The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

April 26, 2018
by Dan

Women and Critics: Roxane Gay and Michelle Dean

Michelle Dean talks about her new book, Sharp:The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, and the nature of criticism with Roxane Gay for The Cut

I tend to judge a piece of criticism by how smart I find the argument… I don’t mean, how much I agree with it, exactly, but more: how much does this open up the subject at hand? Does it show me things about it I didn’t already know? I like debate and argument, so I’m usually all right with disagreement, and I’m even all right if the critic doesn’t come to a clear thumbs up or thumbs down. But I need the disagreement to have some kind of line I can follow on the map. I like following an interesting mind along it.

Bad criticism recites rote arguments. The shame of rote arguments isn’t just that they’re clichés, though they are, but that they tend to hide from us why a critic is actually thinking what they’re thinking. In which case there’s no point in reading the review at all. I don’t care about the bare fact that anyone liked or didn’t like a book or movie; they can only interest me in that bare fact by writing an intelligent review.

April 23, 2018
by Dan

Find Your Place in the Market

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

April 20, 2018
by Dan

Design Canada

Design Canada, is a new documentary celebrating the ‘golden era’ of Canadian graphic design: 

The film is screening in Canada in the summer 2018, and releasing digitally in the fall. 

(via Coudal)

April 19, 2018
by Dan

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Dan Chiasson takes a look at the making (and meaning) of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for The New Yorker:

Kubrick brought to his vision of the future the studiousness you would expect from a history film. “2001” is, in part, a fastidious period piece about a period that had yet to happen. Kubrick had seen exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair, and pored over a magazine article titled “Home of the Future.” The lead production designer on the film, Tony Masters, noticed that the world of “2001” eventually became a distinct time and place, with the kind of coherent aesthetic that would merit a sweeping historical label, like “Georgian” or “Victorian.” “We designed a way to live,” he recalled, “down to the last knife and fork.” (The Arne Jacobsen flatware, designed in 1957, was made famous by its use in the film, and is still in production.) By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.

Much of the film’s luxe vision of space travel was overambitious. In 1998, ahead of the launch of the International Space Station, the Times reported that the habitation module was “far cruder than the most pessimistic prognosticator could have imagined in 1968.” But the film’s look was a big hit on Earth. Olivier Mourgue’s red upholstered Djinn chairs, used on the “2001” set, became a design icon, and the high-end lofts and hotel lobbies of the year 2001 bent distinctly toward the aesthetic of Kubrick’s imagined space station.

I have to confess that I’m with Renata Adler — I’ve always found 2001 to be simultaneously “hypnotic and immensely boring.” I think I just like reading about Kubrick’s films far more than I actually like watching them. 

Chiasson’s essay reminded me Keith Phipps great series on science fiction films ‘The Laser Age’ for late and lamented film website The Dissolve, which started with 2001. Someone really should collect those essays together into a book if they haven’t already, 

The cover of Michael Benson’s book on the making of 2001, Space Odyssey,  was designed by Rodrigo Corral and was featured in this month’s book covers post.  


April 18, 2018
by Dan

Olivia Laing on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

I am about a month late to this, but Oliver Laing (author of books you should read), wrote about Daphne Du Maurier, and the strangeness of her bestselling novel Rebecca, for The Guardian:  

Rebecca has a disturbingly circular structure, a closed loop like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It ends with Manderley in flames, but the first two chapters are also the conclusion. Husband and wife have been condemned to the hell of expatriation, in a hot, shadowless, unnamed country, staying like criminals in an anonymous hotel. It is apparent that they are revenants in a kind of afterlife, their only pleasure articles from old English magazines about fly fishing and cricket. The narrator attests to their hard-won happiness and freedom, while knowing it resides in a place accessible only by the uncertain routes of dream and memory, expelled from the Eden they never quite possessed.

Du Maurier was under no illusions as to the bleakness of what she had written. “It’s a bit on the gloomy side,” she told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, adding nervously “the ending is a bit brief and a bit grim”. But her predictions of poor sales were inaccurate. Rebecca was a bestseller; 80 years on it still shifts around 4,000 copies a month.

Virago have published a special hardcover edition of Rebecca to celebrate the novel’s 80th anniversary. The cover designed was by Hannah Wood whose artwork was embroidered by specialists Hand & Lock. You can read about the process here.  

