19 November 2008

What's that they told you?

If I could be so bold as to suggest an update to the rather ancient adage, "Never judge a book by its cover", I would amend it to include "unless you have already read it".

One of the regrets of my previous job, admittedly minor in the face of the near constant trauma caused by almost every aspect of the role itself, was the fact that it reduced the opportunities for reading for pleasure to brief moments snatched between Heathrow and SFO International airports. In my current state of underemployement, a zen-like existence punctuated by long periods of no external responsibilities tinged with occasional chagrin resulting from the vocal displeasure of others currently more employed than I, I have thus set myself a monthly book budget in a sybaritic quest to catch up on all the lost hours of reading squandered on an endless progression of Powerpoint decks and late night video conferences with Harvard MBAs spending so much time trying to think outside the box that they haven't noticed that the box now contains a dead cat (or does it?).

As a broke and penniless college student I was forced to sell a massive collection of dog-eared paperbacks collected from numerous second-hand bookshops (all now long gone), their pages yellow with age and cracked from both decades of bad storage on damp shelves and the poor quality paper used in 60's. One of the simple delights of being male and in your 30s, with a disposable income and no kids, is going back and buying all the stuff that you wish you had when you were 16. While I am as guilty of that as the next kidult (and have the lightsabres to prove it) I actually spend quite a lot of time buying the stuff that I did have, rebuilding the bookshelves of my youth.

This brings us to the Penguin Modern Classics series, which has recently undergone a new printing with new cover designs, and I find that I am buying a number of these purely on the basis of these covers. Shepard Fairey, designer of the iconic 'Hope' poster of Barack Obama, created amazing covers for the new imprints of 'Animal Farm' and '1984' published earlier this year, and this kicked off a series of purchases of books involved in my buy/read/sell/regret-sale cycle, based not on how much I enjoyed the book, but on how cool the current cover is.

The new editions of HP Lovecraft's classic horror Cthulhu series, Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse', Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle', Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'Love in the Time of Cholera' and William S. Burrough's 'Exterminator!', are all part of the new Penguin 'Modern Classics' print with white spines, new cover photos and a consistent cover font in white and grey, and are design classics. Most are in the region of €10, and are well worth picking up to grace your shelves, even if you are only likely to reread them once every few years. My own favourite so far is the simple glass of milk on the cover of 'Clockwork Orange'.

What also interested me in the 'Modern Classics' is the inclusion of classic SciFi and horror alongside the work of Yeats, Camus, Kerouac etc, without any attempt at justification to a more prudish audience. The books are allowed to stand on their own merits, and the cover designs forego the traditional horror or SciFi motifs that have adorned previous editions. This is a good move, because while the inclusion of shiny spaceships and girls in space-bikinis, a staple of dust-jackets since the 1950's, no doubt acts like a magnet to the post-pre-pubescent male audience that is the core demographic of the book's audience, it does little to entice readers outside this most underwashed and unsociable of groups.

However there are a few missteps in Penguins recent reprinting. The covers for the 2008 versions of many of John Wyndham's classic British SciFi stories ('Day of the Triffids', 'The Kraken Wakes') are so out of place that not only do they commit the cardinal sin of conveying absolutely nothing about the contents of the book, they manage to do so in such a way as to both render the book unusable by its core audience, and treats anyone who picks the book up purely on the basis of its cover to a very, very big surprise. To their credit Penguin have created perhaps the very first anti-SciFi cover.

This is a pity, because reading Wyndham is like watching a classic 50's Ealing film, in black and white, narrated by James Mason, or rather by Eddie Izzard's impression of James Mason. Hmmmn, perhaps the covers aren't so incongruous after all...

So I suppose that the moral to all this is that one should never judge a book by its cover, but buying one purely for the cover is perfectly acceptable. Bad covers can still grace beautiful books, and bad books with beautiful covers need never be opened. Everyone's a winner!

How very Californian.


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