It may be true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that hasn’t kept publishers, for generations, from lavishing exquisite attention to how their books are wrapped and presented to the world. That has particularly been the case with the canonical works of literature, with the offerings of the sage-green- and black-spined Penguin Library, for instance, introducing readers not just to classical texts but also to great paintings: Degas matched with Zola, for instance, or Klee with Kafka.
Does it matter? It’s hard to say. According to the British publication The Bookseller, reports The Guardian, sales of the the classics are booming—54,000 copies in Britain last year of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance, as opposed to just 12,000 the year before. But gone, now, are the Géricault paintings of old. Instead, it seems, Penguin is restoring the plain-color covers that marked the paperback line when it first appeared 70-odd years ago: red for Russian writers, blue for French, and so forth. Other publishers are tinkering with the formula but sticking to art, if sometimes stretched over into the realm of craft—Georgian wallpaper on Mansfield Park, say. We’ll await the sales figures for next year to see.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has published many books over the years, from Zen Keys and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings to more focused books such as How to Love and Peace Is Every Step. (A favorite bit of wisdom: be grateful to be stopped at a red light, for it gives you a chance to meditate.) Appropriately, Thay’s books—Thay being the honorific meaning “master”—have simple, soothing covers. Now, reports the Buddhist publication Lion’s Roar, the soothing baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch will accompany the teachings of Thay in a new documentary, Walk with Me, based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals. Watch the trailer here.
If there were ever a children’s-book-writing antonym to a living saint, Roald Dahl would be a shoo-in. He was openly anti-Semitic, bitter, quick with slaps physical and verbal, hateful. “Take a closer look at Dahl’s writing for children, and you’ll find something to offend almost everyone,” writes Hephzibah Anderson for the BBC, though, stripped of any specificity, Dahl’s meanness found inventive outlets that have delighted children for decades. The less delightful aspects loom, though, as, 10 days ago, what would have been Dahl’s 100th birthday found modest commemorations. As the Telegraph notes, a key moment in Robert Gottlieb’s new memoir Avid Reader comes when the noted editor, then at Knopf, responded by Dahl’s endless bullying by threatening to fire him: “unless you start acting civilly to us,” Gottlieb wrote, “there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you.” Dahl went on to another house, unrepentantly nasty.
The more certain we are, the late writer Guy Davenport sagely observed, the more likely it is that we are wrong. Consider that when appealing to authority—for even authority can be wrong. So an incarcerated savant from Maryland proved, when, a dozen years ago, he wrote to an editor at Merriam-Webster to point out an error in an encyclopedia entry. Writes Daniel Gross in the New Yorker, the correspondence launched a friendship, to say nothing of the ferreting out of a few more glitches. Gross’s story is redemptive, but, as with the rest of life, it doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Ah, well: life is suffering, whether in fancy dress or plain wrapping. Courage!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.