April 13, 2018
by Dan
1 Comment

Book Covers of Note April 2018

Here are April’s cover selections. Lots of very big type this month! 

Black Swans by Eve Babitz; design by Kelly Winton (Counterpoint / April 2017)

This goes rather nicely with last year’s cover for Babitz’s novel Sex and Rage also designed by Kelly:

Brass by Xhenet Aliu; design by design Keith Hayes; photography by Nadine Rovner (Random House / January 2018)

Photographic covers have fallen out of favour for literary fiction of late, but I think this works beautifully.

I also like how it echoes Nathan Putens‘ earlier cover design for Aliu’s short stories Domesticated Wild Things, which makes use of a photograph by Helen Levitt.

The other interesting thing about the photograph selection is how much it reminds me of Keith Hayes own photography. You can follow him on Instagram.

Circe by Madeline Miller; design by Will Staehle (Little Brown & Co / April 2018)

The cover of Miller’s previous book The Song of Achilles was designed by Allison Saltzman:

The very pretty cover of the UK edition of Circe was designed by David Mann at Bloomsbury:

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda; design by Chris Bentham (Viking / April 2018)

Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / April 2018)

The Earth Does Not Get Fat by Julia Prendergast; design by Alissa Dinallo (UWA Publishing / April 2018)

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer; design by Ben Denzer (Riverheard Books / April 2018)

I like how the design for The Female Persuasion has bands of colour similar to those on Lynn Buckley’s cover design for The Interestings, but uses them in a completely different way


Hello It Doesn’t Matter by Derrick C. Brown; design by Zoe Norvell (Write Bloody / April 2018)

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci; design by Anna Morrison (Pushkin Press / April 2018)

Oliver Munday‘s cover for My Cat Yugoslavia (published by Pantheon) featured in my May 2017 post:

Patient X by David Peace; design by Luke Bird (Faber & Faber / April 2018)

And on the subject of David Peace, Steve Panton has designed new covers for the Red Riding Quartet (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983) published by Serpent’s Tail this month:

A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa; design by Rachel Adam Rogers (AmazonCrossing / January 2018)

Sit How You Want by Robin Richardson; design by David Drummond (Signal Editions / April 2018)

Space Odyssey by Michael Benson; design by Rodrigo Corral (Simon & Schuster / April 2018)

Funnily enough, I was just discussing the prevalence of big and centred white sans serif type on contemporary book covers on Twitter. While it’s common (see the covers of The Female Persuasion and Hello, It Doesn’t Matter above!), it’s also effective when it’s done well. That said I did think that David Pearson — a designer well known for his typographic covers — made a good general point about big type:

In any case, if you are interested in seeing more examples of the ‘big white type’ phenomenon, I started a pinboard a while back. 

Waiting for Tomorrow by Nathacha Appanah; design by Kimberly Glyder (Graywolf / April 2018)

West by Carys Davies; design by Lauren Peters-Collaer (Scribner / April 2018)

The Wolf by Leo Carew; design by Patrick Insole (Wildfire / April 2018)

April 10, 2018
by Dan

The Archaeology of the Book Tower

Well, this is a little close to home isn’t it?

Tom Gauld for The Guardian

On a related note, Tom’s musical cover for April 16 edition of The New Yorker is lovely.  

April 9, 2018
by Dan
1 Comment

Grown Men Reading Nancy

Writing for the New York Review Books, Dash Shaw reviews How To Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden: 

Today, comics are studied in colleges and reviewed in prominent magazines, but they are often discussed either as vessels for urgent, personal stories or as objects filled with beautiful, unusual graphics. They are rarely discussed or reviewed for their “cartooning,” the particular panel-to-panel magic, the arrangement of elements that mysteriously combines reading and looking, and distinguishes why a comic like Nancy is masterful and others are not. Beautiful cartooning affects a comic the way a well-chosen word, arriving at the right time in a sentence, makes for good writing, or the way a room composed with the right combination of things in the exact right places is good interior design.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. It is, as the review points out, a beautifully constructed comic strip. But it is more than that. It’s also genuinely warm, funny, and relatable. I see a bit of my kids in Nancy and Sluggo, I see a bit of myself too.

I that think Steven Heller kind of gets to it in this interview with co-author Paul Karasik: 

Nancy reminded me of someone close to me. In fact, she reminded me of me in a deeply existential way that cannot be explained properly in this brief column… In any case, whenever a collection of strips emerged, I’d scarf them up. They were gags but poignant. They were comic but deep. And Sluggo. How can you not love Sluggo? This was the world of comics where kids were the wise ones, the keepers of wisdom and truth. 

