27 July, 2008

How to judge a book

A little show and tell.

As I said in a comment to my last post, reading the content is 'only a small part of what I want to do with a book'. I have no truck with the Platonic injunction never to judge a book by its cover, because it relies on a too easy separation of form and content, body and soul, to the discredit of the former. Just as one shudders to drink wine from a paper cup, or eat a fine steak with plastic cutlery, so one is ashamed to have one's Joyce or Shandy in an ugly classics edition, let alone on the screen. None of us here has a problem with the taste for fine volumes. But what constitutes a fine volume? If you are going to have a fine Aristotle or Cicero, a lavish eighteenth-century edition in gilt calf is undoubtedly the way forward, for those who can afford it. But what of those modern (or even pre-modern) authors who refuse to be manifest in gilt calf?

Myself, I favour the browned dustjackets, attractively limned in black and red, that flourished in the middle of the last century, especially in the 1940s. Here, for instance, is my 1948 copy of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, which had previously appeared only in period pamphlet form, or else in buckram-bound Workses of 1833 and 1904:

The layout of the cover loosely imitates a standard Elizabethan title-page (though not Nashe's), gently modernized. Ayrton's image illustrates Nashe's account of the 'sweating sickness' that broke out in London in 1517: 'This sweating sicknes, was a disease that a man then might catch and never goe to a hot-house. Manie Masters desire to have such servants as would worke till they sweate againe, but in those dayes hee that sweate never wrought againe.' An apt reference, given the sudorific humidity currently plaguing London. Here, again, is a 1945 Phaidon edition of Burckhardt:

The materials are the same—cheap paper, red and black ink—but the effect is quite different, largely due to the crabbed inscription-capitals of the title, and to the Quattrocento woodcut. (Can anyone identify it?) Best of all in the genre, though, is undoubtedly this, sadly a reprint, but an authentic one, which I once picked up in the rare books department of the famous Strand bookstore, NYC:

I find it virtually impossible to dislike the Menippean contents of this volume, no matter how light the Surrealists' literary talents might have been. The design is a modernist masterpiece. How much variety can be obtained from these jackets, so simple and elegant. I wonder if their progenitor is the marvelous cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer. Certainly, there is not enough design any more: so many modern books, even when they've been well budgeted to look handsome, resort to photography or, worse, a famous painting in the adornment of their covers. Such recycling, at its best, can be clever, but like Eco's novels, it demonstrates the sad triumph of erudition over imagination.


Buying attractive editions of cherished books poses no problem. I feel less comfortable when I come across a work with beautiful covers but no interest between them. I have vacillated, in my collecting days, in my opinion on owning a book purely for its pretty face. I try to stand firm, the rationalist and Platonic collector. But now and then I have bowed to the lure and allure of physical beauty. For instance with books of poems, purchased despite my intense hostility, or at best indifference, to most poetry.

An undated (ca. 1900) George & Harrap edition of Browning's Pippa Passes, in limp plum suede with Nouveauish gilt and stamping—only three pounds last summer. The poem is infamous for its hilarious misuse of the word twat—amply covered by Language Log.

A 1958 New Directions paperback of Ferlinghetti which I 'borrowed' from my parents: the cover photograph is simply astounding, and the typography inside is a treat. Shame about the words ('Kafka's Castle stands above the world / like a last bastille / of the Mystery of Existence'). This was already the end of the line for modern poetry.

You notice the contradiction. At the beginning of this post I denied Plato and the strict separation of form from content, and yet now I happily disengage brilliant jackets from their puerile wearers. Wie gliet ich auß! Is it possible that the face could change my opinion of the mind?

I fear that if Crow, above in its 1970 first edition, were packaged differently, I might find it equally as tepid as the rest of Hughes' works. (And I pray that I never stumble upon a well-designed volume of Plath.) At times the adolescent sophisms sink to Ferlinghettiesque levels:
So finally there was nothing.
It was put inside nothing.
Nothing was added to it
And to prove it didn't exist
Squashed flat as nothing with nothing.
But then there are moments of amusement, or better sophisms, at least:
And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?

Crow realised there were two Gods—

One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.
It ain't poetry, but moments like this chime with that grotesque, Dubuffetian cover drawing by Hughes' buddy Leonard Baskin, so pathologically hostile to the prettiness of poetry-lovers: the antitype of Pippa Passes and A Coney Island. It is therefore fitting that the cover evokes the raw elegance of the old mid-century covers shown above, black and red on matte paper. We don't need subfusc suede or glamorous photography, it says; only a simple graphic. And that cover gives wings to the words, epea pteroenta, that struggle to sing inside.

I leave you with two other favourites in my collection, bad books with terrific jackets. And which two books could possibly be more different?

A bizarre tragedy by Queen Victoria's novelist of choice, in a 1937 Methuen edition, which I acquired from a Charing Cross vitrine solely on the strength of its cover. The spine features what seems to be an exploding atom rendered as the Japanese naval ensign: oddly prescient, in its symbolic way, of coming atrocities. The cover photograph—date uncertain—shows Clovelly High Street, which remains little changed to this day. The dedication is 'To those self-styled 'progressivists', who by precept and example assist the infamous cause of education without religion and who, by promoting the idea, borrowed from French atheists, of denying to the children in schools and elsewhere, the knowledge and love of God as the true foundation of noble living, are guilty of a worse crime than murder'. And so the novel itself is a work of sickly piety, a sermon that the new science is not, after all, incompatible with the old religion: that the Atom is God.

