Sunday, 27 February 2011

I Will Go With Thee & Be Thy Guide

Yet another double spread from the "mirrors, windows, walls" book

I am by trade a jobbing cataloguer. If you think, with Samuel Johnson, that a lexicographer is a "harmless drudge", then I'm not sure what self-deprecatory term describes a mere lister of books. However, this line of work does lead to a certain hyper-awareness of the physicality and "bookiness" of books. My party trick is to guess, from its external appearance only, the year of publication of any book published before about 1984 (when publishers started to recycle styles in a post-modern way, and I stopped routinely cataloguing books). Yes, I know, it's a pretty dull trick, perhaps that's why I so rarely get invited to parties.

One aspect of publishing practice that has always interested me is the so-called "publisher's series". That is, where the publisher has decided to impose a certain uniformity on a subset of its output, usually both in terms of content and physical appearance. If you're even slightly bookish, you must have had the experience of noticing the family resemblance between two books, and then realising you are holding different numbers of a series with a name from the same publisher. Extreme and unmistakable examples would be World's Classics from Oxford University Press, and Everyman's Library from J.M. Dent. These delightful books are found in every second-hand bookshop in the English-speaking world, quite often arrayed on a shelf as a set because of their appealing similarity in size, binding and design.

These two series are exemplary of the thinking behind many series. There is complete uniformity of binding and design, which nonetheless allows the use of colour and illustration to introduce variation within the theme. There is a common purpose behind the selection of titles, in this case "improving classics from around the world". There is a standard, often low, price coupled with high production values. Having bought one Everyman's Library book, the hope was that you would buy more, to the mutual benefit of you and, of course, the publisher.* It's an early (and worthy) use of "branding". In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, publishers were often progressively-minded people, with a genuine belief in the power of literacy and literature to improve the lot of working people. A literate self-improver might not have heard of, say, Francis Bacon or Thomas Carlyle, but he had Mr. Dent's trusted word that he would not be wasting his time reading them.

In many ways, apart from being a handy peg on which to hang commissions, the primary functions of a series are reassurance and recommendation for the reader, and product placement for the publisher. A good series is always assured of a prominent place on the shelves of a bookshop. They are especially appealing to the young enthusiast, or unbookish relatives looking for a birthday present -- just think of Ladybird Books, I Spy books, the Observer's Books, or (if you must) the Mr. Men books.

Further upscale there is the magnificent, authoritative and uncompromising New Naturalist series from Collins. And where would ramblers be without the British Regional Geology series from the British Geological Survey, or Wainwright's Pictorial Guides to the Lake District? Or what about the Rough Guides or Michelin's various series, such as the Guides Verts for the tourist in France? For photographers, Phaidon produce a lovely series of tiny square books, each dedicated to the work of a single photographer, known as Phaidon 55, and then there is the venerable Collection Photo Poche from Delpire, both series genuinely pocket-sized and well-priced.

My favourite series, however, and the only one that has ever roused my inner completist, is Cape Editions from Jonathan Cape. The concept behind this series was beautifully simple: brief classics (an intriguing mix of anthropology, modernism, translations, and the "left field" -- sometimes all of the above -- reflecting the tastes of founding editor Nathaniel Tarn), presented in a unique, pocket-sized format, totally uniform in design and typography, but each a different, subtle colour.

I think I am right in saying these were the first paperbacks ever to be marketed in the UK with dust-jackets -- very stylish -- and by British standards they were exotic in their elegant plainness. The designer was the great Germano Facetti, designer of those ultimate series, Penguin Modern Classics and Penguin Crime. Hardback versions of most Cape Editions were also available, but it was the paperbacks that grabbed your attention. My first was a bottle green collection of poems by Georg Trakl, bought on the recommendation of my German teacher.

To be aware of, and to publish, a text like Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero in the late 60s was to be ahead of the game. Add to that the likes of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), Aphorisms & Letters (Georg Lichtenberg), History Will Absolve Me (Fidel Castro), A Close Watch on the Trains (Bohumil Hrabal) and, um, The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe (Julian Huxley) and you have a taste-making collection of short reads, a glorious predecessor of the many such series publishers have launched in recent times.

An essential feature of the best series is that, somewhere in each title, all the others in the series are listed and numbered. In the 19th century, there might be many pages of "end matter", listing the publisher's other titles and, with the less high-minded publishers, a veritable Yellow Pages of miscellaneous adverts. In Cape Editions, the list was put on the rear flap of those elegant dustjackets. Although I collected about forty of them, I never did own or read Huxley's The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe, but the knowledge that it and all the other titles existed was planted, and I knew that, simply by virtue of being there in that list, that they must be items of some moment.

The humble wisdom of the cataloguer lies in the knowledge that knowing that something exists and where it can be found, is quite often a lot more useful to a lot more people than actually having read it yourself. To return to Samuel Johnson:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.
Happy to be of service, Sam, one harmless drudge to another. Of course, I have never actually read Boswell's Life of Johnson, the source of this quotation, but ... (I think you can see where this going).

* I have a particular liking for Everyman's Library, as my grandfather and grandmother both worked as bookbinders at Dent's Temple Press at Letchworth.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

And a fine guide you have been, young man.


Mike C. said...

Thanks, Bron. I knows where the good stuff is.

Incidentally, I saw your recent comment on TOP -- I hadn't realised you'd actually lost a child (perhaps I'd misunderstood your earlier comments). I'm so sorry to hear that. I totally understand your comment about the burden of guilt, it's hard to think of anything worse.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Thank you Mike; I very much enjoy your erudite posts, as well as the images. Pain and guilt, like bad knees, and weak hearing, the rewards of having endured for a while.