If you haven’t read any of the Nancy comic strips don’t start with How to Read Nancy (with all due respect to Karasik and Newgarden!), start with Nancy is Happy, the first volume of daily strips republished by Fantagraphics.  

March 23, 2018
by Dan

One Book, Two Titles

Writing for the Globe and Mail, Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal, takes a look why at Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s new novel is being packaged differently in Britain and Canada

A novel is like a question – what happens when…? [UK publisher] Titan Books is focusing on what happen when a child goes missing. “There is nothing more terrifying than the loss of a child!” publisher Miranda Jewess says. Meanwhile, HarperCollins Canada publisher Iris Tupholme says, “Our focus in positioning the book is less on the missing child, though that is a key part of the story, and more on the tension and mystery for [the mother] Heike.”

The book was originally titled ‘I Remember You’ when it was sold to the publishers. But when de Mariaffi brought forward ‘Hysteria’ as an alternative, Tupholme loved it because it “suggests the book’s complexity … the story’s focus on women.” Jewess also considered the new title, but thought ‘Hysteria’ “sounded like a more gritty action thriller.”

Both covers do tap into deep-seated fear. But the different focus of those fears may speak more to a transatlantic literary divide, says Kate Pullinger, a Canadian novelist in Britain and professor of creative writing and digital media at Bath Spa University. She sees the two covers as responding to each market for fiction.

“In Canada, the popular writer can remain literary,” but in Britain, though there are exceptions, Pullinger says “literary fiction is increasingly devalued and invisible in the marketplace.” In her view, the British cover is trying to connect to the commercial market; it ties into the tabloid newspaper culture that screams for attention. “Scary Sad Crime Happened Here!”

I seem to spend a lot of time in my professional life trying to explain why titles and covers for Canada (and the US) sometimes need to be different from their counterparts in the UK. I even put together some examples for recent trip to London. So I don’t know that this is a ‘rare’ as Cameron supposes. But, in any case, enough people have expressed interest in this that I am trying to expand that original deck into a more coherent presentation for a few other clients. If I ever get it finished I will share a version of it here. 

March 22, 2018
by Dan

2018 AU Presses Book, Jacket, & Journal Show

And the Sparrow Fell by Robert J. Mrazek (Cornell University Press); Design by Kimberly Gyder

The Association of University Presses recently announced the selections for their 2018 Book, Jacket, & Journal Show.

The show is the oldest continuous book design competition in the US, and I was lucky enough to join McSweeney’s designer Sunra Thompson in deciding this year’s cover selections. The book selections were made by designer Linda Secondari and writer Robert Bringhurst.  You can see all the selected entries — books and covers — in this AUPresses slideshow:

March 19, 2018
by Dan

ABCD Award Winners 2018

I am unfashionably late to the party here, but the winners of the 2018 Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD) Awards were announced last week. 

The ABCD Awards are always pleasantly surprising. Every year the shortlists include at least two or three covers I have never seen before, and I find it strangely reassuring that the winners picked on the night are not always the covers I would’ve chosen — somehow that makes it feel more democratic. 

The awards have a brand new website (designed by Joseph Bisat Marshall) where you can find this year’s shortlists and archive of the previous awards, but you will find all the winning covers from last week below… 

Young Adult

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett; design by Jack Noel; illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love (Walker Books / May 2017)


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; design by Suzanne Dean; illustration by Noma Bar (Vintage / October 2017)


Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina; design by Tom Etherington (Allen Lane / October 2017)

Series Design

Pan 70th Anniversary collection; design Justine Anweiler and Stuart Wilson (Pan / September 2017)


The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; design David Pearson (Pluto Press / January 2017)

Children’s 0-5


Jill and Lion by Lesley Barnes; design and illustration by Lesley Barnes (Tate Publishing / March 2017)

Children’s 6-12

Think and Make Like an Artist by Claudia Boldt and Eleanor Meredith; design by Shaz Madani; illustrations by Jay Daniel Wright and Ola Niepsuj (Thames & Hudson / May 2017)

Literary Fiction

The Blot by Jonathan Lethem; design by Gray318 (Jonathan Cape / February 2017)


Dark Pines by Will Dean; design by Mark Swan (Oneworld / January 2018)

Mass Market

The Invisible LIfe of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha; design by Sinem Erkas (Oneworld / September 2017)

You can find my previous posts on the ABCD Award winners here: 201720162015 and 2014.


