Saturday, July 14, 2012

Judging Books by Their Covers

I'm writing this post from a literary fortress walled with about five thousand books. Good books, great books, bad books, dirty books, clean books, crappy books, jungle books, city books, old books, new books, unread books, re-read books--and all are real books. By which I mean they're constructed from ink and paper, not bits and bytes. They are printed on pages identically cut and glued together or bound like submissive lovers. Now that death knells for the paper book are beeping and burping from every e-reader in the world, I've decided to skip the oblivion phase and go directly to nostalgic revival. Return with me now to a time before Kindles and Nooks. Remember how wonderful paper books were? How their batteries never ran down, how they could be tossed from high windows and still function properly, how you could drop them in the bathtub, fish them out, let them dry, and continue reading them (although they did gain a few new curves in the ordeal)? Remember the fetishistic feel of your thumb sliding across the upper corner of a page to pinch that skin-like texture between thumb and forefinger and lift, lift and turn, turn the page? Sontag didn't go far enough. Along with an erotics of art, we need an erotics of reading, something much sexier than any porn novel and with far more than fifty shades of gray. And one part of such an erotics must be an examination of the book cover as art. Since this art form seems destined for the dire fate of album covers (which reached a fairly high level of aesthetic value in the 1970s and 80s before the coming of compact discs fatally downsized the medium), I've decided to scan and share a few real book covers within easy reach of my writing desk.

We begin with Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul:

An early edition used one of Balthus's nymphets on the cover, but this is the cover image I will always think of when I think of Lolita. Barnaby Hall's remarkable photograph on this early 1990s Vintage International edition outdoes both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne by giving us a Lolita of the correct age. This entire edition of Nabokov's novels featured great photos by Hall, all of them wonderfully appropriate. Here's Transparent Things:

 The design--more prominent here--is by Marc J. Cohen, who also designed Lolita. This cover is even better, and all of the Hall-Cohen covers are superior to the current Vintage run, featuring a series of photographs of paper shadowbox constructions by Chip Kidd.
I understand the reasoning (if anything, the foregrounding of trompe l'oeil artifice on these newer covers is too obvious to be truly Nabokovian), and they do function to illustrate an important aspect of Nabokov's aesthetic, but their minimalism clashes too jarringly with another important aspect of that aesthetic, its maximalism.

Turning from Vlad the Inscriber to James the Joyous, here's my favorite cover illustration for Ulysses. Again, it's from a Vintage International printing of the early 1990s (when the publisher was on something of a roll).
 Angela Arnet's illustration marvelously signifies Leopold Bloom, that man made out of Joycean words, as a literal man of letters with eyeglasses to read the title he spells. It's a clever and very Modern conceit, and its humanity contrasts with the oddly Soviet-looking artwork chosen for the Gabler edition, a Ulysses that makes me want to build a dam for Lenin:

All the New Directions covers of W. G. Sebald's novels benefit from a decision to design them as seamless collages of tinted versions of photographs from the texts. The covers are thus as enigmatic and thought provoking as the books they bind:

Compare this to the following UK cover of Sebald's Vertigo, which appears to have been created under the misapprehension that the book was a novelization of the Hitchcock film:

As an example of what is being lost forever with the death of paper books (and the trashing of vintage paperbacks), check out this perfectly lovely vintage Penguin paperback of Thomas Wolfe's short stories.

The design is perfectly understated (as Wolfe never was), the illustration perfectly grandiose and nostalgic (as TW often was). It's one of the prettiest old paperbacks I own.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum, check out the pulpy, sensationalistic cover Signet used to market a European literary novel (in translation, no less) to the 1950s American audience:

As another memento of a time when highbrow literature was available in cheap paperback form, here's the 75-cent Fawcett Crest edition of Sartre's The Words, marketed as a "famous bestseller," just like Peyton Place

Back to beauty. Here's another of my favorite covers, the intriguing High Modernist Nikolai Punin illustration for Antonio Lobo Antunes' Fado Alexandrino:

Completely different but equally effective is the gorgeous Wanda Wulz self-portrait looking off toward the spine of David Grossman's Be My Knife:

My award for most effective and aesthetically pleasing series design must go to the Library of America. Their signature basic black dust jackets with a significant but non-jingoistic red-white-blue stripe (which in Ashbery's case surely signifies both the poet's nation of birth and his French literary inheritance) and a small author portrait at upper right are both tasteful and ultra-cool. They are what the fashionable American writer will be wearing this season.

This 1970s Bantam paperback of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a good definition of 'groovy.' The nostalgic hipster in me prefers it to the posthorn covers.

Lawrence has inspired some very good covers, but this ca.1990 Bantam Classics edition is my very personal favorite. It encourages me to study botany:

I would prefer to see Rep. Paul Ryan's face on the cover of Bret Easton Ellis's misfired (in my opinion) satire, but this sober male model is very creepy indeed--and too big to fail.

The entire Modern Library Proust six-pack is beautifully designed, right down to the box, but the photo chosen for the Captive-Fugitive volume makes it my candidate for the sexiest literary book cover currently in print. Love that leg:

A breathtakingly beautiful color photograph distinguishes this recent edition of Naipaul's Indian travel book. Whoever chose this photo made an amazingly good decision.

The Viking Portable Joyce was the second Joyce book I ever owned--I purchased the Penguin Portrait as a teenager; its cover featured the same Berenice Abbot portrait of the author--and I will probably always visually associate his work with the cover image of a gull-crazed sky over choppy Irish waves.

Need I mention that this edition of Kundera's Laughable Loves is from the Seventies? Inside the sexy cover, I highly recommend the great short story "The Hitchhiking Game," a work of Kunderan existentialism. 

This Routledge Classics edition of Slavoj Zizek's Enjoy Your Symptom! appears at first to be unimaginatively spartan, austere, minimal--everything Zizek is not. But then we notice that thing (a specifically Lacanian 'thing') in the upper right corner. What the hell is that? Closer examination confirms that it's the lipsticked rim of a mouth opened wide to cry out its subject's ecstasy at the moment of ultimate jouissance. And it's more than that, of course: the tiniest hint of tooth at the top edge transforms it into another kind of 'thing,' a vagina dentata opened to engulf and destroy the author's phallic name, the ultimate nom de pere...and so on and so forth, until we find ourselves living in the end times.


Barnaby Hall said...

Hi Thanks for your comments about my Nabokov cover photos- much appreciated! Barnaby

Barnaby Hall said...

Hi Thanks for your comments about my Nabokov cover photos- much appreciated! Barnaby