Daily Drop Cap Meets Penguin Classics

The internet is abuzz with the recently released preview of a new series of books Penguin is publishing in time for the Christmas season. The Penguin Drop Cap series will be a series of classic books with covers featuring letters designed by the wonderful Jessica Hische. The letters will be new designs, appropriate for each book’s content, that she prepares for this series and not simply caps taken from her previous Daily Drop Cap project. The series uses bold, bright colors and relatively simple elegant layout around the Drop Cap. I have to admit, I think the spines are just as nice as the covers (while you might not think a spine is as important as a beautiful front cover, the spine is all you usually see when a book is on your bookshelf!).

You can read the Imprint article, displaying all six of the released previews (A is for Jane Austen, B is for Charlotte Bronte, C is for Willa Cather, D is for Charles Dickens, E is for George Eliot, and F is for Gustave Flaubert). Below are my favorite two; although Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorites I prefer the Willa Cather and Charles Dickens covers. However, Middlemarch is the only one I haven’t read yet, so its probably top of my list for purchasing. What do you think? Will they be on your Christmas wishlist?

Penguin Drop Cap Series—C is for Willa Cather’s My Antonia
Penguin Drop Cap Series—D is for Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations

The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

My all time favorite book, my first choice in all situations when people ask for book recommendations (except perhaps for eight-year-olds), and yet a book that most people have never heard of, is The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin.

As an author, Ursula K LeGuin is one of the few authors who I think best captures humanity and the reality of what it means to be human. Other authors do more beautiful prose, more enthralling plot lines, or transport the reader to more exotic, enchanting settings than LeGuin. Faulkner with his stream of consciousness and variety of approaches, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his magical realism do more interesting, unusual, unexpected things with literature than LeGuin does. But in my opinion LeGuin and Tolstoy are the two authors who have managed to best capture what it really means to be human. They capture the sublime beauty, the simple pleasure, the deep, throbbing tragedy and grief, and the daily hum drum of existence that seems to pass for life in my experience. And to be fair, I don’t find all of LeGuin’s books this spectacular, although I have liked all the ones I’ve read so far (the short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas is my other favorite of hers). But The Telling has enthralled me since I first read it, and I will keep re-reading and recommending it for a long time to come.

I have mixed thoughts about the cover. I would never nominate it for any design competitions, but I do find the illustration appealing and enjoy looking at it. However, it has almost nothing to do with the story! The woman pictured could, I suppose, be the protagonist in terms of skin and hair coloring (the protagonist Sutty is ethnically Indian) but I couldn’t picture her ever frolicking in a field of flowers and butterflies like that; she’s a bit too down to earth for that. And the fancy looking airplane or spaceship up in the right hand corner does hint at the fact that this sci-fi book deals with space travel, but spaceships and air travel are hardly a main focus of the book… again I’m pretty sure that nothing about this scene actually took place during the book.

Continue reading The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

The Conundrum of Coralie Bickford-Smith

I started looking into the work of Coralie Bickford-Smith because of her Clothbound Series Collections 1 – 4, which can be found pretty much anywhere. I found books from these series in boutique clothing stores, in gift stores, in large chain clothing stores, and of course bookstores up and down the street. The clothbound hardcover books feature simple, repetitive patterns featuring an interesting object that in some way evokes the plot or mood of each novel. For example, flamingos grace the cover of Alice and Wonderland, parrots in palm trees cover Treasure Island, and sewing scissors on Little Women. The simple, old fashioned design, limited to two colors, seems to be appealing to retailers and one must assume customers as well.

This popularity seems to me evidence of an underlying sea change in the role of books in our society. As ereaders like the kindle, nook and iPad become widespread and ebooks keep increasing their share of book sales, the role that physical books play in our society is shifting. While I don’t think physical books will ever disappear, I think more of the market will move towards books as beautiful artifacts, such as these old-fashioned, well designed hardcovers, and away from cheap, mass-market paperbacks.

These book designs also feed into the current vintage trend that is embracing a more well-crafted aesthetic; Coralie describes these book covers as “all about evoking a pre-computer era of craftsmanship and fine binding.” (Read the full interview with her here.)

So I’m not really surprised that this kind of book is popping up everywhere. What I am surprised about is that retailers are choosing these particular books. Sure, they’re perfectly nice, and elegant in their simplicity. But they aren’t the only series capitalizing on this hardcover, old-fashioned, objet d’arte trend in book design. There are so many other beautiful series in this same vein right now, and at the end of the day I just don’t find those particular books very inspiring. I prefer, for example, Jessica Hische’s series for Barnes and Nobles Classics:

Barnes and Noble Classics Book Covers designed by Jessica Hische

Or even some of Coralie Bickford-Smith’s other series, which are seemingly much less popular (based on what I’ve seen at stores I’ve shopped at). Her designs for F. Scott Fitzgerald or the three-book Arabian Nights set are simply gorgeous. She has so much good work, it is very strange to me that what is everywhere is what seems (in my opinion) to be the least interesting.

