A Short Riff on Those Horrid, Wonderful Vintage Contemporaries Paperbacks of the 1980s


I’ve been a fan of Vintage Contemporaries for years. I’m pretty sure the first one I ever picked up was Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. I recall being vaguely dismayed about the cover and trying to find another used edition, but thrift won out. This was in the early or mid nineties, and book design was trending toward a more minimal, conceptual style.


In contrast to a tasteful, minimalist cover, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Cathedral is garishly literal. Ditto the cover for Denis Johnson’s Angels: sure, there’s a symbolic touch in those storm clouds, and a surreal tweak in the laser lights, but there’s something ghastly about the whole design.


Even the cover for Jerzy Kosinski’s twisted horrorshow-in-vignettes Steps is remarkably literal—sure, the image seems surreal, but it’s straight out of Kosinski’s text. (It’s also one of my favorite covers in the line).


Anyway, in the past few years I’ve kept an eye out for certain titles from the Vintage Contemporaries line, even if I already own the book in another edition—DeLillo, for instance, or Cormac McCarthy. I was thrilled to find this edition of Suttree earlier this year. (And I’d love to get another copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows; I gave mine away to a friend).


I’d been wanting to write about the Vintage Contemporaries series for a while now, and had even gone so far as to write to a few artists and designers I know to see if they could put me in touch with a source of info. A few weeks ago, Mahendra Singh was kind enough to point out a thorough, in-depth essay on Vintage Contemporaries over at Talking Covers. Plenty of history, photos, and even interviews. It’s the mother-lode, the post I wished I could’ve mustered. (And if I seem a bit jealous, I can console myself in the knowledge that they used my first pic of Suttree. So there’s that). I encourage you to check it out.

Nabokov Shows Off Different Lolita Covers

The Modern Conservative and the Liberal Image

This glorious cover from Maurice W. Brainard’s The Modern Conservative and the Liberal Image comes to us via DCB at Menthol Mountains; DCB’s original MM post has plenty of spiffy links, by the by. One of our favorite book covers since Donald (okay, that’s kind of an achronological “since,” but you get the drift, nay?).

Jerome Kuhl’s Cool Henry IV Covers

I recently moved, which means that there’s been a great deal of shuffling around of books. Anyway, I came across these late 1950s Dell editions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays with these fantastic covers designed by Jerome Kuhl. The image of Falstaff on the cover of Part One strikes me as both humorous and iconic; the kneeling scene on the cover of Part Two is poignant and even a little sad. Makes me want to reread them.

Our Favorite Book Covers of 2010

We know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover and blah blah blah, but really, c’mon, aesthetic sensibilities go a long way. Here are a some of our favorite covers for books published in 2010.

Has Melville House made a book that’s not really really good looking? This NY indie not only put out some of our favorite reading of 2010, they also put out some of the best designed books of the year. Books like Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama and Mahendra Singh and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Carroll evince a diverse aesthetic range unified by simple and attractive designs. We absolutely love the cover for Tao Lin’s Richard Yates; the visual non sequitur dovetails nicely with the book’s arbitrary name.

In fact, it’s a trio of forthcoming books from Melville House that prompted this post. In January, they’ll release the first in a series of books by Nobel winning German author Heinrich Böll. The first three books, which arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday, are beautiful, simple, and elegant.

We’ve started The Clown; a review of the book’s guts forthcoming. Another book with a cool cover that we haven’t read yet is Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut. We know someone on Twitter pointed out that skulls are the smiley faces of this decade but we can’t remember who gets credit, so let’s just pretend you heard that witticism here first.

We haven’t read Adam Levin’s mammoth début The Instructions yet, but a copy arrived today, and man is it beautiful. McSweeney’s knows how to do a hardback right–why encumber a book with a dusty dust jacket that’s going to get in the reader’s way when some gold embossing will do much nicer? Our copy is white but we couldn’t find an image of a white one on the internet, so here’s a blue one because Jesus Christ we’re not about to start photographing books now, are we?

We like both covers for Tom McCarthy’s C, but maybe we’re biased here because we loved the book so much.

We also love the cover of Charles Burns’s X’ed Out.

Picador’s British edition of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is somehow playful and deadly serious at the same time (just like the book).

Another one on the posthumous tip: We’re not big into tattoos but we can’t help digging this cover for David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System.

