Jason Diamond on having fun with the new takes on old classics
I’m a book cover fanatic. A very nice editor once let me dedicated thousands of words to 1980s Vintage Contemporaries; I don’t care for shelves dictated by spine cover, but you best believe there is an entire row of all orange dedicated to the old Penguin paperbacks from the middle of the 20th century; I purposely keep a copy of Peter Mendelsund’s wonderful The Look of the Book: Jackets, Covers, and Art at the Edges of Literature at the top of a pile of art books because I always want guests to pick it up so we can start talking about all the covers inside it. I’m not ashamed to say that not only have I judged books by covers, but sometimes I’ve ignored the books beyond the covers.
The thing is that I’m not always impressed with new book covers. Especially ones for American audiences. There are always exceptions: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout from 2015 is a personal favorite. I also liked the calm simplicity millennial pink of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot from 2017. Hanif Abdurraqib’s books always look good. This year, I’d say my favorite so far has been Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. It’s simple but draws you in. Yet those are all individual titles; I don’t find myself really drawn to contemporary uniform covers the way I am the older book covers. I’m guessing this is more an indictment of me and not the publishers that put out the books, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
I am, however, in love with NYRB Classics covers. I look at them and I feel like I’m some 17-year-old admiring a Smiths or Belle & Sebastian record cover again. The concept is simple: great image with the title plate over it. That’s it. That’s all it needs to be. Erwin Blumenfeld’s 1962 photo Living Nude graces the cover of the 2007 reissue of The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy; Malcolm Drummond’s 1912 painting At the Piano is on the front of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and there’s a very goth feel to The Ivory Tower thanks to a painting of a skull by Adam Fuss. That’s what I got pulling three titles from my shelf at random.
“The series launched at the end of 1999 with a different design, and I think we published 16 books in that format,” Sara Kramer, managing editor at NYRB Classics tells me.
Designer Christine Rhee feels similarly as I do about NYRB Classics. “They've introduced me to some of my favorite books and writers that I had never heard about before,” she says. “To me, they're arbiters of good taste in the same way that Criterion is for movies.”
According to Kramer, the publisher got in touch with Katy Homans in 2000 to redesign the series. “Homans’s background is largely in museum and gallery catalog design, (though she also worked with Godine publishers many years ago) and her style is clean and direct. The story Edwin Frank (the series founder and editor) always tells is that she turned in the design, and said: This is the design, if you like it that’s wonderful, but if not, that’s ok too. Katy might remember this differently — I’m not sure we’ve ever asked her to confirm. And I don’t think there were real variations after that. Initially the paragraphs of copy on the back had staggered alignment, and the price was at the top, but that’s about all that has really changed since 2000.”
I know a lot of folks who feel similarly about the publisher as Rhee and I do. Yet the conversation is almost always about the books inside, a credit to the good taste of the NYRB Classics team who make sure these overlooked or forgotten classics are put back into print. Yet Rhee is one of the only people I’ve ever talked to who also talks about the design of the books as much as the actual books. I think they’re some of the best looking books to come out over the last few years. A tribute to uniform design as well as curation. They always set the scene for what you’re about to read with just the right image.
I was curious about the whole process, how something like a Slim Aarons image made it on the cover of Darcy O'Brien’s A Way of Life, Like any Other, or how the publisher landed on certain art for the Stefan Zweig they re-introduced to an American audience. Kramer says there’s no one single way.
“Sometimes authors, editors, or translators recommend an image. Sometimes Edwin [Frank, editorial director of the NYRB Classics] has a specific image in mind, or he’ll open up a 20-year-old issue of Artforum at random, point to a page, and say: That could work. But really it’s mostly Edwin rattling off ideas of artists or subjects (a down-and-out street in Fresno, say) faster than I can write them down. When I start researching based on this flood leads, I’ll use the internet, search the fine arts archives, auction house archives, photo archives, Artnet.com. I found the image that we ended up using on Good Behaviour because Nathalie Atkinson posted it to her Instagram feed. It was an A.M. Cassandre illustration used on a 1920s Vogue cover — I’m not sure how she found it. But it wouldn’t have turned up in any archives, so that was a coup. Oh — and I also first spotted the Yasuzo Nojima photograph used on the forthcoming Ghosts by Edith Wharton on the Instagram feed of Stephen Ellcock. Pinterest is my nemesis because you find things there but they are rarely properly attributed or sourced.”
