Judging a book by its…

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I’m a lifelong bibliophile, a perambulator of bookstores and libraries, wont to picking up books at random and taking them in on a whim. So, of course, I’m a lover of book covers.

And, except for those of us who judge books only on their e-readers, covers matter. A lot. Female British author Lionel Shriver wrote a scathing piece for The Guardian of the gender inequality of cover designs. She rightly complains that the pastel images of wistful women that her publisher’s designers suggest for her are based solely on her gender and have nothing to do with her books–intense narratives, even “nasty,” as she calls them. No one wants the label chic lit, even those who predominantly write for a female audience (I’m looking at you Jodi Picoult).

Book buyers tend to form judgements about unknown books within 10-20 seconds of seeing them. Which is why the hardcover copy of last year’s The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt:

 

 

makes such a better first impression than the paperback version:

 

 

The hardcover version is a visual double entendre, the paperback a pastel banality that makes me think I’m picking up a dry history of the wild west. Pass.

It’s pretty amazing when a book cover makes you do a double take, gives you a complete summary of the book in a single image. Designer Jenny Volvovski is currently creating new covers for books she’s read, and I love her take on Bradley Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist:

 

The main character has four wives, each with several children, and somehow the letters alone give you a sense of his life. There he is, the lonely O at the center of it all.

I could go on forever about amazing book covers, because there are so many good ones (and several blogs devoted to them). In case you’re interested, here are a lot more awesome book covers. And here’s a list of 30 books that “you should buy for the cover alone.”

But in the age of the e-reader, is the book cover an endangered art form? Chip Kidd, one of the most famous book cover designers of all time, thinks not. NPR quotes him as saying, “[Books] need some kind of visual representation, whether you’re going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore.” Of course, he’s banking on that assumption, given that that’s how he makes a living. I hope he’s right.

Here’s his TED talk on the art of designing a book cover:

 

 

 

A good book and a glass of wine

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It’s storming here in the Twin Cities–a perfect night to curl up with red wine and a good book. But what to pair? White would be required for The Old Man and the Sea or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (on second thought, maybe skip the wine when reading Dr. Seuss). Interview with a Vampire or any of them Twilighty books would necessitate a full-bodied red. And maybe a good port for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Luckily, others have also taken on this challenge. A woman who wrote a book about wine offers some key suggestionsThe Grapes of Wrath with a California zinfandel; The da Vinci Code with an Italian chianti; Memoirs of a Geisha with saké.

An inspired Pinterest user has outdone even this list, though, by creating an entire pinboard devoted to specific vintages matched with books (however, most of the wines are from the same vineyard which makes me suspicious about her connection). So, for instance, she pairs the Tapeña Garnacha, which she deems inexpensive, yet tasty, with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is a book you can find in any airport bookstore, yet I’ve heard is quite good. Her favorite wine, the Bogle Merlot 2009, which she calls smooth and satisfying, pairs with Immortality by Milan Kundera, her favorite book.

If you could pair a wine with a book, what would it be?

Hanukkah goblins, beautiful daughters, and blind mice

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Though Belle uses her imagination, Gaston isn’t such an idiot for wanting pictures in his books. He probably just never progressed past a third-grade reading level.
Looking over the Caldecott winners from the past seventy years, I saw some of my favorite books from childhood, all of which are illustrated in beautiful and very distinct styles. Here are some of the best:
1990 Honor: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel shows a goblin he can crush a rock in his bare hands

1988 Honor: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

Yet another Cinderella story

1993 Honor: Seven Blind Mice

Elephant quest ’93

And the gorgeous 1992 Winner: Jumanji

Follow the rules, kids, or you could be caught in a rhino stampede

 

The best bookstores in the world

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I posted about the world’s most beautiful libraries back in July, but there are just as many cool bookstores in the world. Books, being so full of art and history themselves, often find homes in buildings full of history and glamor.

