Judging Books by Their Covers

I have always liked small books. Not specifically novellas, short stories, or slim volumes, but physically small books, dimensions of 4 x 6 inches, more like pocket books. And it’s a mystery to me why there aren’t more quality titles to choose from in these dimensions.

There’s been no dearth of small books to choose from, don’t get me wrong. Most bookstores have marked down editions of slim paperbacks, pulp novels, and old classics in this cute little accessible form. At one point, as a gimmick, someone started issuing classic novels of world literature in cigarette pack-sized editions. When I studied German literature in college I became accustomed to doing most of my reading in the ubiquitous Reclam editions with their distinct yellow covers and 4 x 6 inch dimensions. I considered this one of the many eccentricities associated with the study of German literature but cherished their small, portable size as well as their uniformity. I never had to lug huge critical editions from classroom to library to home. Outside of that discipline, books seemed to be getting bigger or just disappearing altogether. It was not uncommon to enter a roomful of undergraduates and not see one book, just laptops.

Last spring I was poking around a bookstore in the West Village browsing for books with no intention of buying, as has sadly become the norm. Half of the books I see I’ve never heard of, or I’ve already read, or I’m just so overwhelmed by the number that I leave. That day I noticed a display of books that literally made me stop in my tracks. They were small, 7 x 5 inches, with white, matte covers, neat lettering, and varying stripes of color in geometric shapes. I went over and touched one to make sure it was real: Everything and Nothing was the title, by Jorge Luis Borges. On the back there was a lively illustration of the author and a few endorsements, like Roberto Bolano’s, “I could live under a table reading Borges.” The slash of red across the cover was simple, refined. I placed it back on the shelf and looked at some of the other titles in the series: Tennessee Williams, Federico Garcia Lorca, Javier Marias. They all seemed to belong together but were distinctly different. Some of the work I’d never heard of before. Surprised I was to see a collection of somewhat esoteric titles in such a palatable form, collected and curated with an eye for details. I didn’t buy the book, even though the $9.99 price tag was more than reasonable.

For the last few years I have been a big fan of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series. The slim editions I came upon in the bookstore I would discover were New Directions Pearls, a stab at a similar set of criteria for a series of books. Pearls are in the same vein of accessibility and aesthetic uniformity. The Penguin series is more ambitious, now in its fifth series of issuing pocket-sized editions with uniform color schemes—blue, green, purple, and so on—with works ranging from Socrates to Shakespeare to Woolf to Orwell. On the back of each Great Ideas book there’s a list of the other titles in the edition, and a small field of text explaining the Great Ideas mission:

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves—and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war, and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked, and comforted. They have enriched lives—and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals, and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped makes us who we are.

The Great Ideas series doesn’t have the sense of humor, or humble admittance, that perhaps they’re not for everyone. Great Ideas don’t assure you you could live under a table reading Plutarch’s In Consolation to His Wife, nor do they have the uniformity in cover design that links the smaller number of Pearls titles. David Pearson, a designer working mainly in print design, has managed to join the covers with an emphasis on text and boldness. Pearson has designed three of the five Great Ideas series. But Pearls, published by New Directions, are not aspiring to such ambitions.

New Directions, established in 1936 by then aspiring poet James Laughlin, has always been a small publishing house, now issuing only about 30 titles in both hardcover and paperback annually. New Directions has always been “a place where experimentalists could test their inventions by publication” and started off just by anthologizing works. New Directions has been responsible for the publication of such writers as Wallace Stevens, Kay Boyle, and Thomas Merton, as well as reprinting lesser known work of Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. New Directions published when other houses were shy on the concept or controversy of a particularly work—as with James Joyce’s Stephen Hero and Henry Miller’s unorthodox essays and travel books. The house also reprinted Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts in 1981, saving it from obscurity. To a large extent, that’s what New Directions does: saves books from obscurity.

Unlike many American or British publishing houses, New Directions champions an international roster of authors, helping to popularize now well recognized writers such as Céline, André Gide, Apollinaire, Yukio Mishima, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kafka, Octavio Paz, Lorca, Nabokov, and most recently W.G. Sebald. Their enduring loyalty to an author’s body of work is one of the reasons New Directions walks the line between being an author’s publishing house and a boutique house catering to a specific readership. Their tendency to reprint authors they initially printed during the passing decades has also given them the quality of an archive of some of Modernism’s most important figures.

With such a history of edgy publication and niche curation of worldwide literary talent, it is no surprise New Directions’ Pearls series cannot be compared to Penguin’s Great Ideas. They are not aspiring to the same breadth of literary coverage. Both series can be appreciated as examples of a larger trend. The cries of print dying are a bit exaggerated, though coming in so many octave ranges they are hard to ignore. It might be more useful to say print is changing and in our attention economy, unfortunately, it does come down to catching someone’s eye and then delivering on quality content (that abhorrent word that appears everywhere to discuss cultural commodities these days). The intersection of content and buzz seems to be the strength behind both Pearls and the Great Ideas series. There’s something precious about them in the best way. They are not hefty, intimidating volumes but rather small, accessible, and pleasing to the eye. At the same time, they present the work of overlooked writers and their ideas, acknowledging the fact that not all quality literature is new literature. If print is changing, not dying, it might be that the responsibility falls on publisher innovations and the tendency to print tome-like hardcovers or sloppily edited Great American Novels is losing strength. What a busy reading public looks for is not a lack of quality but a stamp of quality, which comes across in these small editions through their aesthetic uniformity, editorial precision, and eclectic set of authors.

