14 Jul, 2009

This time you can judge all you like

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The book cover, once disposable, is now as much part of a work’s identity as the words inside, discovers Peter Conrad

Books used to come naked into the world, with no paper jacket or stiffening suit of cloth-clad boards to protect the bundles of pages sewn together by the printer. Buyers were expected to commission a binding, which defined the book as their possession rather than the writer’s creation. George Bernard Shaw jokily ordered his publisher to produce his study of Wagner with “gilt edges, leather binding, clasps, and a bookmarker of perforated card with a text worked on in wool”; he knew the request would be ignored. Removable jackets, introduced in the 1830s, were originally meant for disposal, like paper bags. They kept books from becoming shop-soiled, and once you got your purchase safely home you could throw away its temporary cover.

But those cheap, ephemeral outer garments gradually became essential to the books they wrapped. First they were carriers of shameful commercial information, with prices displayed on the spine or more discreetly on the inside flap; later they became succinct visual advertisements for the massed quires of print contained within. A good cover sums up uncountable thousands of words in one striking, tantalising image. Today, in a crowded market, covers are the armour that strengthens books to struggle for existence. A while ago, a publisher persuaded me to forget my qualms about the cover for a book of mine by standing me at one end of a room and propping the dummy on a busy shelf on the opposite wall: the design – which I thought too bright and brash – was expected to outshine its neighbours or elbow them aside, to call to prospective customers from across the shop. I may have written the book but others had to sell it, and marketers assume that we buy the ingratiating package, not the biscuits or soap powder or words inside it.

A book’s words are private, the silent transcription of thought; the cover gives them a public face. Its design also identifies the publisher, the go-between who connects reclusive, soliloquizing writers with those who consume their wares. Covers establish a corporate style, like the logos of the old film studios – a lion, a propeller plane encircling the globe – and imprint a single brand on the jabbering diversity of the company’s output. With pardonable self-indulgence, Faber is celebrating its 80th anniversary by commissioning Joseph Connolly, a former second-hand bookseller who is now one of its novelists, to select the best covers produced by its resident designers.

Connolly’s survey begins with the rococo frillery that decorates books about Bath and Edinburgh by Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell and ends with the bristling, hypodermic New York skyline on the cover of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City; it goes from Ezra Pound’s Polite Essays, chastely announced by black letters on a lilac ground, to Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You, which has a wraparound orgy on its cover, with rubbery figures illustrating every possible sexual combination and contortion, awash in a sea of spermatic tadpoles. Turning the pages, we can watch the world – and not just the small world of books – undergoing convulsive changes. Whether you regret or applaud what you see happening probably depends on when during the last 80 years you began to read.

The same book, differently wrapped in different decades, has its meaning revised. In the 1950s the design for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies presents it as a harmless exotic adventure, with a decorous troop of schoolboys filing through a grove of palms. One of them stuffs his face with a banana, but that’s the only evidence of regressive behaviour we’re allowed to sample. A later edition, released after Golding won the Nobel Prize in 1983, tells the truth to a society that already knows the bad news: now the blood-red cover replaces the undressed boys with savages in war paint, equipped with spears and surrounded by totemic animals.

Connolly rightly pays tribute to Berthold Wolpe, the most talented of Faber’s designers, whose brush-lettered covers were a reminder that books are the product of an author’s handwriting, not a mechanised press or an electronic keyboard. In recent years, Faber has often honoured its writers, showing what literature looks like in the raw. The cover for Beckett’s Theatrical Notebooks uses a representative page from the manuscript, complete with angry, inky crossings-out: here are all the hesitations and fumblings and penitent changes that complicate the process of creation, suppressed by the uniformity of print. Faber even permitted one writer to draw his own covers. The poet David Jones, who was taught wood engraving by Eric Gill, made a mock-antique Latin inscription for Anathemata in 1952. The quaintly irregular letters do their best to be misread, jostling together or sprouting decorative accents and crossbars, and the place of publication is said to be Londinium. Would the marketers today allow Jones such licence?

Writers are voices, overheard and invisible. It took Faber a long while to admit that they have faces as well. In the 1930s, the plays of Auden and Isherwood appeared with nothing but stark typographical headlines on their covers. A collected edition in the 1980s compels the co-authors to show themselves, with Auden hiding behind a cigarette and Isherwood shyly beaming beneath a cowlick of brilliantined hair. Books now have to encapsulate a person. The studiously impersonal TS Eliot currently appears on the cover of his Complete Poems & Plays, though with his eyes averted in a stern refusal of intimacy. From faces, the designers inevitably advance (or descend) to crotches: sex is the most irresistible of selling points, and covers can be a suggestive exercise in uncovering. Elena Poniatowska’s Tinisima has a fuzzy female groin on its jacket, and for Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13 a fighter jet pokes at the parting of a woman’s buttocks.

Apart from the obligatory roll-call of Faber classics, Connolly’s selection is wittily unpredictable. The trouble is that he supplies no details about the forgotten books he has unearthed. I’m intrigued by Aaron Judah’s The Fabulous Haircut, whose cover mixes a barber’s kit of scissors, brush and razor with a painter’s easel, a pistol and a robber’s swag of loot; I’m bewildered by Christopher Morley’s The Ironing Board, which appears, from its jacket, to be dedicated to that most spirit-crushing item of household kit. And what would it be like actually to read Peter Collingwood’s The Techniques of Sprang: Plaiting on Stretched Threads, which has a cover exemplifying all the mind-bending patterns you can make from knotted wool? Perhaps it’s best in this case to judge the book by its cover and to look elsewhere. I’m as persuadable as the next man, and that frieze of elastically fornicating homunculi has convinced me to look out for Kureishi’s Something to Tell You.

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