March 16, 2018
by Dan

Book Covers of Note March 2018

Lots to see this month, including several YA covers (which I know will please some regular readers), some ‘big’ literary fiction, and a couple of confrontational nonfiction covers to round it out. Enjoy!    

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; design by Stephanie Ross (Knopf / March 2018)

Beneath the Water by Sarah Painter; design by Emma Rogers (Lake Union / February 2018)

Although it pains me a little to say it, I think Amazon’s ‘book club’ imprint Lake Union are doing an impressive job commissioning appealing covers for their intended market. I would be interested to hear about the process from designers who’ve worked with them.   

The Birth of the RAF 1918 by Richard Overy; design by Richard Green (Allen Lane / March 2018)

The type on this cover is ace. 

The Bleeds by Dimitri Nasrallah; design by David Drummond (Esplanade Books / February 2018) 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi; design Richard Deas (Henry Holt / March 2018)

Don’t Call Me Princess by Peggy Orenstein; design Robin Bilardello (Harper / February 2018)

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi; design by Lizzy Bromley; illustration gg (Simon & Schuster / March 2018)

The End of American World Order by Amitav Acharya; design by David A. Gee (Polity / March 2018)

I feel like there are a lot of stars and stripes covers kicking around right now, but I like the ‘collapsing Venetian blind’ thing going on here.   

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena; design by Elizabeth H. Clark (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / March 2018)

Graffiti Palace by A.G. Lombardo; design Rodrigo Corral Studio (FSG x MCD / March 2018)

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement; design by Michael Morris (Hogarth / March 2018)

I like this cover very much–especially the type. The illustration and colour combination remind me of Matt Dorfman’s 2011 cover for The Pyschopath Test by Jon Ronson (Riverhead):

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman; design by Nicole Caputo (Counterpoint / March 2018)

I read The Gunners earlier this year and it’s very good. Recommended if you enjoyed The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin; design Yeti Lambregts (Tinder / March 2018)

It’s interesting to see the UK publisher go in such a different direction from the US cover (designed and illustrated by Sandra Chiu) which, as I noted back in January, seems very on trend internationally to me.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist; design Marina Drukman (Melville House / January 2018)

In Full Flight by John Heminway; design by Janet Hansen (Knopf / February 2018)

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman; design by Jaya Miceli (Viking / March 2018)

I felt like this cover might be a little too much when I first saw it online, but I bet it will look absolutely stunning in print and piled up on tables.    

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You by Tim Kreider; design by David Litman (Simon & Schuster / March 2018)

For reference, I have a pinboard of contemporary covers that make use of Lydian, the typeface used here. It was designed for American Type Founders by Warren Chappell in 1938, and it’s very distinctive (those ‘R’s!), so it’s interesting to me that it suddenly has this kind of cult popularity.   

The Largess of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; design by Suzanne Dean (Jonathan Cape / February 2018)

The pencil shavings are delightful of course, but I did immediately think of Peter Mendelsund‘s covers for Leaving the Sea (2014) and The Flame Alphabet (2012) by Ben Marcus.  

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; design by Erin Fitzsimmons; illustration by Gabriel Moreno (Harper Teen / March 2018)

You can read about the design process for the Poet X cover on the Epic Reads blog.

Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall; design by Matt Avery; illustration by Lauren Nassef (Verso / March 2018)

Can anyone tell me if there is a term for this kind of semi dust jacket? It seems like more than just a belly band. 

The upside-down ‘POLICE’ shield is an interesting decision. It gives the illustration a kind of authenticity (I assume it is based on an actual example), but it also subtly implies something about the contents of the book (as does the not so subtle decision to show a police officer in riot gear rather than more approachable attire!).      

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst; design by Jenny Carrow (Knopf / March 2018)

Standpoints by Svend Brinkmann; design by David A. Gee (Polity / March 2018)

This is a bit like one Canadian designer called David doing an impression of the ‘other’ Canadian designer called David. Both of them are very idea-driven, and sometimes they do seem to think very alike! I believe they both worked in advertising before turning their attention to design. 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews; design by Steve Panton; illustration by Lizzy Stewart (Serpent’s Tail / February 2018)

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