F Scott Fitzgerald books designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith
Arabian Nights books designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith

If you’re interested in seeing more of Coralie’s book designs (there are a ton, and most of them are awesome), I recommend checking out her full portfolio.

Inspiration and Fraud in Persian Poetry

The other day I was thinking about buying a book on Sufi poetry. It’s something that I’ve run across in small bits and pieces in my dealings with poetry, and always enjoyed. With my limited exposure to it, I found I enjoyed it’s blend of religiousness, nature, romance, sensuality, and wisdom. So when I was trying to brainstorm books to read for my trip to India, this series of books, including A Year with Hafiz and Love Poems from God, came to my attention. I was looking for something to read that would give me a better sense of the cultural background of India; of course Persia and India are very different cultures, but there was enough Persian influence in the Mughal courts that once ruled most of Northern India and built the Taj Mahal (among other stunning monuments), that it seemed relevant.

I looked at those two books specifically because I remembered seeing them in my book of Penguin cover design (Penguin 75). These covers are definitely eye-catching: graceful, elegant, simple, vibrant, just the right touch with the inspiration from Persian carpet design, without being too much. Designed by Ingsu Liu, wife of Penguin art director Paul Buckley, she describes her process:

what stood out to me the most was the bold, lush colors, as well as the ornate patterns from the region’s typography and fabrics. … And not being Middle Eastern myself, I figured it would be smart to keep things simple, not to mention the first of the series was a book of haiku, so that pretty much set the look for the series—spare and elegant.

I came really close to purchasing the books. Poems like the one below struck a cord in me that I felt I could relate to, while still being spare, lyrical, and elegant.

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth
“You owe me”
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky

But I didn’t buy the books.

Why? I came across this article, http://www.payvand.com/news/09/apr/1266.html, reproduced below, that discusses that poem in particular. I’ll leave you to read it in a second, but I have to admit, I’m still teetering about what I think of the books, months later. I haven’t decided if their actual origin taints the poetry for me, or if I can still appreciate the poems for themselves. Leave a comment and let me know what you think about it.


Numerous people have tried to find the original Persian verse, but they’ve failed. Many went through their Hafiz books a thousand times, but nothing was found. This verse has appeared all over the place, from wall murals in the United States to greeting cards on the Internet. Afschineh Latifi even used it to title her famed memoir “Even After All this Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran”. Last week, Hojat Golpayegani, writing for Shahrvand, talked about how he has been searching extensively “But without any success”.

Well, I am going to end the agony. It does not exist.

Those who have gone and searched their Farsi books of Hafiz shouldn’t have done so. That’s just not the proper way. They should have been looking for the English version of the poem to see who has translated it and what the sources are. This is especially necessary for Hafiz, since historically it has been shown that translating his work to English is a complex process for which no definitive, accepted version stands out.

The poem that Mr. McGuinty recited comes from a book called “The Gift: Poems by Hafez the Great Sufi Master” by Daniel Ladinsky, American Sufi poet. It was published in 1999 by Penguin Books and was commercially successful. However, this book has nothing to do with Hafiz. Ladinsky, a Sufi who has spent years with Mehrbaba in India, doesn’t even know how to read or write in Farsi. In fact, he claims that he has heard the poems from Hafiz himself in a dream. “I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason” he says in the book’s introduction. “It is really an attempt to do the impossible, to translate light into words… About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz as a never-ending, boundless sun (God), who sang hundreds of verses of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give his message to ‘my fellow artists and art seekers’ “.

This has been rebuked by a lot of critics who accuse Ladinsky of out-right fraud and deception. Murat Nemet-Nejat, a modern Turkish essayist and poet, asserts “Ladinsky’s book is an original poem masquerading as a translation… As God talked to Moses in Hebrew, to Mohammad in Arabic, Hafiz spoke to Daniel Ladinsky in English. Mr. Ladinsky is translating a dream, not a 14th century Persian text”. He continues “As such, the book is worse than a failure; it is a deception, a marketing rip-off of his name”

Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design 2

Between my love affair with books and my life of design, I am always keeping an eye open for cool book covers. Here’s another selection of interesting children’s book covers, this time focusing on the use of unusual materials with the six Penguin Threads covers and the Hitchhiker’s Guide DIY Sticker Covers. Enjoy!

