July 2007

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by its Cover: Chinoiserie

Trends are by their nature brief, and most especially publishing trends. Knitting (also known as: the charming practice of repetitively looping bits of yarn together with the object of adding more useless schwag to the gift economy) is on the wane, and as it slides into the cultural dustbin, several contenders jostle to replace it. Some say global warming could be the new knitting. Others say decoupage. Others say books by authentically dirty farmers are the new knitting, as every rock in the nearby vicinity is lifted in hopes of uncovering the Anthony Bourdain of farming.

But I say "Why not China?" Think about it. Who owns our national debt? Who's artificially inflating our currency? Who can rapidly de-inflate it at any moment? Why not learn Mandarin?  It can't be any more annoying than dropped stitches.

I, for one, will not be sorry to see yarn crafts recede like so much glacier under the miasmic exhaust of a non-Kyoto protocol signing nation-state. To yours truly, those hip girl knitting compendiums always looked suspiciously like the Family Circle patterns, but modeled by women with sparrows tattooed below their clavicles and Bettie Page hairdos. And there was the whole "hobby porn" aspect. Make a droopy tote bag! Out of yarn! For toting yarn in! With all that free time you have! Ha ha! Just kidding! You have no free time! You have to work nights at the parking garage to pay for insulin!

But how to symbolically represent 5,026 kilometers filled with 56 different ethnic groups (and those are just the "officially recognized" ones)? In the olden days, the answer was simple: the color red and just a wee bit of Mao, Mao, and more Mao. The soft-focus, Lifetime: The Television for Women approach was also noted though it is also prudent to say that this was the standard cover for any matriarch-based multi-generational saga, whether it took place in distant lands or not.

That said -- onward we march in our tour of the quest to create a 2-D, salable vision of the China of today.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West by Peter Hessler
Harper Perennial
ISBN-10: 0060826592
528 pages
Cover Design: Unknown

This is actually a fine book. Thoughtful, and quite funny. Not that you would guess from the cover, which shouts: "Choose me for your book club! I am inoffensive! And oh I am so classy!" What's going on in there? I'm squinting, and all I can make out is a junk and (maybe) some dim beige skyscrapers. Could this be a subtle commentary on the epic coal-fired air pollution in Beijing? The vegetative denuding of the Loess plateau? Neither of which this book has anything to do with? Nah. It's just blurry.

And what it about sepia that continues to denote "class?" As opposed to, say, "Old Country Buffet?" Has this been diagrammed? Has someone written a thesis about it yet? At any rate, it does a fine job setting off the silver "National Book Award Finalist" medallion -- no doubt the job it was commissioned for.

Hessler's first book, the equally fine River Town (it's rare to find a memoir of teaching abroad that's even remotely tolerable) is done up in similarly quaint, beige tones, so that presumably, the two can fit into a nice oatmeal-colored end-cap display together.

The original cover for Oracle Bones wasn't going to win any prizes either, so one can understand the impulse to redesign. It was a typical juxtaposition cover. Old China! New China! My how the future is unevenly distributed!

Such images are the most common visual shorthand for "modern China" at the moment -- but at least they're shorthand because they're true. Spend five minutes in any major city in China and you'll see that exact truck pass by, and that exact guy passing it, carrying an impossibly large load of something. Sepia junks, on the other hand, are hard to come by.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret
Holt Paperbacks
ISBN-10: 0805086641
336 pages
Cover Design: Raquel Jaramillo

Keeping one foot -- well, both feet -- securely in our design past, we have John Pomfret's memoir. Oh, please, please stop with the red. It's like the Barbie aisle at the super toy mart. And the red and gold no less. Are we ushering in the Chinese New Year? Are we about to eat an entire pig's head in celebration? When we open the book, will a line of people conga dancing inside a giant dragon costume fall out? Then tone it down a little.

To further reassure us of the books past-ness (this one happens to be a more typical example of the "my life in China" memoir) the cover and the old black and white photo of Pomfret and his classmates have been artificially distressed so that it looks like you've been carrying the book around in your backpack for a few years. Only not. Why not just add a few coffee rings too? Is there a setting for "add coffee ring" in Photoshop yet? I hereby request one. Make it so. 

China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
ISBN-10: 0679763937
528 Pages
Cover Design: Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich

This book is Hessler's in reverse -- a case of the cover actually being livelier than the contents within. I picked up this book years ago, as a teenager hypnotized by the then relatively rare spectacle of Chinese kitsch iconography and some beautifully done boxed-in typography. Not many books place the title in a box -- we are living in an era of free-range titles, sprawling across the page like so many hormone-injected cattle. In contrast to those books, and to the stuffy "Soviet iconography meets Masterpiece Theater" design of China Wakes looked like it was made of candy.

The book itself, I must say, incited no desire to go to China whatsoever -- it's more than a little dry, and heavy with the paranoia felt by American journalists living in Beijing (which, I have to say, was quite justified, especially then.) But still. That cover -- especially the pigtailed little girl hovering over the title like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man -- is just a fine piece of work.

China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future -- and the Challenge for America by James Kynge
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN-10: 0618705643
288 Pages

Those of you who weren't just getting stoned in the scrub brush behind the junior high may remember an era when the book displays now filled with books about China were filled with books about Japan. In keeping with certain asthetic norms, most of them were either a) white with a red dot in the middle or b) had a geisha on them somewhere, looking mysterious. The idea of Asian people building large, complex machines and purchasing post-Impressionist paintings was a tough one for Americans to grasp back then.

Into this vast gap of knowledge leapt American publishing -- producing books that were ostensibly about understanding Japan but which were often thinly disguised polemics about American ingenuity (superior), the Japanese "temperment" (sinister with lots of bowing), and Japan's plan for world dominance (well-crafted by people with monocles, perilously imminent). The cover to China Shakes the World appears to be a continuation of this theme, applied to a different source.

Witness the giant dragon (subtle) slithering on top of a teetering, teeny tiny globe. Witness the retinal trail behind the dragon/globe combo, almost as though the duo could topple over At Any Moment. Expect more of these -- though, one hopes, with less beige. And better typography.

And maybe, if you're especially lucky, and if you've been ever so good, with a knitting tie-in.