The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

September 19, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note, September 2017

Here are September’s cover selections with a few extra covers from earlier in the year, just for good measure…

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by David Ferry; design by Matt Avery (University of Chicago Press / September 2017)

The Age of Perpetual Light by Josh Weil; design by Nick Misani (Grove Press / September 2017)

And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; design by Jarrod Taylor (Counterpoint / September 2017)

The Beast by Alexander Starritt; design by Gray318 (Head of Zeus / September 2017)

A Book of Untruths by Miranda Doyle; design by Donna Payne (Faber & Faber / June 2017)

I really must do a post on crossings out on covers….

Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down by Allan Jones; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / August 2017)

The Change Room by Karen Connelly; design by Jennifer Griffiths (Random House Canada / April 2017)

Curry by Naben Ruthnum; illustration by Chloe Cushman; series design Ingrid Paulson (Coach House Books / August 2017)

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackeman; design by Kelly Blair (Knopf / January 2017)

Democracy and Its Crisis by A.C. Grayling design James Paul Jones (Oneworld / September 2017)

Do Not Bring Him Water by Caitlin Scarano; design by Zoe Norvell (Write Bloody / September 2017)

The Dying Detective by Leif GW Persson; design by Oliver Munday (Pantheon / May 2017)

English Uprising by Paul Stocker; design by Jamie Keenan (Melville House / September 2017)

Every Third Thought by Robert McCrum; design by Stuart Wilson; illustration Andrew Davidson (Picador / August 2017)

The Experiment by Eric Lee; design by David A. Gee (Zed Books / September 2017)

I Am Not A Brain by Markus Gabriel; design by David A. Gee (Polity Press / September 2017)

The Last London by Iain Sinclair; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / September 2017)

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta; design by Jaya Miceli (Scribner / August 2017)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent; design by Jo Walker (Fourth Estate / August 2017)

The cover of the US edition, published by Riverhead, was designed by Jaya Miceli:

New People by Danzy Senna; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / August 2017)

The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore by Jared Yates Sexton; design by Matt Dorfman (Counterpoint / August 2017)

Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher; design by Jack Smyth (Simon & Schuster / September 2017)

Ruth and Martin’s Album Club by Martin Fitzgerald; design by Dan Mogford (Unbound / September 2017)

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez; design Oliver McPartlin; photograph Matthew Henry (Arsenal Pulp Press / May 2017)

The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard; design Marina Drukman (Melville House / August 2017)

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann; design by Oliver Munday (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / August 2017)

We All Love the Beautiful Girls by Joanne Proulx; design by Jennifer Griffiths (Viking / August 2017)

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann; design by Peter Mendelsund (Pantheon / June 2017)



September 15, 2017
by Dan

Race, Power, Money: Olivia Laing on Jean-Michel Basquiat

At The Guardian, Olivia Laing, the eminently readable author of To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring, and The Lonely City, on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: 

There is a graphomaniac quality to almost all of Basquiat’s work. He liked to scribble, to amend, to footnote, to second-guess and to correct himself. Words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meaning. His notebooks, recently published in an exquisite facsimile by Princeton, are full of stray phrases, odd combinations. When he began painting, working up to it by way of hand-coloured collaged postcards, it was objects he went for first, drawing and writing on refrigerators, clothes, cabinets and doors, regardless of whether they belonged to him or not…

…A Basquiat alphabet: alchemy, an evil cat, black soap, corpus, cotton, crime, crimée, crown, famous, hotel, king, left paw, liberty, loin, milk, negro, nothing to be gained here, Olympics, Parker, police, PRKR, sangre, soap, sugar, teeth.

These were words he used often, names he returned to turning language into a spell to repel ghosts. The evident use of codes and symbols inspires a sort of interpretation-mania on the part of curators. But surely part of the point of the crossed-out lines and erasing hurricanes of colour is that Basquiat is attesting to the mutability of language, the way it twists and turns according to the power status of the speaker. Crimée is not the same as criminal, negro alters in different mouths, cotton might stand literally for slavery but also for fixed hierarchies of meaning and the way people get caged inside them.

September 15, 2017
by Dan

Jeet Heer on Jack Kirby

At the New Republic, Jeet Heer looks back at the work of Jack Kirby, the cartoonist who shaped the Marvel Universe and remade popular culture: 

The superhero stories Kirby created or inspired have dominated American comic books for nearly 75 years and now hold almost oppressive sway over Hollywood. Kirby’s creations are front and center in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but his fingerprints are all over the DC Cinematic Universe too, where the master plot he created—the cosmic villain Darkseid invading earth—still looms large. It was Kirby who took the superhero genre away from its roots in 1930s vigilante stories and turned it into a canvas for galaxy-spanning space operas, a shift that not only changed comics but also prepared the way for the likes of the Star Wars franchise. Outside of comics, hints of Kirby pop up in unexpected places, such as the narrative approaches of Guillermo del Toro, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem.

