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They Become What They Behold, or, How Pretty Should a Book Be?
Emily Keeler discusses the redesigning and rarification of literature, and why we can't let it become decor.

Last autumn, Penguin re-released The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, and Emma with covers embroidered by Jillian Tamaki; these editions formed the debut for a highly collectible series celled Penguin Threads. Then there are those 2010 Fitzgeralds, designed by Coralie Bickford Smith, all glitz and gold leaf glamour in their fresh deco jackets. Not to mention Peter Mendelsund’s frankly beautiful redesign of the Dostoevsky canon, for Vintage, all fracturing lines and fiercely anxious colour blocks. Or his playful new Kafkas for Schoeken, with their strangely sunny colours and hyper-graphic eye motif.

As much as I like pretty books, I’m a little worried about these new luxe editions. About gift editions. About the role design should play in ensuring a bright future for literature, for reading, for the codex and the tablet alike. Here’s the thing: even though they’re pretty, I think those elaborately embroidered covers are terrible, and the new Fitzgeralds are bogus.

Does the world need more cute classics? If we’re talking about cultural capital–and these conspicuously designed editions imply that we are–surely Emma, The Secret Garden, and Tender is the Night already carry enough significance on title alone. They’ve permeated culture to the point that they can signify a pretty love of history, or at the very least a fascination with the vintage literary glamor of a more romantic era. Do they really need to be so gussied up, so fetishized, to stay relevant?

The thing about graphic design is that it exists as ephemera, an aesthetics of the everyday that is embedded in time. It’s immediate and therefore quickly obsolesces. It’s the reason that the original 1984 cover of Jay McInerey’s Bright Lights Big City looks so dated, and why the 2009 edition looks like the SNL opening credits from the same year, all Manhattan and youth and good times.

But those embroidered covers and deluxe deco Fitzgeralds are a perversion of design’s ability to occasionally pull something from the past into the present. They present an imaginary, idealized history overlapping with the contemporary erasure of the space between life and style. They are morbidly overdesigned and ahistorical, brand new nostalgic artifacts. The implication behind re-packaging them as if it were possible to place them outside of linear time does a disservice to both the history and future of literature by collapsing these novels into static and easily consumable images. Basically, it sucks to produce new books without making them part of the time we actually live in, it sucks to trap these stories in physical nostalgia, even if they were written in the past.

Book design may be an aesthetic exercise, but it also establishes a social context. Even the most inventive and conceptual graphic design is much more about culture than it can ever be about art. A book’s cover is a clue about where in the mess of culture that volume might belong. Right now it feels like there’s an increasingly murky connection between culture and lifestyle, between something we perpetually produce together and something materially aspirational, individualistic and consumptive. Why else would Anthropologie have those pretty reproductions of the original J.D. Salinger novels? The box set is the only fiction they carry in their online books section. As the physical book becomes increasingly rarefied, so too does it shift into the territory of signifier; beautiful books become consumable objects that describe the taste of the reader who proudly, tastefully, displays them.

Let me be clear: I am not against book design. Not at all. I want my books to look distinct from each other, and I’d love it if they could all be exactly as good on the outside as they are on the inside. I love House of Anansi, McSweeney’s, and New Directions Publishing for the literature they publish, but also for the care and good sense that goes into making the covers worthy of the contents. It’s increasingly important that a good book look like one–with the glut of books to be read I’ll take all the help I can get discerning which new novel is the one I should take home with me, the one I want to actually read. But that’s the thing, right? To crib a line from the designer Bruce Mau, ideally book design aims to “build a bridge between a potential reader and the mind and sensibility of the author.” If it’s about reading the thing rather than the image presented by the thing, then those bridges have already been built and rebuilt when it comes to Salinger, Austen, and Fitzgerald. The lush redesigns fetishize these books, render them décor rather than literature.