Penguin Threads:

Penguin Threads: Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden

Penguin Threads is a beautiful series of books where the cover art was created through embroidery. The first three books—Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden—were commissioned from Jillian Tamaki (read her blogpost on this project). They detail is absolutely beautiful, and I feel like sitting there and just staring at these covers for a half hour, absorbing every little thing. It’s almost a little bit overwhelming! And while I love the color palette and design, I must admit the Emma cover reminded me a little bit of Milton Glaser’s famous poster of Bob Dylan, which is an amusingly strange connection to make.

Jillian Tamaki embroidering

Penguin made an effort to make the covers as enjoyably realistic as possible by both embossing the thread design, and on the inside of the covers showing the back of the embroidery:

The Secret Garden: Interior cover with the back of the embroidery

The Penguin Threads series is described on their website: “Commissioned by award-winning Penguin art director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Threads series debuts with cover art by Jillian Tamaki for three gift-worthy Penguin Classics. Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design that will appeal to the Etsy(tm)-loving world of handmade crafts.”

And for those who have already seen and loved these first three, there’s good news. Penguin has continued the series with three new titles—The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, and The Wind in the Willows—this time with embroidery illustrations by Rachell Sumpter. If anything, these compositions are even more crazily detailed; I’m still trying to decide if I think the chaos in the Little Women cover, inspired by embroidery samplers, is fantastic or too much. Despite the chaos, they are definitely still gorgeous book covers. Tempted to get the whole series!

Penguin Threads 2: The Wizard of Oz
Penguin Threads 2: Little Women
Penguin Threads 2: The Wind in the Willows

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy DIY Sticker Covers:

I first stumbled across these on Faceout Books’ great blog on the process of book design (read their post on Hitchhikers). These Hitchhiker’s covers, designed for the books’ 30th anniversary, have a simple concept: the title and author are printed at the bottom of an empty image of the universe. Inside the cover are a sheet of awesome/ridiculous stickers that relate to the book’s plots in various ways, and readers are encouraged to make a “DIY” cover by creating their own layout and design. Totally awesome. What a great way to get people, especially kids, to get excited about reading (and hopefully get hooked on a great series of books!).

As if it was needed, these DIY covers come with an added bonus. They have been incorporated into the ebook iPhone app, so for those of you into reading your books digitally, you can still have fun playing around with these awesome interactive covers. Unfortunately these seem to only be available the UK, as far as I can tell. Hopefully it will be available for American audiences soon!

Hitchhiker's iPhone app with DIY cover

Blink and You Missed It

I was browsing through Fab.com‘s collection of vintage items on sale this morning, and discovered this awesome set of Milton Glaser designed Shakespeare plays. Already Sold Out! Super bummed (although I probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway, but still…)

Here they are for your viewing enjoyment, and to help make sure I’m not the only one out there disappointed that they’re not mine!

The Merchant of Venice and Richard III, covers by Milton GlaserKing Lear and Richard II covers by Milton Glaser


Wish I’d Thought of That!

I first stumbled across Mikey Burton’s cover design work for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee when his cover design was featured on a cell phone case by Out of Print which was in turn being featured on the wonderful design deals site, Fab.com (*Out of Print no longer seems to be offering that specific product). My first that was I WANT THAT. I didn’t end up actually getting it in the end, but I first looked into exactly what this Out of Print store was, and who had designed the book covers they used. Turns out that Out of Print is a store selling a range of products including t-shirts, bags, notecards, etc., all featuring images of book covers. Beautiful book covers. An old fashioned illustration for Pride or Prejudice, or the classic cover design for The Great Gatsby that F. Scott Fitzgerald said he actually incorporated into his storyline because he loved it so much. But also some more updated covers, including the work of Mikey Burton.

So I looked into Mikey Burton. Turns out that he did a whole series of book cover designs for classic children’s stories such as To Kill A Mockingbird, and also included Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and The Outsiders. And he did them for his MFA Thesis project! The goal of his thesis was the creation of, as he describes,

An integrated branding campaign based around the illustrative reinterpretation of classic book covers directed toward junior-high-school students.

My first reaction was No Way! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?! Because that really would have been fun. I was trying hard to think of a good MFA project involving book design, without much success, and here was a fantastic idea that also involved getting children more involved with literature, something I care a lot about. Unfortunately my thesis project also has to be original, so I can’t just copy the idea, and his covers are so well designed that I can’t really hope to out-do him. Oh well. (Check out his thesis project, overall portfolio, or read an interview with him if you want to know more.)

However, definitely want to give him some kudos for an awesome project, and might still buy a t-shirt from Out of Print featuring his work. Or a notepad. We’ll see.

Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design

First off, check out these awesome redesigns of the Harry Potter series! M. S. Corley designed these inspired by both Moss and Spacesick, and retro Penguin covers in general. All the covers make sense with their plots, and yet feel so retro; I did a double take at first—”Harry Potter’s not that old, is it?”.