If you walk down any city street, it’s hard to get more than fifty feet without coming across images that were created by Kirby or inflected by his work. Yet if you were to ask anyone in that same stretch if they had ever heard of Kirby, they’d probably say, “Who?” A century after his birth, he remains the unknown king.

September 8, 2017
by Dan

Books Will Always Matter

“Even though we think of reading as something that we do alone in our rooms by ourselves, we talk about books, and we take the ideas that we learn from books and the stories that we have heard about books, the characters that we have fallen in love with in books, and we bring them to our conversations.

They make us more empathetic. They connect us to one another. They make people who are not like us more human.”

Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, explains why books will always matter on PBS Newshour

September 7, 2017
by Dan

Coralie Bickford-Smith’s Working Day

At The Guardian, writer, illustrator and Penguin Books designer Coralie Bickford-Smith talks about her working day:

When I am at Penguin I design covers for classic literature. When I am at home I write, illustrate and design my own books. With my books I control every aspect, right down to the colour of the thread that binds them together.

On Penguin days I am out of the house and on the bus by 6.50am. I use my travel time to read books I am working on. Speedy morning buses, when the streets are clear, are the best. Starting early means I am at my desk a couple of hours before the office bustle. A quiet time to get some ideas down. I work solidly till 4pm and I jump back on the bus to read.

Each role feeds into the other nicely. I am never without inspiration. Due to my obsessive nature and lack of confidence, I have to read absolutely everything I design a cover for. I worry that people will scream at me for misrepresenting their beloved text. I’m sure many designers are the same. Time-consuming, yes, but the upshot is a stream of amazing ideas pouring into my brain that I can squirrel away for future projects.

Coralie’s new picture book The Worm and the Bird, published by Particular Books, is available now. 

September 5, 2017
by Dan

At Least She’s Reading

Another back to school appropriate comic, this time by J.A.K. (AKA Jason Adam Katzenstein) for The New Yorker

August 28, 2017
by Dan
1 Comment

A Cocoon Over There!

‘A Cocoon Over There!’ is a lovely cartoon about going back to school by Argentinian cartoonist Liniers for the New York Times Book Review:

Liniers has a new kids book out this fall from Toon Books called Goodnight, Planet.

August 4, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note August 2017

Oh hey, August.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson; design by Milan Bozic (Amistad / May 2017)

Robin Billardello‘s cover design for the hardcover of Another Brooklyn, released last year, is also great. 

Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison; design by Jo Walker (Fourth Estate / August 2017)

They’re not really the same, but the cover of Bolshoi Confidential reminded me of La Boca‘s excellent cover design for The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman from a few years ago… 

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa; design by Peter Mendelsund (New Directions / August 2017)

Everybody Hurts by Joanna Nadin & Anthony McGowan; design by Leo Nickolls (Atom / August 2017)

The Futilitarians by Anne Gisleson; design by Lauren Harms (Little Brown & Co. / August 2017)

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine; design by Chris Ferrante; illustration by Francesco Bongiorni (Princeton University Press / August 2017)

Humankind by Timothy Morton; design by  Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Verso / August 2017)

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell; design by Yeti Lambregts (Tinder Press / August 2017)

This is just the latest in a series of great covers for Maggie O’Farrell’s books designed by Yeti. 

I Am the Wolf by Mark Lanegan; design by Alex Camlin (Da Capo / August 2017)

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma; design by Alex Kirby (Faber & Faber / August 2017)

The cover of the US edition designed by Peter Mendelsund was featured in last month’s post

Lovers & Strangers by Clair Wills; design by Tom Etherington (Allen Lane / August 2017)

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon; design by Will Staehle (Angry Robot / August 2017)

Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl; design by Justine Anweiler (Picador / August 2017)

Safe by Ryan Gattis; design by Alex Merto (MCD / August 2017)

Sex & Rage by Eve Babitz; design by Kelly Winton (Counterpoint / July 2017)

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo; design by Janet Hansen (Knopf / August 2017)

The Story of John Nightly by Tot Taylor; design by Bob & Roberta Smith (Unbound / July 2017)

Such Small Hands by Andres Barba; design by Dan Mogford (Portobello Books / August 2017)

Turf by Elizabeth Crane; design by Kelly Winton (Soft Skull Press / June 2017)

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan; design by Erik Carter (New Directions / August 2017)

August 3, 2017
by Dan

David Pearson on Books and Typography

At the Monotype blog, Theo Inglis talks to designer David Pearson about his career and his type-centric approach to book covers:

We are increasingly being urged to create objects of desire and the cover obviously plays a key role here, especially when a book is aiming for pride of place in a bookshop. Designers visit them regularly, to note the common visual language of related or competing titles. It can be a source of frustration then, when presenting a contrasting or conflicting design aimed at standing out, only to be asked to produce a copycat cover intended to hitch on the success of the latest best-seller. Booksellers often create themed displays dedicated to the latest hot trend, see Hygge for example. Publishers are all-too aware of this and often the pursuit of a like-for-like cover is their priority… Being allowed to use ‘just type’ will always be dependent on what books are blazing a commercial trail… Jon Gray’s cover for Swing Time and John Gall’s for Norwegian Wood, to take two current examples, prove to publishers that the mass market can handle bold, type-driven design and so this approach will be validated for a time. 