Take the Livraria Lello, a bookstore in Porto, Portugal (the link brings you through to 360 degree views of the interior). Though it looks more suited to a grand ballroom in a gothic revivalist mansion, the Livraria–complete with wood paneling and stained glass skylight windows–was built in 1881 specifically for the purpose of selling books. It’s not hard to remember that books were once considered treasures in such a gorgeous setting:

Portugal's Livraria Lello

Or take Holland’s Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a bookstore housed in an 800 year-old church. After the Dominican congregation left the Maastrich church, a team of architects repurposed the space to sell books. After admiring 14th century paintings, take a break at the cafe–conveniently located where the alter once stood:

The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich, Holland

The beautiful Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires is located in a former theater, red velvet curtain and balconies still intact:

El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Other bookstores survive not so much on physical grandeur but on historio-literary cachet, such as City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Shakespeare and Company, an English-language staple in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Co, founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, was popular with the Lost Generation expatriates, such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Beach was, in fact, the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. The store closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris, and never reopened. Ten years later, the second store bearing the name was opened in homage to the first and drew the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. The store itself is tiny and packed full with books–none of the wasted space of that lofty cathedral nonsense:

The volume-crowded interior of Paris's Shakespeare and Company

Several directors have also paid tribute to Shakespeare and Company by filming scenes at the iconic bookstore. Woody Allen featured it in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and here it is in one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise:

Independents’ Day

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Common Good Books, where you can find "Good Poetry" and "Quality Trash"

Last Monday I imagined a business model in which Nobel Prize winning authors sell books. In fact, the idea of a famous author owning a bookstore is no fantasy–in my home cities alone there are two independent bookstores owned by best-selling writers. Louise Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow, runs Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which specializes in Native American literature (there’s a page on the Birchbark website devoted to the dogs of the store…swoon). In St. Paul, Garrison Keillor, host of the long-running Prairie Home Companion, is the proprietor of Common Good Books, aka my favorite bookstore.

We’re lucky in the Twin Cities. We have a multitude of wonderfully curated independent bookstores, and even a few dedicated to children’s literature. Some of them, like Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis, garner widespread praise for hosting upwards of 150 readings a year by both obscure and well-known talents. By this point you’ve probably heard of Tea Obreht, the incredibly gifted 26-year-old author of The Tiger’s Wife, who became the youngest woman ever to win the Orange Prize. You know where she started her reading tour? Yup, Magers and Quinn. Her book had barely been out a week when my boyfriend and I crammed into the reading area tight with bookshelves and overly-cologned middle-aged women.

Other cities are not so fortunate. One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, brought the plight of Nashville to national attention this past November when she opened Parnassus Books. One local bookstore closed, and bankruptcy shuttered the Borders; as the New York Times put it, “A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful.” Patchett and Parnassus saved the literati.

I don’t know what I would do without a bookstore in my vicinity. This past Friday night when my boyfriend asked me what I wanted to do, I immediately replied “Let’s look at books!” He laughed–and then he realized I was serious. There was no reason to think I wasn’t, since we’ve spent a few Friday nights this way already pointing out books we’ve read, want to read, want to reread.

Actually, I do know what I would do if I moved somewhere without such a healthy literary community. I’d make like Louise and Garrison and Ann and open a shop myself. There’s just no way I could live without literature.

The joy of books

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The only problem of selling books by cart and not in a store is you wouldn’t be able to have this much fun:

Amazing stop-action animation!

How to be a bookseller

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What you’ll need: a love of ISBNs and ARCs, a lot of time to read

Songlist: Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits

Further Reading: The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

Heaven

I have this business model in mind which is probably terrible in terms of financial prospects, but which would be totally cool.

Everyone loves food carts, right? Hot dogs on the streets of New York, mini donuts in Minneapolis, suspicious meats in a foreign country you probably don’t have the right bacteria to digest, and so on. So why not a book cart?

Can I offer you some Rushdie today, sir?

