Classic Make-overs & Papery Beautiful Things

Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) CoverCold Comfort Farm (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) CoverLady Chatterley's Lover (Modern Library Classics) Cover

In the most recent Libraries Unlimited Readers’ Advisor News newsletter, a colleague, Abby Bass, wrote a great article about book covers and readers’ advisory. It’s called “Today’s Cover Story: New Trends in Book Cover Design and Their Impact on Readers.” 

In the article, she mentions Penguin’s “Graphic Classic” series–updated covers for some old classic titles.  And these book covers did need a makeover. It can be difficult to persuade a book group, especially if it includes any younger members, to read Cold Comfort Farm or Lady Chatterley’s Lover if they get a hold of a particularly bland looking cover.

We are a visual culture.  And as Nick so eloquently put it in a previous post, we respond to the physical aspects of books.  I am more likely to buy or read a book that is a pleasure to hold or behold.  Here is an example–I usually only buy books I intend to reread, but I just had to own a hardcover copy of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish after I returned my library copy. It’s got beautiful illustrations of 12 fish and the color of the text changes throughout because the character/author of the tale uses whatever is at hand to scrawl down his story, from seaweed to blood.

I know that I responded to the McSweeney’s aesthetic of making beautiful books from the outset for this very reason. This early missive remains one of my favorite mission statements:

From McSweeney’s Issue No. 5, Very Late Summer, 2000

“In short, we are talking about smaller and leaner operations that use the available resources and speed and flexibility of the market (ie., the web and other consumer-driven methods), to enable us to make not cheaper and cruder (print-on-demand) books or icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books, but better books, perfect and permanent hardcover books, to do so in a fiscally sound way, and to do so not just for old-time’s sake, but because it makes sense and gives us, us people with fingers and eyes, what we want and what we’ve always wanted: beautiful things, beautiful things in our hands—to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things.”

So even though I know that slapping a new, hip cover by a popular graphic artist is just marketing and that I am being pandered to as the Gen-X “insert 80’s song or reference here and they’ll buy X or Y product” consumer that I am, I also see that it cannot hurt to make something old new again. 

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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