Blog about some books and some book covers and acquiring some books and not acquiring some books

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I went to the book store this afternoon to pick up a copy of the latest graphic novel in by Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series for my kids, and of course I browsed a while. Looking for a copy of Anne Carson’s Plainwater, I ended up finding Angela Carter’s 1972 novel Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. It’s a British edition, 1985, Penguin, with a lovely Boschian cover by James Marsh. Here’s a detail from the cover:

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I’ve wanted to pick up Carter’s novel since I read about it on a silly good dystopian fiction list last year, and I’m thrilled that I was able to get one with a Marsh cover. This particular cover, along with Marsh’s cover for The Bloody Chamber, are included in Phil Baines lovely book Penguin by Design.

Baines’s book doesn’t include any of Marsh’s fantastic covers of J.G. Ballard novels, opting instead to include Dave Pelham’s versions. I love both Pelham and Marsh’s Ballard covers, and would love to get my mitts on one at some point. I always browse for old mass market paperbacks of sci-fi authors I like — Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, the Strugatsky Brothers, J.G. Ballard — hoping to find an interesting cover, something inventive and fun, something from before their works were, under the cloak of awful respectability, given safe, boring literary covers. I didn’t find any Ballard editions with Marsh or Pelham covers, but I did come across this lovely pair of mass market paperback:

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They’re US Vintage versions, 1985, with covers by Chris Moore. There’s like a proto-Cherry 2000 thing going on here that I kinda love, but I already own these novels, and I don’t love the covers quite enough. So instead, this post. Here are the covers of my copies of Crash and Concrete Island:

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While Henry Sene Yee’s cover design for my copy of Concrete Island (using a photograph by Kevin Laubacher) isn’t terrible, it is a good example of what I mean by boring respectable literary covers. Still, this trade edition (Picador, 2001) is really readable—I mean, it’s easy to read. The pages are nice, the typeset is great, etc. (And the book is killer). I actually like the cover of my copy of Crash, a lot (design by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden), but it’s also trying just a little too hard. (Again—very readable version from FS&G’s Noonday Press imprint, 1994).

While I had to pass today on the mass market copies of Crash and Concrete Island today—not because they would have set me back five bucks in store credit, but because I don’t need them, because I hope some kid goes in there and picks them up—while I had to pass on those lurid beauties, I did pick up a mass market 1967 copy of The Crystal World. Publisher Berkley Medallion didn’t bother to name the cover designer/artist, and I haven’t been able to track it down, but it is, I admit, a bit disappointing—an early pulp bid for literary respectability. At least I can be on the look out for a weirder one in the future.

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Two Dicks (Books acquired, 17 July 2017)

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A Maze of Death, first DAW printing, 1983. Cover art by Bob Pepper.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, first Timescape printing, 1983.  Cover artist uncredited.

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I still regret that I failed to pick up this tattered copy of Clans of the Alphane:

Seriously though, these tasteful covers are pretty boring. Compare/contrast:

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Three Books (Possibly Cult Novels)

 

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Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz. English translation by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov. Trade paperback by Yale University Press, 1994. Cover design by Lorenzo Ottaviani. I reviewed Trans-Atlantyk here.

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Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. Another Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1988. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; illustration by Chris Moore.

I reviewed Steps here.

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The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis. English translation by Edith Grossman. NYRB, 2002. Cover design by Katy Homans; cover photograph by Sally Mann.

Biblioklept reviews here, here, and here.

These three books may or may not be cult novels.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the term cult novel, a term which used to fascinate me in my twenties, but one which I’m beginning to suspect doesn’t really mean anything, or seems to have a different value, anyway, now.

I’ve been thinking about cult novels because I’m nearing the end of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s excellent excellent excellent 1958 novel The Leopard, which someone somewhere (who? where?) told me was a cult novel. I have no idea why The Leopard should be a cult novel. Where is its cult? By cult do we just mean “underread” or “underappreciated”?

It seems that the internet has dramatically changed what a cult novel might be/mean. (I wrote a bit about cult novels on this blog years ago, and I would expand the rough list I outlined were I to update that lousy post, which I won’t). The three books I picked today might be cult novels in the sense that they might be underappreciated/underread—although that statement strikes me as absurd somehow! (Steps won the National Book Award).

I guess a real cult novel would be a novel, or perhaps author, who inspires a cultishly devoted base of readers (is this what the kids call a fandom? Jesus Christ). And because of the internet, cults can be big now: Pynchon, Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick. Such writers and their novels have inspired obsessive fans. But the works of these novelists are hardly samizdat. Look at PK Dick—think of how much of his work, his writing, his ideas have seeped into mainstream culture? So is it cult then?

