October 31, 2009

Judging a book by its cover

Here’s a wonderful book jacket from the 1940s, a satanic thriller which I picked up in our basement stacks the other day. The book is unreadable now, if it ever was, one of sixty churned out by a man Trashfiction.com describes as “a writer of no great talent, [whose] books were clunky, lumpy slabs of indigestible narrative”, but you have to admit, the cover is a classic.

Something I enjoy with the covers of the old books in the basement is reading the blurbs. Unlike today when every book cover boasts two or three hyperbolic quotes from well-known authors pushed into service by their publishers, the old covers are sort of like long ago Olympic games when athletes were amateurs and wore long pants; they offer quaint phrases like

“I have no hesitation in pressing this delightful story on you” 

That's the Daily Dispatch reviewer on a book by a man named John Symonds, noted for having had Dylan Thomas’s wife Caitlin attack him with a knife at a party.

Then there are those ambiguous lines like this one which Anthony Burgess composed for an Irish writer named Paul Smith,
 
“When every drunken Dublin writer is a genius I don’t feel like committing myself to the word; but I am sorely tempted.”


It's close to “Damning with faint praise” territory, which I always thought of as an English tradition until I spied this quote on another cover, from James Finn in The New York TImes:

"What Terrarossa attempts is limited but it offers the very real satisfaction of a work that achieves its purpose exactly.”

As for the cover designs themselves, it never ceases to amaze me how, within the hundred years or so that they have existed, book jackets have always had this trait of perfectly evoking a moment in history. I suppose all objects of design do this, but at least for me, the difference between book covers and say, coffeemakers, is that with book covers every period is fantastic, bar none.

Anyone out there love Penguin Classics? The man who came up with the idea of putting photographs of paintings on the covers of the Penguin classics was an Italian named Germano Facetti, who had been deported to Mauthausen during the war for anti-fascist activity, aged only 17, met a Milanese architect there and joined his studio for a while when they got out, and then moved on, Paris, London, Penguin Books.

When my in-laws (who knew him) told me about him I thought that his job consisted of looking through art books all day or visiting museums, picking out paintings to match to various great books. It seemed like the dreamiest dream job ever and I expect I can blame hearing about it for another couple of years of arrested development with regard to thinking seriously about a career.

Now that I work in a library which has the fine history of Penguin Books, Penguin by Design, in its collection, I know that while Facetti did indeed personally pick out many of the paintings, he also invented the grid, chose the font (Helvetica) and did many other ground-breaking things. There's a forum on the Typophile website where book world denizens talk about him, with a link to a gallery of his covers.

Two other books for book cover aficionados are By its cover: Modern American Book Cover Design which pointed out to me that book covers are a form of “communication art” and proceeds designer by designer with a fair amount of depth, and Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design which is a bit more slapdash in that a spread can be an author (eg Agatha Christie), a designer (eg Jeff Fisher, creator of the extraordinarily successful dark dark blue Captain Corelli’s Mandolin cover), a time period (eg “the beat generation”) or a publisher (eg Harvill Press, who did the beautiful edition we have in our basement of The Leopard with the calligraphic writing and the curtain pulled aside to reveal the rampant Leopard -- they date the cover as 1960 so it might be the very first English version).

Websites are of course wonderful places to browse book covers. Coverbrowser.com offers you the chance to browse over 1000 Greatest Book Covers with another gallery of the covers of the greatest novels of all time. Check out the period On the Road with its Natalie Wood-inspired female labelled "Wild and unrestrained", or perhaps they mean the story. There are also sundry jazz musicians, but no sign of Old Dean Moriarty.

Bookcoverarchive.com has thousands of covers which can be viewed by titles, authors, designers, photographers, publication date, etc. There are links to the portfolio sites of about twenty of the designers. I clicked on Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich because the name was so improbable, and guess what! It turned out to be the very name I can put to all my least favourite covers in the entire library, particularly these two books that without ever having opened them I can assure you I will never, ever, read because yes, I judge them by these:

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 04:30
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