You read my 2009(!) Q & A with David here

July 21, 2017
by Dan

The Only Place You Can Get a Decent Cup of Coffee

Tom Gauld for New Scientist

July 20, 2017
by Dan

50 Books / 50 Covers Winners 2016

AIGA and Design Observer announced the results of the 2016 50 Books | 50 Covers competition while I was on vacation. You can find all the book selections here, and the cover selections here.

I always look forward 50 Books | 50 Covers announcement. It feels like the industry standard. It’s the cover design list that really seems to matter to book designers in North America, and it’s the one I always compare my own list to.


There are always great covers among the winners that are new to me, and this year is no exception. But here are a few random observations about this year’s the cover selections: there a lot of typographic/type-only covers; academic publishers are well represented; there are some surprising omissions (although the jury can only judge what is submitted); a couple of the selections are… well, a little problematic; it is a very male list.

I’m interested to hear what other people thought of this year’s winners.  

July 18, 2017
by Dan
1 Comment

Book Covers of Note July 2017

Something… something… vacation… something… jetlag…. something… inbox… something… Oh look! It’s July’s book covers!1

Album for the Young (and Old) by Vera Pavlova; design by Janet Hansen (Knopf / April 2017)

Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota; design by Kimberly Glyder (Viking / July 2017)

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson; design by Steven Leard (Oneworld / July 2017)

The Conference of Birds by Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpé; design by Jaya Miceli (W. W. Norton / April 2017)

Equipment for Living on Poetry and Pop Music by Michael Robbins; design by Thomas Colligan (Simon & Schuster / July 2017)

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma; design by Lauren Peters-Collaer (Scribner / June 2017)

Fly Me by Daniel Riley; design by Lucy Kim (Little, Brown & Co. / June 2017)

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed; design by Yeti Lambregts (Tinder Press / July 2017)

Goodnight Boy by Nikki Sheehan; design by Edward Bettison (Oneworld / July 2017)

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins; design by Pete Adlington (Canongate / July 2017)

The cover of the US edition, designed by the aforementioned Thomas Colligan for Scribner, is an interesting compare and contrast:

Hello Sunshine by Laura Dave; design by Jennifer Heuer (Simon & Schuster / July 2017)

Hollow by Owen Egerton; design by Matt Dorfman (Counterpoint / July 2017)

I Must Belong Somewhere by Jonathan Dean; design by Dan Mogford (Weidenfeld & Nicolson / May 2017)

(This would be a nice addition to this old list of maps on book covers)

Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann; design by John Gall (New Directions / May 2017)

Kompromat by Stanley Johnson; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / July 2017)

The Lawn Job by Chuck Caruso; design by La Boca (Cloud Lodge Books / July 2017)

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma; design Peter Mendelsund (W.W. Norton / July 2017)

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by César Aira; design by Rodrigo Corral; lettering by June Park (New Directions / June 2017)

And as this is two stories in one, you get a fancy back cover too…. 

The covers of the UK editions of César Aira’s books The Little Buddhist Monk, The Proof, and The Seamstress and the Wind, published separately by And Other Stories, were designed by Edward Bettison:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz; design by Will Staehle (Harper / June 2017)

Shark Drunk by Morten Strøksnes; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / June 2017)

(Much as I love Oliver’s cover — particularly his choice of type — it immediately reminded me Tom Lenartowicz’s minimalist Jaws design)

Smoke by Dan Vyleta; design Mark Abrams; illustration by Alejandro García Restrepo (Anchor / June 2017)

Mark Swan‘s design for the UK hardcover, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, was one of my favourite covers of last year (I liked the book a lot too!)… 

Storming Heaven by Steve Wright; design by David A. Gee (Pluto Press / July 2017)

The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman; design Helen Crawford-White (Ebury Press / June 2017)

Things To Do When You’re a Goth in the Country by Chavisa Woods; design by Adam Lewis Greene (Seven Stories Press / May 2017)

Under the Skin by Michel Faber; design by Rafi Romaya; illustration Yehrin Tong (Canongate / July 2017)

What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah; design by Jaya Miceli (Riverhead / April 2017)

Writing Not Writing by Tom Fisher; design by  Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (University of Iowa Press / July 2017)

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