Or am I really just stuck on an older connotation of “cult,” of cult classic, I guess, which was just a way of saying odd + underappreciated + hard to find? Which is to say in modes both literal and figurative: Inaccessible

And so well then when I say that the internet has changed what a cult novel is/isn’t, I suppose I’m simply noting access—access to the material books, access to fellow readers, access to forums, access to analysis, etc. And I suppose that’s, uh, good.

I considered hammering out a list of cult novels here at the end of this pointless little riff, but it would be too long. Besides, I really have no idea what a cult novel is anymore. I threw the question out there on Twitter, asking for examples, and got a wonderful wild range of responses, but the best response came almost immediately:

Hurrah for more intense pocket universes than ever before.

Three Books

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The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin. 1983 trade paperback by E.P. Dutton/Obelisk. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

I finished Elkin’s The Franchiser this week and started this one this week.

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The Names by Don DeLillo. 1989 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries (God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers)God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers). COver design by Lorraine Louie employing an illustration by Marc Tauss.

I tried starting The Names after finishing The Franchiser, but took a pause…maybe I still have the bad taste of this recent DeLillo interview in my ears.

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The Feud by Thomas Berger. First edition hardback by Delacorte Press, 1983. Jacket design and illustration by Fred Marcellino.

A colleague gave me this a few years ago, and I love the cover; Marcellino’s actually been featured in these Three Books posts a few times now—he did covers for Pynchon and Russell Hoban that I adore.

Three Books

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Queer by William S. Burroughs. Trade paperback by Penguin; copyrighted 1987 but no year of the actual printing, which I’m sure is sometime in the mid-nineties. Cover design by Daniel Rembert from a painting by Burroughs.

I bought Queer and Junkie at the Barnes & Noble where I spent too many Friday nights of my high school years. I was sophomore in high school, I think. My parents were concerned about the books, I recall, but in a vague, troubled way—a wrinkling of the temples, a look that I now know means, What does this mean? What are we supposed to do here? They asked me what the books were about and then told me not to do heroin.

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Hardback and cloth by Houghtin Mifflin, 31st printing, 1961. No designer is credited; the book may have had a dust jacket at one point.

The dark marks are from a librarian’s tape job. She gave me this book, and dozens others, which were being remaindered. I reread the novel a few years ago, noting some of its themes, “including the divide between the New World and the Old, alienation, and the ways in which conformity and routine are antithetical to the pioneer spirit that Americans like to trick themselves into believing they are heir to.”

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My Sister’s Hand in Mine by Jane Bowles. Trade paperback by the Ecco Press, 7th printing, 1988. Cover design by Anna Demchick.

This collection includes the novel Two Serious Ladies, one of the best and strangest books I’ve read in years. I wrote about it last year on this blog, concluding:

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

Three Books (On Ferrante, Knausgaard, irony, and covers good and bad)

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My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2013. Cover design by Charlotte Strick and Bill Zindel, with cover art by Bill Zindel.

I couldn’t really get past page 80 of My Struggle, but I like Zindel’s zany design for the first volume enough to hold on to it. Kinda reminds me of those Vintage Contemporaries I so adore.

A lot of people didn’t like the design though, and FS&G didn’t end up publishing the rest of Zindel’s designs, which would’ve looked pretty neat as a complete set. As literary critic Scott Esposito put it at the time “the market has spoken, and it hates the original paperback.”

Instead, FS&G went with variations on this—

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My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2014. Cover design by Charlotte Strick; photograph by Andreas Eikseth Nygjerd.

Look at our boy Knausgaard, smokin’ away! This cover is boring but not Bad, which makes it far less interesting than the Bad Knausgaard cover which is actually very Good. The Book 2 cover (and subsequent covers in the series) are safe and “stylish”—and when I write “stylish,” I use it in the way many writers use it—thoughtlessly, blankly—stylish as a word that points vaguely to the idea of style, the zeitgeistiness of style. Etc. (Again—I encourage you to check out Zindel’s vision for the whole series).

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteEnglish translation by Ann Goldstein. Fifteenth printing, Europa Editions, 2015. Book design by Emanuele Ragnisco; cover photo by Anthony Boccaccio.

My Brilliant Friend is brilliant, my friend.

Its cover is awful, and the subsequent covers in the so-called Neapolitan Novels quartet are somehow worse.

