The Art of the Book: Behind the Covers

Reading Series Event at the Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts, on Monday, December 4.

Sean is a graphic designer, and I work in book publishing, so the 92nd Street Y’s panel discussion of cover art intrigued both of us, particularly once we saw who would be on the panel: Chip Kidd, Milton Glaser, and Dave Eggers. The Reading Series organizers did an excellent job of assembling the panel, for the three men each come from different backgrounds and aesthetics, and each is an interesting, engaging speaker. The event ran for nearly two hours—and could have run longer—and I was never bored. (How could I be? Lots of slides with pretty pictures! Whee!)

Glaser, the oldest, spoke first. He is a legend of graphic design, most famous for giving New York the iconic “I [heart] NY” logo (which, sadly, doesn’t work as well if you have to write out [heart]). He showed slides of some of his covers, beginning with his beautiful 1960s-era Signet Classic Shakespeare editions, which are still in print, and talked about the thinking behind the illustrations. He makes particularly interesting use of typography. Recently, for example, he designed the cover for Joan Didion’s Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11. The cover is all large, stark text, but the vertical lines of the F and capital E of Fixed are thicker and darker, quietly but unmistakably alluding to the Twin Towers.

Eggers went last. I hadn’t realized that he is a designer as well as a writer, but apparently the willful, eccentric McSweeney’s covers are largely his doing. He spoke briefly—and with great self-deprecation—about his interest in nineteenth-century design, and how the text-heavy covers and title pages of that era have influenced the design of various McSweeney’s publications.

That sort of extreme retro taste is typical of Eggers, who is a bit of a Luddite, but the restrictions he imposes upon his designs gives them a distinctive, unusual flair, and I like that. Too often people assume that any kind of aesthetic framework is a terrible burden for artists, but that’s not necessarily the case. With regard to composition, Igor Stravinsky said (and I know this sounds deeply pretentious, but it truly is one of my favorite quotes about art): “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

The most entertaining speaking, however, was Kidd, who is terribly funny and hilariously indiscreet. (Honestly, if I were he, I wouldn’t have been telling stories about travails with Cormac McCarthy over the cover of the acclaimed writer’s latest book. But I’m glad that Kidd’s more comfortable with that sort of thing than mousy people like me because it was a great story.)

Kidd also put a mild but obnoxious heckler in his place with a crackling good line. This guy kept making loud, asinine comments about the covers Kidd was showing. (Kidd: [describing a colleague’s cover] “It’s elegant and—” Obnoxious guy: “Simple.” Kidd: “Simple. Thank you.” [eye roll to audience] Obnoxious guy: “And it’s yellow.” Kidd: [very dry] “And yellow.”) Finally, Kidd showed a slide of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, the cover of which shows an imposing Manhattan residence made to look like a castle. The heckler shouted, “That’s my building!” Kidd turned and stared at him. “Really?” he drawled, and then, with flawless timing, so perfectly that it might have been scripted, “I know where you live.” And we didn’t hear any more from the heckler. Hee!

The point of Kidd’s presentation, however, was to show slides of bestselling books published by Knopf, where he works, over the past year. This accomplished two things: First, it highlighted his employer’s successes, but more broadly (and this, of course, was what Kidd emphasized and elaborated upon), it demonstrated that a book doesn’t have to look a certain, marketing-approved way to be a bestseller. Successful book covers can be artful and subtle; they don’t have to be billboard advertisements for the book.

The graphic designers on stage—and the many, many in the audience, too—were passionate on this point, which made me think: It might be wrong to judge a book by its cover, but perhaps it’s appropriate to judge a publishing company by its covers. Surely companies that cultivate striking, original cover art also cultivate striking, original writing. As a word nerd, I’d never really considered that idea before—I don’t pay all that much attention to covers—but after an evening focusing on the art alone, I have a greater appreciation for what those images can say.