Better Book Titles

Check out the frank and funny images at Better Book Titles (via @MelvilleHouse). A few of our favorites–

Penguin Books Turns 75

Penguin Books turns 75 today. Happy birthday! More here. There’s a great Penguin Books sci-fi cover gallery here. If you are the sort of philistine who doesn’t dig Penguin’s iconic covers, you can order your own blank art paper quality covered books here.

Web Services Book Covers by Stéphane Massa-Bidal

Stéphane Massa-Bidal (aka Hulk4598, aka Rétrofuturs) created these fantastic “book covers” for internet services late last year, so you might’ve already seen them; anyway, they fit nicely into Biblioklept’s Book Covers Week. Massa-Bidal’s images of familiar web two point oh apps masquerading as book covers remind us that book covers are their own special medium, and that we perhaps read the information in book covers in its own special way, regardless of whether the book actually exists or not (or, in this case, exists as something other than a book. See also: Spacesick’s “I Can Read Movies” Series).

On Movie Tie-in Covers

Is there anything worse than a beloved book sporting a movie tie-in cover? (Okay. Maybe Oprah’s blazon is worse).

It’s not like the original cover was that great, or that the movie was that bad, but the whole enterprise of slapping grim Viggo Mortensen all over Cormac McCarthy’s The Road doesn’t seem to make much sense (maybe they didn’t realize that the film was going to flop and hoped that it would re-energize book sales). It seems like a slight to any reader new to the book. The austere original cover omits all imagery and thus places McCarthy’s language front and center. Movie tie-ins tend to plaster major Hollywood actors all over the cover, making it difficult for readers to re-frame or re-image the characters that those actors are playing–it’s an egregious intrusion between the writer’s text and the reader. It disrupts visualization. It also tends to look tacky, even when it’s “classy.” Take for example this cover for Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road

I’ve never read the novel, although I’ve often heard it referred to as an under-read or “lost” classic (the film promos made it look dreadfully boring, but there is probably nothing more unfair than judging a book by its movie). Spying its spine, I picked the book up the other day at the bookstore but could not even flick through it. All I could see was Leo and Kate. Then there’s that Big Gold Sticker procliaimng the work is “Now A Major Motion Picture.” The statement, emboldened in all-caps seems set apart in its little golden sphere, but oddly enough there’s a clause that must logically follow it — “Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.” The aesthetic logic of the cover though seems to suggest, however ludicrous, that DiCaprio and Winslet actually star in the book. Were I to attempt to read this edition of the book my poor imagination, weakened by years of watery domestic beer and bad television, would not be able to surmount the challenge posed by the cover. Each time I dipped into its pages, surely Yates’s prose, no matter how descriptive or visceral or imagistic, must fall to the glamor of Leo and Kate.

Maybe it’s just me though–I can remember having this problem even in childhood, absolutely hating to read any book that proffered a photograph of a person, especially an actor, masquerading as a character that my imagination was supposed to bring to life. For some reason paintings and other stylized images didn’t –and don’t — offend me in this way.

I suppose that movie tie-in covers help sell books and, ultimately, that’s a good thing, but I can’t think of a single one I’ve ever seen that’s aesthetically pleasing. I’m reminded now of Spacesick’s “I Can Read Movies” Series, which achieves the opposite, turning movies into witty, wonderful book covers. Observe:

Book Covers: Brits vs. Yanks

Thanks to C. Max Magee at The Millions for making Biblioklept’s Book Covers Week so much easier. What can we say, we’re lazy. Here’s his fun post on American book covers versus British editions. And, just to prove that we’re not that lazy, we did two of our own:

The American version of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, on the left, attempts to capture some of the book’s wistful tone and convey its sense of desert geography and handling of epochal time. But against this background, the book’s vaguely military name enclosed by that infinity loop all sort of looks a bit like like an espionage thriller. We’re not really thrilled about the British cover either–black, white, and gray might look better than the cool blues here–but its energy and sense of disconnection better suit DeLillo’s spare, sad novella than the American cover.

We like both of these covers more than we liked the actual book, but damn if the British cover (on the right) isn’t one of the best editions we’ve ever seen. Someone give the designer a cookie. Or a prize. Or something.

Jacketless Wonders

Yesterday we griped about dustjackets and praised books bold enough to go nude. To see some really gorgeous bookbinding, check out this recent gallery from BibliOdyssey. Sample:

'The Song of Solomon' Silverfoil and morocco leather Bound by KT Miura, 1987