A good friend who’s never steered me wrong with a reading recommendation told me to read Ferrante last year, but I didn’t—it wasn’t the hype that put me off (although the hype put me off), but the covers. I finally acquiesced to an audiobook version, and after getting a few chapters in, wanted the text. So I caved.

But my god, the cover—why?

The publisher and art director(s) claim that the Ferrante covers are bad on purpose.

An article in Quartz that I found simply by googling “Ferrante covers awful” yields this nugget:

…Sandro Ferri, Europa Editions’ publisher, says the covers were not an accident of too many cooks in the design kitchen, but rather a conscious choice. Writes Ferri in an email to Quartz, “The ‘vulgarity’ is our intention. We don’t want to make the typical ‘literary’ cover designed for an audience of ultra-sophisticated readers. … Ferrante’s novels are a mix of popular literature and highbrow, intellectual writing. We want to communicate this though our covers as well.”

And in a Slate interview, EE co-founder/publisher Sandra Ozzola again asserts that the decision for tacky covers was, um, purposeful:

From the time of our first conversation with Elena Ferrante about her intention to write this novel, we knew the book’s title and that it would be the story of a long friendship between women—and that it would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding. The wedding and Elena’s impression of it … is an extremely important moment in the book. That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch.” This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.

If we take a book’s cover to be where the book “begins,” where we first start to read the text, then EE’s awful kitschy crappy ugly covers signal postmodern irony—a joke on perception, the marketplace, high-low aesthetics, etc. The covers work as a kind of metatextual critique, then, as Ozzola seems to suggest above—a critique that relies on the reader’s understanding of the novel’s central character’s aesthetic viewpoint.

Well so then: Are the covers indeed ironic critiques of book-cover-aesthetics? Are we to take these covers as pop art parodies of books that traffic in romantic aspirations, that are, like, marketed to women?

Or are these covers simply designed to appeal to the very market that they would claim to ironically mock?

The have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too postmodern answer to these questions is, of course, “Yes.”

To fully appreciate the aesthetic irony of the Ferrante novels of course requires reading the Ferrante novels. And undoubtedly, many people are put off reading these books because of the covers. So much so that Ferrante’s novels got new covers for their Australian release. The new covers were designed by W.H. Chong:

Mr Chong told The New Daily it can be dangerous to try irony on a book’s cover – especially if the joke isn’t clear to readers.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly otherwise the recipient doesn’t realise the irony,” Mr Chong said.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly” — okay, sure. But the finest satire never announces itself as such.

Chong’s new covers feature simple black-and-white photographs, and they have received praise. But in a sense, the Australian covers seem, at least to me, to echo those Knausgaard updates—safe, boring even. But I’d much rather be seen reading one of those, than, say, the original EE edition of The Story of the Lost Child, which has maybe the worst cover I’ve ever seen.

Europa Editions’ forthcoming Ferrante collection, Frantumaglia, has a great cover, by the way.

Books acquired, almost for their covers alone, 4.25.2016 (Elkin, Fine, Michaux)

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I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country  this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.

Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.

Three Books

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Collected Stories by William Faulkner. 1977 first edition trade paperback from Vintage. This book is 900 pages, exactly, not including the ancillary pages that detail publication dates and rights, as well as Vintage’s back catalog—and yet not one of those pages manages to credit the cover designer or photographer.

I’ve been reading/re-reading this very slowly, with the loose goal of finishing this year.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol. 4 by Hayao Miyazaki. English translation by David Lewis and Toren Smith. Studio Ghibli Library edition by Viz Media, 2010. No designer credited, but the cover is by Miyazaki and I imagine we can probably credit Studio Ghibli with the design.

I started rereading Nausicaä this week after revisiting Princess Mononoke this week. Then I got horribly ill, and the only stuff I can really read when I’m really sick are comics. I scanned Vol. 4 for this week’s Three Books post; I finished it pretty late last night. Vol 5-7 remain.

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Junkets on a Sad Planet by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback by Black Sparrow Press, 1994. Cover design by Barbara Martin. The image is of Benjamin Robert Haydon’s life mask for John Keats (from a photo by Christopher Oxford).

I awoke around 1am in the middle of last week, and unable to sleep, I wandered to our den and randomly took this from the shelf to begin reading/rereading. The book (its title is a pun) is difficult to explain, a beautiful experience, rich. Here’s Clark’s own description: “…an extended reflection on the modern poet’s life, as Keats lived it. The book may be read by turns as poetic novel, biography in verse, allegorical masque, historical oratorio for several voices.”

Three Books

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Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault. English translation by Richard Howard. Second edition Pantheon hardback, 1965. Cover design by Pan Visual, featuring a detail from Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross.

