Judge a Book by Its Cover Judge a Book by Its Cover

Judge a Book by Its Cover

by Anne Trubek

December 5, 2008

Publishers should think artistically when packaging novels

I am a book snob. Not your standard, "I won't read trashy chick lit" snob-I weep over a forgettable title on the occasional Sunday night--but rather I am an "I want only a nice edition," snob. (Think "The Princess and the Pea," with books in lieu of bedding.)I admit there are classics I have not yet read-and my snobbishness is part of the reason. When I decide to finally crawl into bed with one, I want it to be fun to look at and nice to stroke. It is not always easy to find the right match.Take the 1839 French novel The Charterhouse of Parma. That confession is my humiliation for the week, but, in my defense, I can never find just the right Stendhal. I have bought five or so copies over the years, only to decide I cannot deign to read them for various reasons: the font is squished, the pages are yellowing, the binding is cracked. Every year, when I cull my shelves, I sell a Charterhouse back, unread.
A book is a material object--form matters. We have been reading prognoses for the demise of the book for years. The arguments for how lovely it is to lie in bed fondling books (as opposed to reading screens) are tired and silly. But that opinion is bolstered if you lie in bed stroking nice paper and looking at a pretty cover. Those design elements are what distinguish books from other forms of information storage.In an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, James Gleick offers this advice to publishers: "Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don't aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won't win on quick distribution, and you won't win on price. Cyberspace has that covered. Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it."Some publishers already figured this out and have been quietly reviving the almost-lost art of fine press production. McSweeney's puts out books that double as works of art. Arion Press releases exquisite limited editions. The playful British house Tankbooks packages its classics as cigarette boxes (see photo above).Regular old $15 paperbacks can be nicely done, as well. All you need is to invest in nice paper, solid bindings, and an artful cover, according to Gleick. Enter Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions.
The people at Penguin recognize the importance of a book as an object of physical beauty--they are now making seductive editions of classic titles printed on luscious paper, with French flaps and rough fronts. In addition, the house hired top-notch graphic novelists to design original covers, making its books even more delightful and relevant. Roz Chast's hilarious cover for Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farms, with fake blurbs on the back-"If ye doan want to feel the crimson fires of hell a-lickn' at your feet, read this book!" says Amos Starkadder-makes me want to read this rather obscure novel in place of a less-enticing classic. The flaps for Chris Ware's thickly designed Candide have the cutest pictures of the protagonist and the gang prefaced by this announcement: "As a public service the publishers offer here with a handy reference guide to the Major Characters of our story, presented in authentic period costume and to scale, etc. etc."How much for this Candide-which wryly manages to engage and excite before you read a single word? Twelve bucks. Ready to knock off whatever unread classic is haunting your reading list? Buy yourself a copy. It's not a bad way to celebrate the newly announced recession-or spend a night in bed.
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Judge a Book by Its Cover