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.
We’ve given today’s visual storytellers considerable power: for better or worse, they are the new meaning-makers, the priests of shorthand synthesis. We’re dependent on these priests to scrutinize, bundle, and produce beautiful information for us so that we can have our little infogasm and then retweet the information to our friends.
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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.
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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.via
We learned recently that Jonthan Franzen's long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections, a new novel called Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Now we have a cover too. Franzen's name looms appropriately large on the cover (in a font that recalls Ed Ruscha [edit: or Wayne White]), as does what appears to be a variety of blue jay a Cerulean Warbler. All of this is set atop a lake scene at sunset, the evergreen trees in the background suggesting northern latitudes. As we noted in our 2010 book preview: "The excerpt from the novel that appeared last year [in The New Yorker] was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our 'Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.'"
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Last week, a friend of mine told me he never understood why the government funded PBS in the first place. Sesame Street is marketable and could be bought out by Disney or Nickelodeon in a second. The same goes for all of PBS’s best shows. So why should taxpayers fund PBS? “Believe” is the most overused buzzword of political rhetoric, so I will avoid it. But I really think PBS should be subsidized by the government. Here's why. PBS is a cheap way to educate. There's way more of your tax dollar going to war machines than to this frivolous arts-n-farts station. Yes, it's run by aesthetes and Ivy League intellectuals. But that should be a point of national pride. The History Channel now airs "Did Aliens Build the Pyramids." The Learning Channel airs "Say Yes to the Dress." If you let the market choose your programming, sooner or later, it will lead to Honey Boo Boo. Henson Kept Big Bird Safe from For-Profits It’s true that Sesame Street (produced by CTW, the Children’s Television Workshop) could get bought out by Disney - in an instant. In the 1980s, when Michael Eisner came to Disney and started its corporate expansion into resorts, hotels, cruise ships, Broadway shows, TV networks, stores, sports teams, etc., he also made a deal with Jim Henson to buy the Muppets. But not the Sesame Street Muppets. Henson created Big Bird for CTW and owned the copyright. Henson refused to sell Eisner the Sesame Muppets, which included Big Bird, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Grover, and Elmo. Half of all licensing money from these characters went to CTW, for Sesame’s autonomy and survival. Licensing these character was the financial lifeblood of Sesame Street at that point. CTW’s Sesame Street started in 1969 as a grand experiment to see what would happen if you gave all children (inner city, rural kids, and suburban alike) entertaining pre-school lessons as a head start. When you consider the alternatives, this is an awfully cheap way to educate and unite kids all over the country. Henson Was a For-Profit Sesame Street was a great social experiment that came out of the liberal 60s. But in many ways, the show was a product of free market capitalism. Jim Henson, a successful businessman, donated his services to the show. He didn't get a paycheck for it. For Henson, it was worth doing – for free. The show's funding came from private philanthropy in the beginning, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. They put up the hundreds of thousands necessary to do research, hire education specialists, artists, and so on. CTW was not originally publicly funded. It did receive some public funds later, but then eventually became independent on the sale of toys (remember those $30 Tickle-Me Elmos?). So if private business is responsible for Sesame Street, why do we need to fund PBS? The thing is, you need both sides - public and private - to make Sesame Street. The show was the brainchild of Rosemary Ganz Cooney, who was at the time an employee of New York’s channel 13, the nation’s first Public Broadcasting channel. Sesame Street was the kind of thing no other network would dream of – clearly – and no network would even air. It is sui generis, original, and produced by a company that doesn't want to make a profit; it wants to keep achieving its mission of teaching lessons. It wants independence. No other station would offer CTW a home without strings attached. PBS’s lack of economic motives was imperative. PBS offers a home to strange shows that just want to do something positive. That's why Jim Henson didn't let Michael Eisner buy Big Bird. Oh Eisner tried, and he made Jim Henson pretty “annoyed,” according to a 1990 Washington Post article, trying – in Cooney’s words. According to the book Street Gang, when Henson told him Sesame Street characters were not on the table, Eisner relented and invited Cooney and Henson for “a peace lunch.” Cooney said, “Michael was absolutely being just his most charming self... but then out of the blue, he said something that stopped Jim cold... he made some reference to the Sesame Street Muppets...Jim turned to Michael and said, ‘You did it again!’” This was a man who never seemed angry - getting angry. And according to a 1991 Forbes article, when Disney’s lawyers finally realized they couldn't get the Sesame Street Muppets, “Disney wanted to limit their use, presumably to enhance the value of the Muppets it was buying.” Disney wanted to see less Big Bird, in order to get more profits for Mickey. That's the way the free market works, baby. It's a zero-sum game, and the strong squash the weak. In a 1991 Newsweek article, a Henson source said Disney lawyer Jeffrey Katzenberg countered Henson’s plea for a “fair deal,” by saying, “Fair deal! Get out of the ‘60s, pal. You’re in Hollywood now.” CTW could sell itself to Disney any day of the week if it wanted to. It pointedly does not want to. It wants to remain independent, to listen only to its creators’ consciences and its panel of educators and researchers. If Sesame Street were bought by Disney, it would be subject to Disney's shareholders' opinions. Shareholders of a global entertainment conglomerate like Disney probably care about a lot of nice things but none more than money. For Innovation, We Need Both The public television system is above all else an opportunity. You may not like most of the shows on PBS – Downton Abbey or Antiques Roadshow or Jim Lehrer or Barney - but the PBS infrastructure needs to stay available for innovation. For the next Sesame Street. For innovations that will bring us all together as a nation, make us better, stronger, and smarter. We need the potential for informative programming to come into poor neighborhoods. We need the potential for a new big idea that will, perhaps, make our teens decide to major in math and science and stimulate our economy. I don't know what the next thing will be, but I know the networks won't air it. They'll air Millionaire Matchmaker and Real Housewives. Sesame Street was an amazing moment in our national history, aspiring to unite all kids in a shared love of learning and a shared wonder at what America could do. It came about because of a unique partnership between the free market and a governmentally-funded station. We need both to give us another Sesame Street. If you shut down the public part of the equation, you're dooming the next generation to a future without that opportunity. Big Bird won't get fired. CTW makes its own money. That's not the issue. The issue is – in 1969, who else would have aired a crazy idea like Sesame Street if not PBS?