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Correction by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Sophie Wilkins. 1983 first edition trade paperback by Aventura. Cover design by Keith Sheridan featuring an illustration by Marshall Arisman. I wrote about Correction here.

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The Tanners by Robert Walser. English translation by Susan Bernofsky. Irregular-sized trade paperback by New Directions, 2009. Cover design by Erik Rieselbach.

Three Books

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Angels by Denis Johnson. 1989 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Chris Moore.

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Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. 1986 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

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The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson. 1988 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

Three Books

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Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser. English translation by Susan Bernofsky. 1990 trade paperback published by The Johns Hopkins UP. Cover design and lettering by Ann Walston. The illustration is a detail from Adolf Wölfli’s 1917 Arnica Flower. This was the first Walser I read.IMG_1042 IMG_1043

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. English translation by Archibald Colqhoun. A 1966 trade paperback from Time Life Books. Cover design by Jerome Moriarty. I’m not sure why, but I just love the design of this book—I love that there’s no blurb on the back too.IMG_1017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First printing of an Ace Books mass market paperback. No designer is credited, but the cover art, reminiscent of Gustav Klimt, is by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Three Books

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Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Martin Chalmers. Illustration and design by Sunandini Banerjee. First edition oversized hardback from Seagull Books. On thick, heavy paper, Banerjee’s rich full-color digital collages illustrate what is essentially a microfiction by Thomas Bernhard. I bought this a few years ago at Faulkner House, a tiny bookstore in New Orleans.

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Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. 1973 Vintage mass-market paperback edition. Cover photo by Robert Wenkham; no designer credited. My favorite Faulkner, although I’ve not read them all. I bought this for grad school, which explains the cheap used mass-market edition, but I love the cover. IMG_8402 Fractured Karma by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press. Design by Barbara Martin. The cover painting, Waiting Room for the Beyond, is by John Register. This is the first Tom Clark book I read. Amazing.

Three Books

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Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie A. Fiedler. First edition hardback published by Criterion in 1960. Cover design by Sidney Feinberg. I was dismayed when I first found Fiedler—he’d arrived at his thesis—and supported it with a big fat book—decades before me. I was hipped to this by a kindly professor in graduate school, who suggested I read and then credit Fiedler. I pulled this book out to help me in an American lit course I’m teaching this fall.

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Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. First edition trade paperback published by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; cover photo illustration by Marc Tauss. I’ve already written about my love of Vintage Contemporaries covers, and finding this copy of Suttree a few years ago was glorious. I’ve been rereading the novel—auditing it, really, through a superb reading by Michael Kramer. I’ve had this edition out as I go. Suttree, by the way, fits nicely neatly perfectly into Fielder’s thesis about American lit.
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Grooks by Piet Hein. Cute little pocket-sized paperback. Second-edition published by the M.I.T. Press. Cover illustration is by Hein; I can’t find a credit for the designer. I found this in the bookstore the other day when I was looking for something else in the poetry section. Hein’s grooks can be clever, but also occasionally a bit too pithy, if that makes sense. Still.

Cool color signature covers

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Cool article from Wired (yeah it’s a few years old now but hey) about artist Jaz Parkinson, who indexed the references to colors in various novels and created visual signatures of them. From the article

 Jaz Parkinson, an art student from England, was curious about how the written imagery in the work would translate into color, so she decided to chart the color signatures of some of her favorite books.

Using the color-related data pulled from novels, Parkinson visualized how famous books would look if you could only read them through a visual signature. “I think the charts are beautiful and informative, which is a very special mix of the subjective and the objective,” she says. “They reveal a new dataset which hasn’t been associated with the book before.”
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Two by Grace Paley (Books Acquired, 3.07.2014)

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I’d been wanting to pick up a collection of Grace Paley’s stories for awhile now. I wasn’t sure whether or not to pick up Enormous Changes at the Last Minute or The Little Disturbances of Man, so I just got both. The covers helped convince me, I’ll admit—I’m a sucker for Hopper, and John French Sloan is no slouch either. (I’m tempted here to launch into some vague critique of the covers that books by women get but nah).

I’ve already read most of Enormous Change, ingesting most of the tales while sitting in my car, waiting to pick my kids up after school, which seems like a perfect place to read it. Smart, odd, often sharp, scathing, precise, etc.—great stuff. I’ll try to do a full review but I’ve got a huge backlog. In the meantime, check out “Wants.”

Dirty Northern Bastard — Harland Miller

“My Girls” — Tears for Fears