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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

Why I Dislike Dustjackets

I’m lazy. I let other people do good reporting and then hijack their work. Here’s Dennis Johnson at MobyLives citing a recent Guardian story:

What, exactly, is the point of a dustjacket, asks Peter Robins in this Guardian story. “The clue can’t be in the name: on the shelf, the most dust-prone part of a book is the top, which a jacket doesn’t cover … the jacket remains an unnecessary and vulnerable encumbrance.” And now, he says, “some in the book trade appear to be reaching the same conclusion.”

The Guardian article cites a number of recent books (including Zadie Smith’s latest, Changing My Mind) that forgo jackets in favor of art printed directly on the cover. I wish this trend would normalize in publishing. Dustjackets are annoying. They are ineffective as bookmarks, they tear and curl easily, and they tend to slip off of the book. They make grasping books difficult, especially larger volumes, and I always find myself removing them to read. Because I don’t want to throw away the “cover” of the book, the jacket has hence to languish in some weird droopy unstackable blip in a random corner of my house or office. Again, annoying. I can think immediately of three recentish books which are far more lovable aesthetic objects; all eschew dustjackets.

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries is a beautiful cloth-bound volume; the biker-icon, title, and author appear to be embossed but are actually slight depressions. A simple sticker on the back of the book displays retail cost and isbn info. The inside front cover and first page display the blurb and author info that one would usually find on a wrap-around. There’s something wonderfully tactile, warm, and pleasing about the book. It’s also a really good read.

I bought Douglas Coupland’s novel Hey Nostradamus! despite its silly name because I was enamored of its lovely embossed cover. There’s a smooth elegance to the design. The back cover repeats the kneeling figure, leaving room for embossed blurbs. I should really get around to reading it.

McSweeney’s hardcover edition of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital doesn’t feature anything as fancy as cloth or embossing. No, it’s just a plain old image–a good design, to be sure–but nothing that you wouldn’t expect on a dustjacket. Only there’s no cumbersome dustjacket. McSweeney’s issued the book with a slight wrap-around–more like a bookbelt than a dustjacket–displaying isbn and other info. The peripheral bookbelt was easy to throw away. McSweeney’s has released plenty of beautiful jacketless books, but they also know how to do a jacket right. Several hardback editions of McSweeney’s Quarterly (numbers 13 and 23, for instance) feature “dustjackets” that unfold to reveal short short stories, comics, and paintings. If you’re going to do a dustjacket, make it an aesthetic object worth keeping.