As we reach the year's midpoint, it's time to look at some of the books we are most looking forward to for the second half. There are many, many intriguing books on the docket for the next six months, but these are some of the most notable. Please share your most anticipated books in the comments.August: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children's Hospital. That novel's ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection's title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006. More recently, Adrian offered up a personal essay in the New York Times Magazine about getting a tattoo.September: Philip Roth remains tireless, and his latest effort arrives in September, less than year after Exit Ghost garnered seemingly wall-to-wall coverage. With Indignation, Roth takes readers to 1951 America and introduces a young man, a son of a New Jersey butcher, trying to avoid the draft and the Korean War. An early review (with spoilers) offers, "Indignation is a sad and bloody book, and even if it delivers nothing particularly new - indeed, most of Roth's books could be retitled Indignation - it is a fine supplement to Roth's late achievements. And we learn a lot about kosher butchery."Norwegian author Per Petterson collected a number of international prizes and upped his name recognition with Out Stealing Horses, which appeared to much acclaim in English in 2005 and won the IMPAC two years later. I read and enjoyed his In the Wake, which was written before Horses but appeared afterward in translation. Of that book, I wrote, the "boundary between madness and loneliness is plumbed to great effect." Petterson's latest to be translated for American audiences, To Siberia, is his second novel. Like Petterson's other novels, To Siberia is inspired by his parents, who died in a ferry accident along with two of his brothers in 1990. A snippet of an excerpt is available at the NYRB (and more if you are a subscriber).According to our Prizewinners post, Marilynne Robinson's 2004 book Gilead was one of the most celebrated novels of the last thirteen years. Gilead arrived 24 years after Robinson's debut, Housekeeping, but Robinson's latest, Home, comes after only a four-year hiatus. As Publishers Weekly first reported, "Home shares its setting with Gilead, and its action is concurrent with that novel's. Characters from Gilead will also appear in Home."Kate Atkinson is bringing back her reluctant detective Jackson Brodie for a third book, When Will There Be Good News?. An early review on a blog is mixed, and apparently he has a wife in this one. (Not sure how all the Brodie fans will take that!)Garth writes: "David Heatley's My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a graphic novel that takes readers deep into the uncomfortable psychological undercurrents of everyday American life. Like Chris Ware, who gave him a prominent blurb, David Heatley is a double threat with a pen: both words and drawings are adventures in style."Garth writes: "Indie stalwart Joe Meno delivers Demons in the Spring, a new collection of 20 stories, each of them illustrated by a leading graphic artist."October: John Barth, one of the leading lights of American fiction, has a new book on the way. The Development is, according to the publisher promo copy, "a touching, comic, deeply humane collection of linked stories about surprising developments in a gated community." A story from the book "Toga Party," appeared in Fiction magazine and in the Best American Short Stories 2007. There's not much on the book just yet, but "Toga Party" won some praise from readers.Also making October an impressive month for new books will be Death with Interruptions by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Though the book will no doubt be allegorical like many of Saramago's works, the title is apparently meant somewhat literally as the story involves eternal life.Garth writes: "Ingo Schulze's 2005 tome, New Lives, finally reaches American shores, in a translation by the magnificent John E. Woods. According to Schulze, it concerns an aesthete who finds himself plunged into the sturm and drang of capitalist life. Die Zeit called it 'the best novel about German reunification.' Period."John Updike will follow up one of his best known novels, 1984's The Witches of Eastwick, with a sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame will return with Ape House. It "features the amazing bonobo ape."November: Garth writes: "Characteristically, Roberto Bolaño throws a curveball, delivering 2666 a massive final novel that both does and doesn't match the hype surrounding it. I haven't decided whether or not it's a good book, but it is, indisputably, a great one. I devoured it in a week and haven't stopped thinking about it since."It's not every year that we get a new book from an American Nobel laureate, but this year we will get A Mercy from Toni Morrison. The promo description on Amazon is downright mysterious, offering this brief blurb: "A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past." But she has been reading from the book at various events and Wikipedia already has some details, though these appear to be pulled from promotional material as well. We can glean that the novel will take place in the 17th century, the early days of slavery in the Americas.Please let us know what books you are most looking forward to for the second half of 2008 in the comments.