It is important to read these sorts of books now and then, mixed in with your modern classics. One needs to acquaint oneself with the clumsy and hard to understand—with the Sylvie and Brunos as well as with the Snarks and Alices. In this case I found the wormwood of the message sweetened the over-writing, and by the magical primitivism of the jacket design. And then, from the rear to the advance-guard, a French atheist and 'progressivist':

A 1958 Gaberbocchus first edition, in cute saffron cloth, of the well-known Exercices des Style in Barbara Wright's translation. You can pay 200 dollars for one of these on abebooks, but I picked up mine for 50p in a library sale at the University of York. The title-page is of some interest: it reads, for some reason in French, Exercices de Style par Raymond Queneau. Someone has crossed out the 'c' in Exercices and written 's' in red pen, likewise replacing 'de' with 'in' and 'par' by 'by'. The work itself is juvenile: a smirky gimmick that could have been, and probably was, tossed off in a couple of hours—but it has some charm as a period document, conjuring that noman's land after Surrealism but before the OuLiPo, when the French avant-garde were trying desparately to find their feet again. Again, the cover design, with its jazzy doodles and parodic portrait, is the perfect essence of Queneau's literary spirit.

Now, what are your favourite covers?


Greg Afinogenov said...

I adore the classic-style Gallimard editions. And, though I'm ashamed to admit it, I love the artsy new Penguin covers.

I've also accumulated far too many ugly '60s mass-market paperbacks with crumbling, coffee-stained covers. But did Jacques Ellul or Erving Goffman or Paul Goodman even deserve a modern, shinier imprint? Will these be their last "garments"?

John Cowan said...

I have been from my youth a reader of fantasy and science fiction, and as such I despise covers, which are the products of overworked pseudo-artists who have not read a line (and in some cases, it is said, are forbidden by contract to read a line) of the work they purport to illustrate.

Just as one shudders to drink wine from a paper cup,

I do not drink ... wine.

or eat a fine steak with plastic cutlery,

I eat my fine steaks (my butcher and I call them club steaks, but I don't know what expression is used in your neck of the woods for them, Conrad) most commonly by picking the same up with a fork (metal, for practical rather than aesthetic reasons) and biting a compendious piece off, whereafter I proceed with the usual routine of of successive (and successful) mastication, deglutition, and digestion. (I am, indeed, and I do not blush to admit it, a habitual and even public masticator.)

so one is ashamed to have one's Joyce or Shandy in an ugly classics edition,

One may be, but others are not. My father, homo unius libri and that one the Wake, had two copies in plain hard covers, the better to do his work with.

let alone on the screen

On the screen, perhaps not. Printed from the screen, indeed; and all honor to the complaisance of successive employers who have overlooked the resulting consumption of paper and toner.

None of us here has a problem with the taste for fine volumes.

Not as such. But as a friend of my wife's was wont to say, "I give you books, and I give you books -- and all you do is eat the covers." If you wish to eat the whole volume, far be it from me to stop you.

Finally (in my end is my beginning): "Not even the most diligently destructive barbarian can extirpate
the written word from a culture wherein the
minimum edition of most books
is fifteen hundred copies. There are just too many books." --L. Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall.

Raminagrobis said...

I share with Mr Afinogenov a liking for the classic simplicity of French editions - like the Gallimard ones, or the attractive and readable Minuit editions; or else the ones in the Belles Lettres humanism series (this, for example). Even the Champion editions have quite tasteful covers, although in my experience they are poorly edited and have low production values.

Languagehat said...

I myself am fond of Russian covers from the '60s and '70s.

But I am shocked and saddened to find that you have no appreciation for Exercices de style, one of the great books of the last century. I fear you will have no share in paradise.

R J Keefe said...

There is nothing as encouraging as the sight of the spines of one's own Loeb Classics, lined up in tomato and lime.

Anonymous said...

I agree with RJ. There are few things more satisfying than a Loeb Classic. The curious size, the onion skin pages, the surprising heft. I'm talking here of individual copies. When grouped? When shelved together? What could be more beautiful, more satisfying!

Only I'd use 'raspberry red' instead of 'ketchup' to describe the Latin versions.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: "who have not read a line (and in some cases, it is said, are forbidden by contract to read a line) of the work they purport to illustrate"

I don't see the problem with that. It didn't stop Matisse doing Ulysses. As for your father, FW doesn't exist in any pretty editions to my knowledge. The plainness of the hard covers actually suits the book, though.

French book-covers are OK, but perhaps a little too plain for my tastes: they can be monotonous. The same goes for Loebs: I don't like the walls of green (I would say more apple than lime) and red; plus, Loebs are too small--and I've never seen one with 'onion-skin pages'. I prefer the I Tatti Renaissance volumes; though ideally I prefer each book to have its individual character.

MMcM said...

Damisella Trivulzia, from Bergomensis, De Claris Mulieribus, Ferrara 1497. No online full-book scans, but the Japanese site in the Wikipedia's footnotes has a (different) leaf. Couple more illustrations here.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Very impressive, thanks!

M.W. Nolden said...

There are so many covers that I love, but two in particular stand out. The first is the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick with Rockwell Kent's macho-moderne, but still beautiful, illustrations. I believe he actually designed the entire book & not just the 270 illustrations.(Which might explain the absence of Melville's name on the cover…) I was too lazy to google the cover but it's easy to find if one wants to look. The other is Chipp Kidd's design for the first American hard-bound edition of "The Wind-up Bird Chronicles" by Haruki Murakami.


(The best it that if one flips the novel like a flip book, the page numbers move around the perimeter of the text…)
I suppose the appeal here for me is that both books are a complete package that encompasses the entire book-as-object. Here one can judge the book (visually at least) by the cover.

John Cowan said...

If the covers I speak of were indeed by Matisse, I could tolerate a certain discrepancy in subject matter. Sed quod licet Iovi non licet bovi.