Book design deserves more attention than it gets from readers. We pay attention to a pretty cover now and then, but most of us are so accustomed to books being disposable, a story to be read once and then put aside, given away, or returned to the library, that what it looks like matters very little. There are a few stand-out covers every year from the behemoth publishers, but the majority, especially the bestsellers in most genres, are designed to grab our attention more like a flashing sign than a piece of beauty.
I find this to be a great pity. As much as I like e-books–and I do love my kindle–they just don’t provide the same experience as reading a paper book. There’s a sensory experience in reading a paper book that can’t be replicated by a screen. It isn’t just that the book has a smell; a That sensory experience is heightened when a book’s design is as attractive as its content.
When I was a teenager I was an avid collector of the 90s Vintage covers: The color blocked designs and the stark font used on the spines were immensely appealing to me, and they published my favourite authors–A.S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, Jeannette Winterson, Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke. They continue to publish a strong selection of authors, but their abandonment of the plain color spines and black borders was disproportionately disappointing to me.
Happily we now have the New York Review Books Classics imprint. I don’t suppose they’ve won an award for design, because, like Vintage, there’s a single pattern for the series, but each one of these books is a thing of beauty. The font, the plain-color spines and backs, quality of the paper, even the shape and pleasant weight of each book. The colours they use are eye-catching and attractive. The front-cover illustrations are simple, a photograph or other extant image that is relevant to the text, usually a fragment of a painting. It’s a bit like the New Yorker covers, which often require you to puzzle out how they relate to the main story in each issue.
Beneath the covers is an impeccably curated collection of fiction, memoir, and biography from around the world. The imprint was launched in 1999 to re-publish out of print works from The Reader’s Catalogue, because it was found that many of the “40,000 best books in print” were in fact no longer in print. They have since branched out to include English-language translations of works that are highly regarded in other parts of the world but otherwise unavailable to those like me who never learned to read even a second language to fluency. Unlike Penguin Classics, for which a “classic” must be of a certain vintage–fifty or seventy years after death, I think, depending on when the author’s copyright expires according to U.S. or UK law–these classics are deemed so according to influence and reputation, and the range of interest covered is immense. They have re-printed all of Nancy Mitford’s non-fiction titles, which for a time were much harder to get hold of than her fiction; a collection of troubadour poems from mediaeval France; and a host of novels and memoirs from China, Eastern Europe, and South America that provide personal testimonies and insights into the wars and revolutions of the last century that we have variously lacked access to and ignored in the U.S.
A recent sorting through and reorganization of my library revealed that I have several shelves worth of Vintage and Penguin classics, collected in the many years since I began high school. My NYRB shelf is by comparison puny–only a handful of titles as yet–but I am working on that, bit by bit. They are books to be savoured, rather than devoured in one or two sittings, so I am taking it slow.