Here’s what I’m thinking: first I’m gonna become a super famous novelist (which is just one of the reasons this business plan might be a little tricky). That way, people will be much more interested in reading whatever I recommend. I’ll pick 3 books a week, one fiction, one non-fiction, and one miscellaneous–poetry, anthology, classic, young adult, etc–and sell them on the streets of Minneapolis. Businessmen and -women will start to trust my suggestions, and buy whatever I’m peddling. It can’t fail!

Oh sure, bookstores are closing right and left. But many of these are Barnes and Noble bookstores and, of course, Borders. The advantage of my bookcart (feel free to come up with potential names) is that inventory is always small and constantly being refreshed. Bookstores aren’t closing because people don’t read anymore–people just often don’t know what to read. Imagine their neighborhood Nobel Prize winning novelist (okay, I’m stretching here) stopping by every Monday with a fresh new recommendation.

Of course, I haven’t figured out any logistics of this, and it’s not a very franchiseable operation–I’d have to hire Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to fit in with the business model. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t make any money. But you don’t get into book selling if you want to make money. You do it because you love reading and talking about books–which I do. Like I said: can’t fail!

Great books for traveling

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#3 on the list...at least I've heard of it!

I cannot take credit for the following list of books; it was culled together by WorldHum, who in turn searched the internet for “best-of” lists. The idea of a good travel book is an interesting one–must it be nonfiction, or can fiction sometimes better portray the ambience of a place? Can poetry work in this way as well? And what about those books that are good to take with you to a certain place because they share the mood, if not the location?

Looking over this list, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only read Eat, Pray, Love (note: I’m not embarrassed at having read this book, but instead that there are so many dozens listed that I’ve never even heard of). Which books have you read from this list, and which books would you add to it?

1) A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis
2) A House in Bali, by Colin McPhee
3) A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
4) A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
5) A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
6) A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul
7) A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
8) A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
9) Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron
10) An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul
11) Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
12) Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
13) The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
14) As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee
15) Baghdad Without a Map, by Tony Horwitz
16) Balkan Ghosts, by Robert D. Kaplan
17) Beyond Euphrates, by Freya Stark
18) The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, by Eric Hansen
19) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, by Lawrence Durrell
20) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
21) Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin
22) Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
23) Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming
24) Chasing the Sea, by Tom Bissell
25) City of Djinns, by William Dalrymple
26) Coasting, by Jonathan Raban
27) Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee
28) Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
29) Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
30) Down the Nile, by Rosemary Mahoney
31) Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
32) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
33) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
34) Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler
35) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
36) Four Corners, by Kira Salak
37) Full Circle, by Michael Palin
38) Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy
39) Golden Earth, by Norman Lewis
40) Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
41) The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
42) Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke
43) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
44) Hunting Mister Heartbreak, by Jonathan Raban
45) In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
46) In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
47) In Siberia, by Colin Thubron
48) In Trouble Again, by Redmond O’Hanlon
49) The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain
50) Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
51) Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
52) Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman
53) Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
54) The Lady and the Monk, by Pico Iyer
55) Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain
56) The Log From the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
57) The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz
58) The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson
59) Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta
60) The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
61) The Muses Are Heard, by Truman Capote
62) No Mercy, by Redmond O’Hanlon
63) Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson
64) Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris
65) Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban
66) The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux
67) Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
68) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
69) The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux
70) The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart
71) Riding to the Tigris, by Freya Stark
72) The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
73) The River at the Center of the World, by Simon Winchester
74) River Town, by Peter Hessler
75) Road Fever, by Tim Cahill
76) The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron
77) Roughing It, by Mark Twain
78) Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence
79) Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
80) The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
81) The Size of the World, by Jeff Greenwald
82) Slowly Down the Ganges, by Eric Newby
83) The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
84) The Soccer War, by Ryszard Kapuscinski
85) The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
86) Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler
87) Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue, by Paul Bowles
88) Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
89) Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck
90) Travels With Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn
91) Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris
92) Two Towns in Provence, by M.F.K. Fisher
93) Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
94) Video Night in Kathmandu, by Pico Iyer
95) West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
96) When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh
97) The World of Venice, by Jan Morris
98) The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
99) Wrong About Japan, by Peter Carey
100) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

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