Sunday, June 18, 2006

Well-designed books

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977)
All these kindnesses were crowned with a dazzling consummation. I had said that my books, after the lost diary, were what I missed most. I ought to have known by now that mention of loss has only one result under this roof . . . What books? I had named them: when the time came for farewells, the Baron said: “We can’t do much about the others but here’s Horace for you.” He put a small duodecimo volume in my hand. It was the Odes and Epodes, beautifully printed on thin paper in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century, bound in hard green leather with gilt lettering. The leather on the spine had faded but the sides were as bright as grass after rain and the little book opened and shut as compactly as a Chinese casket. There were gold edges to the pages and a faded marker of scarlet silk slanted across the long S’s of the text and the charming engraved vignettes: cornucopias, lyres, pan-pipes, chaplets of olive and bay and myrtle. Small mezzotints showed the Forum and the Capitol and imaginary Sabine landscapes: Tibur, Lucretilis, the Bandusian spring, Soracte, Venusia.

When I was younger, and a Star Trek fan, I enjoyed that Kirk and (more believably), Picard were fans, in that distant future, of antique printed books. Even as a kid I knew what the writers were trying to convey. A well-designed book is more than the words it contains, and I too rarely note that in this blog about books. So, a moment to appreciate as objects some books I’ve read recently.

The passage that opened this post is from a book in the New York Review of Books classics series, which are smartly designed, hearty paperbacks, printed and bound to last. At the other end of the spectrum, but no less well-designed for their subject and audience, are the lurid, pulpy Hard Case Crime volumes, with their original cover paintings by R. B. Farrell and others. The Hesperus Press, too, has a memorable, effective series design, with French flaps, an elongated trim, and well-set type.

Then there are the tiny volumes of the Library of America’s American Poets Project, with their luxurious, creamy paper and their sandy-textured, matte-finish jackets, designed by Chip Kidd. Or Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them, designed by Darren Haggar, which wonderfully weaves photos into the narrative, which is itself set in the appropriately elegant Centaur MT. And along those lines, there’s the most extravagantly beautiful design I’ve seen the past few years, the three-volume, illustrated, slip-cased New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.

All of these books are instances of designers adapting art to the needs of commerce, and thus enabling commerce itself to be put to work passing on stories, disseminating knowledge, continuing an argument. It’s complex, difficult work, and its successes—the many, many books that are a joy to pick up, open, read, and lend to friends—are the reason our house will keep getting more and more crowded as the years go on.

Posting will be sporadic through the Fourth of July holiday, as work and travel and such things intervene.


  1. Of all my required reading in high school and college, this was my favorite design.

  2. Complete Peanuts!