Harry Potter retro covers


Next up, I’m super bummed I only found out about these a year and a half after they were released. Puffin Classics (the Penguin children’s division) had six famous architects including Frank Gehry design children’s book covers to celebrate their 70th anniversary. The titles include James and the Giant Peach, Little Women, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days and The Secret Garden. Check out the website for more details (UPDATE: the Puffin Classics link no longer works, but you can find more details in this article from Vogue).

Temptation Strikes, Again (Thank You Chip Kidd)

Yep, I’m doing it again. Buying a book (or possibly three) based on its cover. But the covers are so cool!!! Check them out (click on them to see a bigger version):

Blood on the Moon     Because the Night     Suicide Hill

They were designed by Chip Kidd, book cover designer extraordinaire. Were I to achieve half of the ability and fame of Chip Kidd, I’d be pleased. I’m doing a project about him for my type class, so I bought myself the book Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006, which in addition to having a veritable plethora, a smorgasbord if you will, of awesome designs by him, it also has a fair bit of his delightfully tongue-in-cheek commentary that is actually very informative about his design process and experiences. I’ve just skimmed through it so far, gorging my eyes on the delightful, ridiculous, and (almost always) amazing images, but I looking forward to take the time to go through and carefully read what he has to say about everything. Can’t wait!

Oh, and I’m sure the books will be fun to read too. Detective stories are always good for a read, and I have a plane flight to Tennessee coming up in a couple weeks.

Anna, Leo, and Me: Thoughts on finishing Anna Karenina

AnnaKareninaWell I’ve done it!

After months of picking it up, reading for awhile, and putting it down again, I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina. And though it’s seemed more like a marathon than a simple walk through the park, its been very enjoyable. While I don’t find Tolstoy a page-turner, I’m amazed at how well he captures humanity, in all its coarse, unpolished and hum-drum details and therefore how well he captures what it means to be alive. It is glorious, and yet all so ordinary.

And in Anna Karenina Tolstoy manages to fit all turns of life: birth, death, youth, love, hope, disappointment, urban life, rural life, storms and elation. I’ll warn you right now that much of the rest of this post will include PLOT SPOILERS so don’t read after this paragraph if you don’t want to know about some of the plot twists and turns. Just know that I definitely recommend it!


I will admit, for awhile I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. I had stopped reading for a bit right when Anna and Vronsky start their affair, and I was so into the storyline that reading made me anxious and up tight about their fate, so I didn’t enjoy reading! But curiosity got the better of me, and I pushed through to find out that their affair did end up at least sort of working out, and then I got caught up in the love story between Levin and Kitty, and finished the rest without too much difficulty.

There were several poignant moments that I really loved, especially at the birth of Levin’s first child:

He only knew and felt that what was happening was similar to what had happened the year before in the hotel of the provincial town on the deathbed of his brother Nicholas. But that had been grief—this was joy. Yet that grief and this joy were alike outside all the ordinary conditions of life; they were loop-holes, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And, as in that case, what was now being accomplished came harshly, painfully, incomprehensibly; and while watching it, the soul soared to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.

and the tiny little details, like his reaction to his infant son:

And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest that helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.

Watching Anna’s spiral downwards was fascinating and horrifying. It felt so easy to identify with Anna and what she was thinking, and yet at the same time to look at her from without and see how she was making herself miserable. And when she finally committed suicide, it felt so bizarrely understandable! And yet, so tragic. She knew that it wasn’t Vronsky and it wasn’t her, it was some evil force (which I read as depression or a similar mental affliction) that was bearing her under. The detail that Tolstoy put in about when she crossed herself, the great shadow lifted and she remembered what was beautiful in life again, but she went ahead with her suicide anyway, wondering all the while why her body was still moving on this seemingly unalterable course. So heartbreaking, those last few moments, as they seem so preventable.

And then, with the ending of Levin’s discovery of faith, through the words of the simple peasant:

Oh, well, of course, folks are different. One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.

I can’t help bring the two together. The book is titled after Anna, and yet Tolstoy ends with Levin. Is the ideal to live for God and righteousness a comment on Anna’s life? One could argue that Anna has lived her life in ways meant to fill her emotional “belly” and not looking at what is the right thing to do but merely what she feels she needs. And yet, she also seems like a woman who’s happiness has been destroyed at every turn by the whims and strict structures of society. One can’t help but feel that she could so easily have been a successful, beneficial member of society. Yet, one can’t deny that she lived for her own happiness. She lived for what she wanted, and not what (in at least one sense) was the “right” thing to do. But then what is the “right” thing to do?

I must admit, I like Levin’s answer. To be a good person, even if it makes no logical sense and you can find no reason to defend it.