As I see it, there are three kinds of readers. The Occasional Reader reads a book or three a year; they'll grab a paperback book at the airport before they catch their flight just to kill some time. There are Voracious Readers who will devour as many books as they can. You've seen these bookworms buying armfuls of books and reading over their lunch breaks. Then there are the Book Lovers. These are readers whose love of reading cannot be contained by the mere act of reading in quantity. Their affection envelops the books themselves. Book Lovers don't just see books as a way to consume a couple of hours of entertainment, they see books as treasures. Books—especially books of stories they love—are the embodiment of everything Book Lovers love about reading. They are objects that they can display proudly while they point at them and say "Look how awesome that is!"
I am definitely a Book Lover. That's how I first became aware of The Folio Society, a publisher of beautifully produced works of fiction. Since I read lots of science fiction, fantasy and horror, I find their selection of science fiction and fantasy titles to be particularly appealing. One of the best things about that selection is that it's still growing. This month, I had the opportunity to check out three of their science fiction titles—one new, one reissue and one updated reissue—that prove that books themselves can be coveted works of art beyond the fiction written on the page.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Meet Robert Neville, the apparent sole survivor of a worldwide plague that turned people in creatures resembling vampires. Neville survives by barricading himself in his house at night, trying to ignore the hordes of monsters that are trying to get at him. By day, he is a vampire killer, driving stakes through the hearts of the inactive vampires to get rid of them once and for all. Neville's immunity also allows him to research the plague and search for a cure.
You may already be familiar with this classic 1954 vampire story because you saw one of its film adaptations: 1964's The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price; 1971's The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston; or 2007's I Am Legend starring Will Smith. But none of the films capture the pure loneliness and resignation of Matheson's classic novel. The new Folio Society edition of I Am Legend goes even further: it visualizes the grimness of Neville's condition through spectacular illustrations by award-winning U.K. illustrator Dave McKean.
I asked McKean how he chose which scenes from the novel to illustrate. "No big idea here," he said. "There needed to be a couple of action moments, but generally I just looked for moments that said something about the themes in the book, or even allowed me to say something about those ideas. I'm never very keen to draw the main character clearly. I think we as readers like to imagine that character. We relate to them. They are our avatars as we progress through the story. So, I concentrated on the characters we come across. The general palate was quite murky...greys, buffs, blacks and olive greens…but I looked for moments that would allow a flash or spot of red…the virus, the blood, the spark at the center of the story."
Speaking about the techniques he employed to capture Neville's grim desperation, McKean said, "It's a grim world. It would be hard to imagine anyone finding the resolve to carry on living in such circumstances. So, I thought it needed a grim color palette, and a corroded, eroded, torn and scratched surface. All the paintings were finished on a thoroughly scuffed sheet of thick and encrusted watercolor paper, and then painted quite roughly. The main of image of Neville holding the dog, a moment of tenderness, was the closest I can [get] to him, and I tried to keep him a little illusive, shadowy, misty." (There's a captivating video where McKean explains his work on this beautiful edition in more detail, as well as a video showcasing the edition itself.)
This new Folio Society edition of I Am Legend, which features an introduction by Joe Hill, comes in a die-cut slipcase that offers a peek at the creepy cover illustration inside. The whole package is enough to satisfy any Book Lover, but for the truly infatuated, there's even a limited special edition of the book that's bound in black leather with red page edges.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Speaking of speculative fiction classics, Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 has also been given a Folio Society makeover. Originally published in 2011, this beautiful edition is being reissued to coincide with the new HBO adaptation of the novel. It also includes an introduction by Michael Moorcock.
Fahrenheit 451 depicts a future American dystopian in which most citizens are illiterate, books are outlawed, and "firemen" are charged with burning any books they find. Instead of reading, people consume their entertainment (to a fault) from their interactive entertainment devices. Guy Montag, a married fireman who contemplates the meaning of life, gets his world turned upside down when he meets Clarisse, a so-called "subversive" who dares to question their bookless way of life. Although it was long thought to be statement against book burning, Bradbury later revealed that if Fahrenheit 451 had any warning to give, it was about television supplanting books as our main source of information and entertainment.
Sam Weber provided the striking illustrations for the Folio Society edition of this literary classic. I asked him about which qualities of the Bradbury's story he was trying to capture with his breathtaking illustrations. "I was particularly interested in contrasting the beauty and elegance of a futuristic society with the brutality of a repressive, violent culture," Weber said. "Color was a really effective tool in this regard, with bright almost electric hues accompanying moments of repression and violence, and cooler more neutral tones signaling moments of calm or resilience. The images are for the most part fairly direct and character based, which I'd like to think works well with Bradbury's economic prose."
About his technique, Weber says, "These paintings were created in acrylic and water color and finished digitally in the computer. I use a lot of real life reference and models to make my work, and it's always a fun challenge to find the right combination of props and people to populate a painting. A lot of my friends have made appearances over the years, and Fahrenheit 451 was no exception. Although I go into the final stages of most images with a fairly specific idea of what I'd like to make, an interesting model always adds something unexpected and exciting to a painting."
It only takes a quick glimpse of Weber's work to see the stunning results and how it brings Bradbury's novel to life.
Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Cyrano de Bergerac
If you trace science fiction back to its roots, even before the days of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, you will find proto-science fiction, or (according to the OED Science Fiction Citations) "literary works that prefigure the themes of science fiction, especially ones involving fantastic voyages or technological innovations." This is where you'll find two stories of wild imagination written by French novelist Cyrano de Bergerac: 1657's Voyage to the Moon and 1662's Voyage to the Sun.
Now, The Folio Society has collected both of these stories in a beautiful new coffee-table-book-sized edition titled Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. This wonderful slip-cased edition features even more appropriately whimsical illustrations by Quentin Blake than were in the original printing. Like much of early science fiction, de Bergerac's far-out stories are more social commentary than it is a rigorous treatment of science.
In Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano's fictional alter-ego is accidentally carried on a rocket to Earth's moon where he discovers a lunar society very different than the one found on Earth. Here, people respect the young instead of the old and social status takes a back seat to well-argued opinions. Oh, and noblemen wear a phallus-shaped emblem instead of carrying a sword. Cyrano is tried in court for having the audacity to suggest that the Earth is inhabited, heresy in the eyes of moon people. The included sequel Voyage to the Sun depicts Cyrano in a similarly comic situation. Cyrano is imprisoned after his moon voyage, but escapes. Unfortunately, his escape turns into an unscheduled trip to the Sun, where Cyrano once again discovers an altogether new society that puts him on trial. This time, Cyrano's is charged with the crime of being human by the Sun's race of intelligent birds.
Cyrano de Bergerac's comedic farce is an informative trip back in time to the days before science fiction existed as a genre. It's also illuminating and just plain fun. The book's high production quality means it's something Book Lovers will happily keep within easy reach. I mean, look how awesome that is!