Friday Fave: New York Review Books Classics

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.

Aren’t they pretty? (Torn spine aside. This is one peril of buying second-hand books online…)

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.


Queen Girls

I’ve been hearing pronouncements and dire warnings about printed books and literacy itself dying out for–decades? Most of my life? A really long time. I was going through old books recently and found an ad from an advocacy group at the back of one from the early 80s warning that by the year 2000, it was estimated that only 20% of adults would be able to read. (Commas and apostrophes may be under threat, but whoever came up with that dark future plainly underestimated the popularity of computers and mobile phones.)

We have a variety of new and newly popular means of reading and listening to books, but the form isn’t going anywhere. People haven’t ceased reading and writing books; there are more than ever. While this has produced some markedly disappointing trends (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*), it has been a joy to watch people take advantage of these new formats to find books that speak to their personal experience so much more easily, and the number of independent presses and self-published works that have taken off–particularly in YA and children’s literature.

One such effort I came across recently is a new publishing venture called Queen Girls, a currently small outfit that produces children’s books featuring real-life women who were heroes of their time. Their first book is Bessie, Queen of the Sky, about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.

The kickstarter campaign for this first book is proving wildly successful, and there are plans for further titles in the future. The women running the imprint are focused not only on telling women’s stories, but on the achievements of women from a variety of backgrounds–stories that still aren’t being told as often as they should, because they come from other cultures, other classes, or just periods of the past that aren’t in fashion, so to speak, and are thus neglected. The illustrations are also lovely, which is a definite plus for attracting younger readers.

The books are designed for reading ages 4 to 8, and are available in e-format in English and in Spanish. The publisher is also partnering with literacy organizations here in the U.S. and internationally: For every book that is sold, another copy will be donated, in the interest of encouraging literacy and empowering girls. A limited edition hardback copy of Bessie, Queen of the Sky is available here, for those who prefer paper books. I find the book wholly charming, and look forward to seeing more titles in the series.


Friday Fave: Marley Dias

Stretching out on a pile of books this large was one of my childhood fantasies. Unfortunately I didn’t own this many until I was in my late teens, by which time it was less appealing as a physical activity.

Marley Dias is one of my heroes. Her story started spreading over the Internet at the beginning of this year, when she founded the #1000blackgirlbooks movement. I loved books every bit this much when I was eleven; I had approximately 0% of her social awareness, discipline, or self-confidence. Over twenty-five years later, I have some of her social awareness and a tiny bit of her discipline, maybe a little more self-confidence than I started with, but I’m still lagging waaay behind. I still 100% hate being in front of a camera. Forget just being a role model for kids; a lot of grown-ups could learn a thing or two from her.

In addition to her ongoing book campaign,–she has hit her target, but why quit when you’re ahead?–and BAM, a related project/website she runs with her friends Briana and Amina, the magazine Elle recently invited her to edit a special edition ‘zine called Marley Mag. (I’m not entirely sure how a ‘zine is different from a magazine; is this a new thing, or just shorthand for the same thing we pick up next to the grocery-store check-out?) She is self-possessed when meeting the likes of Oprah and Ellen, and not a little photogenic; that she finds time to do all this and still attend school on a regular basis–and still read books–amazes me. I get a little tired just thinking about how much energy that must take.
I’d put money on her becoming the Lin-Manuel Miranda or Misty Copeland of the publishing world by the time she’s 30 20, at the rate she’s going.

I might have mentioned a time or twenty that I’m an avid reader; I also work in the publishing industry, and am a writer myself. I hear and read a great deal about how literacy is dying, people aren’t learning handwriting any more, everyone’s reading e-books and computers instead of printed books, and thus not absorbing as much of what they read. Insofar as that is true–and I agree that it is, at least in part, although all the dire warnings from the 1980s that by the year 2000 only a fraction of the population might be able to read proved wildly overstated, and I suspect that the predictions of the extinction of the printed page will prove similarly exaggerated–it is on us to keep that from happening. There are severe problems with the educational system, to be sure, and they do need fixing, but no one is going to enjoy reading if they only do it in the schoolroom and then in the workplace. Bemoaning the loss of literacy and writing skills makes no sense when as a nation we take such brief notice of people like Marley and other kids with similar, if less revolutionary, aims, such as Blake AnsariTyler Fugett, Evan Feldberg-Bannatyne, and Kirstin Shipp. I love that someone this young, with a bit of star quality and a ton of ambition, has made the celebration of reading and a demand for greater diversity in literature her mission in life. This is how we can save our literary culture. More power to her, and all those who have decided to emulate her.