cover a compelling look. I like the U.K. cover but it doesn’t feel quite fully realized.
Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands.
Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon.
Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking.
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.
Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters.
Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” — elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.”
Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic designer,” said colophons were “shop talk.” He thought that readers “don’t care to know and they don’t need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer’s vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman’s pants.”
Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product.
Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion.
When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes:
Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence — these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger — I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words.
When writing about books — a world within a world — I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater.
I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons — and the spirit behind them — are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition.
I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new.
I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem.
Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond.
William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon.
Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch.
This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante.
I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon.
It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again:
Form and function is so important to us on every level — and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it — but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?
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.
A new edition of Voltaire’s Candide with a cover by Chris Ware came out a few months ago. At the time, it was announced that there would other books in this series with covers by other famous artists, and I’ve been waiting to see them ever since. The other other day Penguin’s Summer 2006 catalog arrived, and I was excited to see that the covers are in there. I was going to wait until the pictures were up online somewhere before posting them, but it was taking too long, so I scanned them. Candide is already out, the rest are out on March 28:Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Cover by Anders NilsenThe New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Cover by Art Spiegelman Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Cover by Roz ChastThe Portable Dorothy Parker, Cover by Seth The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Cover by Charles BurnsCandide by Voltaire, Cover by Chris WareSee the full-size pictures hereUpdate: See Part Two
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.”