When I asked Michael Maranda what he thought about the Penguin Thread series, he grinned. My question, admittedly, was leading: “What do you think of those embroidered books that Penguin’s making, and that Fitzgerald redesign bullshit?” He shook his head.

Maranda is a designer at the Book Bakery, an experimental print on demand publisher, and a fine artist working in the medium of the book. His latest work, ArtforumX, is a piece that reconfigures the history of Artforum magazine from the first issue to the present day by reprinting each volume with colour blocks designating advertising and editorial content within the physical and visual page space of each volume. It’s currently on exhibit at Art Metropole, where we met to talk about art and the book and the dangers of design.

We flipped through a couple issues, reading these spaces as they changed over time. The art work wouldn’t feel right if we were scrolling through a .pdf of informatics, the physicalitythe bookness–of these bound volumes, is significant. It’s through the familiarity with the scale, size and heft of the original source material, through the ghostly corporeal sensation of having ever read an issue of Artforum, that ArtforumX gets its conceptual weight. You can certainly read them, even without text, but they’re definitely art objects (i.e. not literature), if only because they are one of a kind.

“I draw from primarily an artistic rather than literary background,” he says, “though I wouldn’t say that the Bakery books are fetishized; they’re meant to be read.” I’ve only read one of the Bakery’s Books, Andrew Kaufman’s Selected Business Correspondence, but considering how small the catalog is–three books, so far–I’m fairly confident that it can stand in as a suitable representative of the Bakery’s book objects. And I loved reading it.

The premise of SBC relies on design and papery ephemera. Kaufman has been buying vintage letterheads on e-Bay and at flea markets for years, and this collection is built around the inherent nostalgia of the outmoded form of the letter. Each letter contains an allusion to a presumably imaginary event: the vice president of The Youth’s Companion Office writes to inform an applicant that at 30 years old he is simply too old for consideration, or the manager of WLW Television Wrestling Tournament gently tells a former champ that despite completing a PhD in Art Criticism, he cannot return to the ring to fight under the moniker Damien Hurt. The whole sheaf of letters is bound and placed in an embossed manilla folder. The letterheads themselves, with their once deadened everydayness, become the glowing beacons of a possible world, embedded in the ongoing invention of a robust (and fun!) literary future.

Kaufman told me he considers SBC his first, and so far only, collection of short stories. In general, his novels tend to be relatively short, so it makes a perfect kind of sense that these stories would average approximately one and a half typewritten pages. “Because I write shorter stories,” Kaufman said, “the packaging becomes so important. It says up front ‘this is a small book, this is a small story.’ It sets the reader up to see this in advance and know that it wont take much time to read the book, so they better savor it.”

Kaufman’s books are all rather handsome. The cover for All My Friends are Superheroes is sweet and sad, a strange found photo with a blue tint and hand lettering. “It’s the perfect scrawl,” he says, and he’s right. Once you take the rolling wave of the half jacket off of the hardcover edition of The Waterproof Bible it looks almost uncannily like a Gideon bible, the kind you find in hotels and thrift stores. The Tiny Wife is truly pocket sized, a little red gift, like something you would give to a child whom you really like. It’s as tall and as wide as my hand. “Sometimes I get tweets from people, saying they liked the ebook version of The Tiny Wife” he sighed, “and I’m like, Why?! It’s so beautiful as a book! That’s like telling me I’m Rick Astley when I wanna be the Smiths!”

“The medium is not neutral,” Maranda says, when I inevitably ask about the complicated relationship between literature and design in the age of the e-reader. “E-readers certainly have their place, but for readers of literature the codex contains a certain structural meaning.” When it comes to this reader, design is often part of that structural meaning. Design can be a bridge, but I want it built when it needs building, lest every good-looking book become mere décor. And what’s the point of a staring at a bridge when you could be walking across it, moving ever forward, in the direction of life?

Emily Keeler lives in Toronto, Tumblrs for The Millions, and edits book stuff at The New Inquiry. Follow her on Twitter at @emilymkeeler if you please.

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