Rhee finds the whole thing so inspiring, that she turned the publisher’s aesthetic into the enjoyable book meme project #FakeNYRB.
The whole thing is super simple: Instagram posts reimagining certain titles that she wishes would get the publisher’s treatment, complete with Rhee’s own choices for who’d write the introduction for each title. The idea, Rhee says, came during a period of burnout and looking to do something fun. Kramer caught wind of the projects and is also a fan. “I love them with all my heart and they bring me joy. Our books are not very lighthearted on the whole (the pleasures to be found in them lie elsewhere), so anything that punctures the seriousness of the project brings relief. On a design level, they come the closest of any parodies I’ve seen to looking actually the way the books look. People will tend to get what seem to me obvious style elements wrong. It must be said that the typeface, though close, is not the correct one (which is Meta).”
Right typeface or not, I’ve been so obsessed with these fun posts that I decided to find out a bit more.
Jason Diamond: There are so many different book covers out there, what drew you to use NYRB Classics?
Christine Rhee: NYRB Classics are my favorite. The books as objects are so good-looking and they have really good taste in books. They've introduced me to some of my favorite books and writers that I had never heard about before. To me, they're arbiters of good taste in the same way that Criterion is for movies. Also, whoever came up with the design codes of the colored spine with the matching rectangle on the front is a genius. It's so good.
JD: So walk me through this. Were you just bored one day and decided you wanted to play around and make a fake book cover? What was the first one?
CR: I was starting to feel very burnt out a few months ago and it had been a while since I did any creative or design projects just for fun. I tasked myself with making something small or fast every weekday for a month to try to find joy in design again. I have so many books that I love that I really connect to but are not seen as having higher literary value and wanted to see if I could re-do the covers in a way that might make them be looked at in a different way. Years ago, I came up with the name Monobrow for another project. It came from wanting to express the collapsing of low brow and high brow and to find value and connection anywhere and still have a sense of humor about itself. The first one I did was Drew Barrymore's memoir Little Girl Lost. To me, those 90s paparazzi photos look like Eve Babitz. The introduction is credited to Amy Rose Spiegel because I selfishly would love to read her introduction for Little Girl Lost. Almost all of the covers are a nod to an existing NYRB cover. I did a movie tie-in for The Joy Luck Club and it references the cover for Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman. For the introductions, I have been asking friends if I can list them for specific titles and I try to match them up with titles that they connect to as well. I want to read all of these fake introductions and forewards! It's all fan art to me. Maybe the next thing is going backwards? What does Knausgaard's My Struggle look like as a mass paperback that you could pick up at a CVS? That would be harder.
JD: Do you have a favorite NYRB Classics title? Also, do you have a favorite real NYRB Classics cover?
CR: I have a lot of them that I love but my favorite is Our Spoons Come From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. After I read that, I wanted to read all of her books. I'm still hunting her other works down through second hand sellers. I also loved Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban and all of the Eve Babitz. There are so many good covers. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares is a favorite. It has this great Louise Brooks photo on the cover. I love the graphic patterns from the Henry Green books. A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett is really beautiful in it's simplicity.
JD: Are there any other book cover styles you like? Like Penguin Classics, Vintage Contemporaries, Riverhead covers, etc?
CR: They're all great! I really love when one writer's work under a publisher becomes so identifiable by the covers that you know who wrote it before you read their name. Those V.C. Andrews die cut covers with the spooky gothic family portrait on the next page are genius. I also love the old Murakami books for Vintage International that have faces and birds on the different covers and the Camus black and white graphic treatments for Vintage International are great too. It makes me want to collect them.
JD: I notice your cat (incredible name btw) also showed up on some other covers you did. Will they show up on a fake NYRB Classic anytime soon?
CR: Thanks! Minnie [Moskowitz]! She is the sweetest. Right now she doesn't like to have her picture taken right now so I'm trying to respect her wishes but it's very possible. My niece and nephew saw a photo of her and immediately recommended this series called The Warriors by Erin Hunter. Minnie would probably be great for that.
The Dirt: Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis is a classic