May 2006

Melissa Fischer

features

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Bibliophagy and the Penguin Graphic Classics

For years, I tried to verbalize this sensation that would come over me when I was so attracted to a certain thing that I wanted to… well, I would say, install it in myself.  I once wanted to install an antique drawer pull that I wisely chose to use in a sculpture instead.  For a time, I was fixated on a story in Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon that described an octopus suicide; I eventually treated the fixation with octopus sushi.  However, not all obsessions are so easily sated, and when I saw Penguin’s new graphic classic edition of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, I realized suddenly: I want to eat this book. In fact, I want to eat many books.

This spring, Penguin let fly the first batch of their “Graphic Classics” series. With the same amenities as the line’s other Classics Deluxe Editions (including an arousing use of French flaps and the choice of a particularly satisfying grade of paper), what sets these titles apart is that their cover designs have been executed by some of today’s most beloved and respected, dare I say “hip,” graphic artists. 

The six titles reviewed this month are available now; Penguin plans to release their next collection of Graphic Classics in the fall, when we’ll be treated to reglamifications of favorite old standards like The Dharma Bums and Lady Chatterly’s Lover.  Until then, enjoy a square a meal of…

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Cover design by Art Spiegelman
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 0143039830

Never mind the French flaps, or even the sensually smooth paper: Spiegelman’s treatment of Auster’s trilogy would be utterly delicious even in their absence. The author’s name is raised like Braille, for God’s sakes, and I can’t stop feeling it up. What’s more is that the three books of the trilogy each sport their own unique covers within the book, treating us to splashes of unexpected color and imagery at the opening of each segment. The fact that each of these covers-within-a-cover sport the teenily-printed identifier “A PENGUIN EXISTENTIAL MYSTERY” isn’t helping to protect this book from prompt bibliophagic victimization.

Art Spiegelman of Maus fame is the visual genius behind this prime example of the beauty of the book as object. Gesturing with more than a subtle nod to old-school pulp fiction/mystery noir covers, Spiegelman’s interpretation comes complete with its own worn and weathered creases, artfully built-in to the overall design. I should probably mention that the back cover, happily devoid of quips from Auster’s contemporaries, instead devotes its space to a map-esque image Spiegelman titles “Some streets of Manhattan walked by Peter Stillman and Quinn in Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass,'” and even has an inset of the Tower of Babel. An introduction by Luc Sante is the icing on this already hearty and satisfying literary smorgasbord’s cake.

Candide, or, Optimism by Voltaire
Cover design by Chris Ware
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 0143039423

Just when I thought I’d settled on Art Spiegelman’s cover as my favorite for the series, I picked up this edition of Candide to find some projectile-drool inducing embossed action in gilded swirling curlicues flanking its title. Chris Ware has outdone himself, creating a mini-comic strip for the cover and French flap gems that demanded this reviewer’s dedication of long lapses of open-mouthed staring in examination and appreciation. See especially “Dr. Pangloss’ Activity Corner,” where readers are invited to “help the wise old sage trace the cause and effect of the social disease he caught from the chambermaid. Hurry! He’s losing his teeth and is covered in pustules!”  I doubt I’ve ever been so delighted with the use of the word “pustules” in my entire life.

The Portable Dorothy Parker
Edited by Marion Meade
Cover design by Seth
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 0143039539

It’s final: Penguin will be to blame when the cause for my death is pronounced “asphyxiation by bibliophagia.” Seth’s darkly humorous and tongue-in-cheek treatment features a portrait of the author in the artist’s signature style, as well as comic-strip styled flaps and a back that gives the reader a snapshot of the book’s short stories, articles, criticism, book reviews, poetry, and letters. Perfectly chosen quotes pepper Seth’s surfaces, with an especially entertaining one from Alexander Woollcott gracing the cover: “That bird only sings when she’s unhappy.” A symbolic biographical representation titled “Dot Parker: A Life” occupies the back flap and is not to be missed. At 627 pages, this formidable volume will satisfy the appetite of even the most voracious reader… or book-eater.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Cover design by Charles Burns
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 014303958X

Quasi-minimal in view of the elaborate designs presented by Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, and Seth, Charles Burns nonetheless perfectly elucidates the work of Upton Sinclair by showing us a skinned but still meaty skull with a glossy eyeball. The font here deserves special praise, and conspires expertly with the grotesque image to complete a masterful composition. The back cover, similarly simplistic, shows a microscopic view of blood red organisms set against a stark black ground. The front and back French flaps sport cuts of raw meat which serve as vertical bookends for book and author information, respectively. While less inviting for purposes of bibliophagic experimentation, Burns’ cover still elicits pangs of inexplicable hunger.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Cover design by Roz Chast
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 0143039598

Instead of distilling the novel’s thematic thrust into a single image, Roz Chast picks apart its colorful characters and treats us to witty portraits of “A few of the people” we’ll meet in Gibbons’ book: There’s Aunt Ada Doom, who “saw something nasty in the woodshed,” and Judith Starkadder, of whom we’re advised, “just leave her in her misery.” Playful and spackled with a respectable sense of humor, Chast’s work is of a different style and aesthetic than what is seen in those previously reviewed, and represents the efforts of a singularly talented creative mind. The fact that she is the only artist of the female persuasion to have designed for Penguin’s first batch of graphic classics should only marginally affect our opinions of the publisher; given their visionary capacity in even undertaking this new cover design endeavor, one can only hope that similarly sophisticated attitudes might influence their future choices of artists.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
Cover design by Anders Brekhus Nilsen
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
ISBN: 0143039520

Paper cutouts by the author pepper this volume, bringing dancing figures and abstract silhouettes to more than a few of its pages. Anders Brekhus Nilsen drew a dreamy forest scene for the cover of Fairy Tales, bringing the stories to life in appropriately dark and mysterious scenes. The titular font is refreshingly original and its continuation on the book’s spine creates a distinctive visual effect when viewed on the shelf. With illustrations occupying both front and back flaps, the overall design contributes to the cover’s serving as a poignant cloak for Andersen’s timeless tales.

With any luck, the public enthusiasm with which Penguin’s initiative has been met will inspire other publishers to enliven their cover designs through comparable techniques. Injecting classic literature with a heavy dose of pop culture, Penguin provides concrete proof of the power of the cover to reignite reader interest and even spark up new interest where there once was none.  In bringing younger readers to these books and making classic works “cool,” Penguin’s covers score big points for artistic innovation and philanthropy alike.

-Melissa Fischer
melissafischer@ameritech.net