The Pearls, to date, contain seven titles: Borges’ Everything and Nothing, Federico Garcia Lorca’s In Search of Duende, Javier Marias’ Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, Tennessee Williams’ Tales of Desire, Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism, Cesar Aria’s The Literary Conference, and the most recent Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne, with an introduction by W.G. Sebald. Forthcoming titles include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s On Booze and Joseph Roth’s Leviathan. The Great Ideas series are now in their fifth issuing, with nearly 100 titles. The interest in serial books of superior and distinct content has not been lost on the publishing world. Recently, M/M Paris has put out the conversation series of curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, featuring artists such as Rem Koolhaas and Olafur Eliasson. They all feature distinct design and the constant of Obrist, while differing in the content of the conversation with the selected artist. As with art objects, these books cater to a collector’s impulse. A reader who buys one is often compelled to buy another, aided by the fact that they are published in a series at affordable prices and deliver with interesting titles and lesser known titles of well known authors.

A month or so later, at a bookshop in Williamsburg, I ran into the Borges Pearls edition again and decided to buy it. Borges is not new to me but some of the other authors in the series are. Reading the slim collection, I was struck by the chosen essays and their arrangment—better known pieces such as “The Garden of Forking Paths” are included, as are lesser known pieces like “Nightmares”—and even though I was driven by a familiarity with Borges to buy the edition, I was pleasantly surprised by their arrangement to come away with a newfound appreciation for him in the Pearls context. Friends who I introduce to Borges are less intimidated when I let them borrow the Pearls slim volume than, say, his collected non-fiction at eight hundred plus pages.

What prevents us from reading, I wonder. Or, what prevents us from buying books? I think the latter is a more interesting question. Often, I won’t buy a book because it’s too expensive, or I can borrow it from someone, or get it from the library. More often, I simply don’t have time to read all those books. Pearls and Great Ideas, these designer pocket book volumes, lend a solution to the doubts of book buying while also gratifying the aesthetic compulsion to collect and admire. In the case of Pearls, you are not going to find Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism in such an appealing presentation elsewhere, if at all. It’s too small to seem an inconvenience to buy or to read. You won’t be able to find it at the library easily or borrow from a friend and, more importantly, you want to have it: to take down from your bookshelf time and again or to slip into your bag for a long commute.

One solution to the publishing quandary is in these very editions. To make books more appealing as objects, even as aesthetic objects thanks to thoughtful design, taps into part of what makes reading a pleasure as a tangible sport, not something you download and scroll through on an electronic device. More ambitious attempts at the book as art object can be seen in New Directions’ recent publication of Anne Carson’s Nox, a book of poetry about her brother Michael. Or is Nox a book? It comes as an accordion type fold out from a box, with writing and imagery on both sides of the pages. Nox is interactive, beautiful, and its presentation lends meaning to its contents.

A friend of mine who is a designer likes to go on and on about how the design of anything, from a pizza box to a brochure, greatly affects how you approach and absorb its meaning. I think this is true. While some might say that a book’s value is entirely driven by the words on the page, it is interesting to consider how a book’s cover and size can make it a more desirable object. Books are not like other objects we buy. We don’t value them based on size. We cannot sell them by the kilo. There’s a unique alchemy to what makes someone invest in a book. When design and content converge in the realm of books, people want to read in a distinctly offline capacity. They want to carry the book around with them. They want to treasure it for its value not only as knowledge and culture but also as a weight in the hand, an invitation to conversation.

There’s also something appealing about the life force of a book, perhaps what Walter Benjamin would call its “aura.” Aura is increasingly hard to find today, with the now familiar argument about the ephemerality of digital culture, and a book in your hand is a concrete form of connection that can’t be turned off. There’s a synthesis, a chemical reaction of energy, when you read something, turn the pages of it, bend it, mold it as it molds you. This physical conversation between reader and text is undeniably lost in the digital conversation.

Another thing that makes the Pearls and Great Ideas series striking is that part of their strength comes from the idea that less is more: fewer pages, less weight in your hand, less information to absorb. Reading a vast quantity of literature is sometimes not worth reading a small amount of the right literature. There’s a certain reassurance in picking up one of these editions, where you feel your time is not wasted. Particularly of note, especially with the Great Ideas series, is the tendency for these editions to stand alone, free of introductions, afterwords, or footnotes. With all of the chatter surrounding a given text today, there is a certain respect given to the reader by offering up an essay, story, or book of letters unadorned, entrusting the reader with the confidence that this is a book they can absorb unfettered from a culture of too much information.