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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Golden Age or last gasp?

Is the book dead? It's the major question of our time, with most of us booky types insisting that it isn't, perhaps with more hope than confidence. In this turbulent era, it surely can't be a coincidence that recently there has been, to my mind, an extravagant rise in the quality of hardbacks. I have a pile of new books on the desk in front of me which bears this counterintuitive notion out.

Yesterday I received a finished copy of Andrew Miller's new novel Pure, published next month. The cover image is based on Goya's print, 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', although the sleeping man has been embellished with gilded buttons and cuffs, buckles to his shoes and a bow in his hair. The design runs over to the back cover, placing the man in a large, bare room, at a table with a pen, candle and jug, and a set of mathematical rules and compasses, while the birds of nightmare swoop and circle above. Outside the window is an 18th century city scene. (The illustration is credited to Royston Knipe.)

It's not just a question of the cover image, but the whole conception: the fine etched lines that give the grain of linen to the cover (there's no dust jacket); the pleasing contrast of the black birds, the grey tones, and the touches of green and gold on the title and man's coat; the way the spine displays the corner of the table with  loaf and knife. It's a delicious artefact, and I can't wait to tuck into Miller's tale of a fetid and groaning Parisian cemetery, and the 18th-century architect charged with clearing it.

Miller is published by Sceptre, who as you may remember did such a brilliant job with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and in much the same way: dispensing with the dustjacket, making the texture of the cover an intrinsic part of the design, and wrapping the illustration (by Joe Wilson) round to the back cover. Sceptre's fiction designs are consistently excellent, as are those of John Murray, also part of the Hodder group. My next example is Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, the follow up to the Man Booker shortlisted Sea of Poppies. This has a conventional dustjacket, but there's nothing conventional about the illustration in deep blues with sinuous white lettering. The hint at blue and white Chinese pottery and the junks silhouetted in the distance express the next stage of the Ibis's journey as it enters Chinese waters with its heterogenous runaway crew. The floral motif is echoed on the beautiful jade green endpapers and at each chapter heading. Well done, John Murray!

More conventional perhaps, but still striking, is Weidenfeld and Nicolson's treatment for Clare Morgan's forthcoming novel, A Book For All and None. It's good to know that a publisher can still invest like this in a debut. There are no coloured endpapers or chapter-heading embellishments, but the Art Nouveau design in turquoise, yellowy-cream and crimson is striking and beautifully articulated across three areas: front, back and spine. The motifs of lighthouse, waves and books point elegantly to its Woolfian subject. The confident design (Nadina Gray)  proclaims, quite rightly, that the author, an Oxford academic, is one to watch.

Another fiction debut, Alice Albinia's Leela's Book, has been thoughtfully realised by Harvill Secker.  The dustjacket image of Ganesha has a cutout to display the pretty patterned cover within. The book would look just as attractive without the dustcover (which is just as well, as I'd deduct points for the white jacket - they look grubby almost immediately).

Albinia is not a total novice; her first book, Empires of the Indus, was well-received (she is married to the writer Tristram Stuart, the 'TS' of the dedication page). Again, such care and attention signal that this is a major new talent; this is a book to cherish, something that will stay around for years on your shelf, rather than vanishing into the ether.

But will they sell? A friend of mine, a senior Waterstone's bookseller, does a great horror-film scream (eyes wide and terrified, hands clawing the air) at any book jackets he thinks are hopelessly uncommercial. We are frequently at odds - the books I think most exciting visually are frequently dismissed with a brusque: 'Won't sell.' But I think all of these would get the thumbs up from him.

So instead of kowtowing to the populist demands to make everything cheap, cheaper, cheapest, some publishers at least are fighting back with beautiful artefacts that demand to be cherished. Looking at these lovely volumes, you'd never think publishing was in crisis. Would you?

PS My comments refer to the UK editions. To my mind, American book designs are almost always duller and more conventional than the British equivalents, though their standards of book production remain high. There are some glorious exceptions but.... have a quick trawl through Amazon and see what I mean.


  1. I thought the cover of 'A Visit From the Goon Squad' in the UK version was TERRIBLE - lots of people won't have picked it up thinking it to be some chick lit nonsence. The American cover was much better. I do agree with you about Sceptre hardbacks, the Andrew Miller invites you to read it. I love hard back books, but don't usually have to pay for them, which makes a difference. My women friends in the book group insist on reading books only in paperback on grounds of cost.

  2. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/manufacturing/article/47243-traditional-book-output-up-5--nontraditional-soars.html

  3. I think it is much more important to consider if 'reading' is dead.

    I know that is a horrifying notion for us 'bookish types' but I think the new media age has changed the way people read, or don't read completely. And it has barely got into its stride.

    These days, it can seem to onerous reading a long email, when we used to devour whole newspapers before breakfast. Even twitter seems too wordy sometimes.

    I am a reader and I notice it in myself, as if I am forgetting how to do something that used to come naturally to me. Imagine what it is like for children growing up in the facebook/tumblr/kindle/wii/itunes age.