The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

November 24, 2014
by Dan

Major Styles in Troll Bridge Architecture


Tom Gauld.

November 19, 2014
by Dan

Hazlitt Interview with Peter Mendelsund


Book designer and author Peter Mendelsund discusses his books Cover and What We See When We Read with Christopher Frey for the Hazlitt podcast:

November 19, 2014
by Dan

The Great Discontent: John Gall


Just fantastic interview with book designer and art director John Gall at The Great Discontent:

I find it hard to think about design in terms of changing the world, but it’s important to think about design in terms of the decisions you make about what you make. Ask yourself: “What am I putting out into the world? Am I helping sell Big Macs or deodorant or iPhones or whatever?” I have nothing against any of those, but at some point in my life, I decided to focus on books. Books are intrinsically good: even the worst book—with some notable exceptions—isn’t truly bad. If people are reading, it is good. As designers, we’re attached to the selling of something; no matter what we’re making there is a selling component. In that sense, the decision to work with books was very much about the larger picture of what I was helping to usher into the world.

I talked to John about his collages waaaaaay back in 2011.

November 17, 2014
by Dan

The Final Novel in the Series is Available in the Following Formats


Tom Gauld

November 14, 2014
by Dan

Ulysses by Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins, who is the author of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, wrote about the agonizing process of drawing his weekly comic strip for The Guardian newspaper here:

When I think about making comics, I think of deep vein thrombosis. I don’t think I’ve ever actually *had* DVT, but whenever I embark on my weekly trip to What-The-Actual-XXXXing-XXXX-Am-I-Going-To-Put-In-The-Guardian-This-Week-Land, I can often feel its friendly fingers digging their way into my merrily atrophying leg muscles while I sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, trying for hours to think of an idea. It feels sort of cold, and tingly. I get cold legs. Cold, cold legs. Are you feeling the inspiration yet?

You can buy prints of the Ulysses strip from the cartoonist’s online shop.

November 12, 2014
by Dan

Describing the Indescribable: Jeff VanderMeer and Peter Mendelsund in Conversation

If you only bookmark one long(ish) thing to read today, make sure it’s the slightly bonkers conversation between Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and book designer Peter Mendelsund at Boing Boing:

JV: I very much like how you draw out in ‘What We See When We Read’ this idea of creation of character by the constraints around them. Which helps to create an outline of the character. It’s more or less how I thought of Control in ‘Authority’. Taking this even farther, I think that writers like Karen Joy Fowler do something even weirder where sometimes the absence of text or the cutting of text creates a ghost or resonance that allows the reader to fill in the space. Is there an equivalent effect in art/design? Perhaps it’s something you’ve played around with in your own work. An absence that denotes presence.

PM: “An absence that denotes presence” could be the definition of a good book cover. Good book covers are hard to make, I think, specifically because a designer is asked to deploy the facts of a narrative without showing anything explicit about the setting or characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. Everything is done by implication, proxy, metaphor or analogy.

So what is left off of a jacket is crucial. (I’ve often said that most of my day in the office is spent either suggesting things or hiding things.) I’m not an anti-intentionalist or anything, but I do believe that the reader deserves, to some extent, the right to co-create a fictional world alongside the author. So when you make the author’s world explicit on a cover, you’ve taken something from the reader.

The Southern Reach Trilogy — Annihilation, Acceptance and Authority — have now been collected into a single volume called Area X. While the original (American) covers were designed by Charlotte Strick with illustrations by Eric Nyquist, the new cover is by Rodrigo Corral:


VanderMeer also talks to his editor Sean MacDonald about the process of writing the books at the FSG Work in Progress blog. The post includes an amazing cover for the Polish edition of Acceptance. If anyone can tell me who the designer/illustrator is, I would be much obliged…


November 11, 2014
by Dan

The War of Words

Keith Gessen, writer and author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, has a long article in the December issue of Vanity Fair on the ongoing hostilities between Amazon and Hachette. Essentially it’s a timely primer on how the retailer’s relationship with publishers sank to its current low, but it is worth reading for literary agent Andrew Wylie’s thoughts on the matter alone:

The issues at the heart of the conflict are both margin and price, according to Wylie. Publishers have been slow to recognize the danger of percentage creep, he told me. “There was a European publisher in here recently who proudly sat on that sofa and said, ‘I’ve worked everything out with Amazon. I’ve given them 45 percent.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘But they wanted 50 percent.’ ” The European publisher thought he had won. Wylie stared incredulously at the memory of this encounter. “He’s a moron!”

Losing the fight over margins would be an immediate blow to the publishers’ profits, but losing control over pricing could be fatal. “If Amazon succeeds,” said Wylie, “they will lower the retail price—$9.99, $6.99, $3.99, $1.99. And instead of making $4 on your hardcover, you’ll be making 10 cents a copy on all editions. And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book.… No one, unless they have inherited $50 million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.”

Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine. This is not what you want to hear from your literary agent. Surely we’ll think of something, I said to Wylie, if Amazon does win?

“You think?”

Wylie was not in the mood for a pep talk.

If you don’t have the strength to wade through the whole thing (and who can blame you?), Gessen discussed the piece with Leonard Lopate on WNYC today:

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But for more Wylisms, the man himself was in Toronto recently and Mike Doherty interviewed him for the National Post:

Wylie readily admits, in his Massachusetts drawl, that he was once a big supporter of [Amazon], going so far as to call up CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and offer to help him expand into Europe. He praised the idea that, unlike in a bookstore, backlist and literary titles could be on equal footing with bestsellers — the industry dependence on which he calls a “coked-up, crazy, wild weekend-in-Vegas approach to publishing.” Amazon’s dedication to the long tail, he thought, was key, but then with the introduction of the Kindle, he says, “the dark side of their intention began to be visible.”

Wylie was in town to deliver the keynote address at the International Festival of Authors.

November 11, 2014
by Dan

Hilary Mantel: Speaking with the Dead

I’m finally, finally reading Wolf Hall (I know, I know…). It is excellent of course, and I’m looking forward to reading Hilary Mantel’s new collection of stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher just as soon as I’ve finished it (and Bring Up the Bodies). Mantel was recently profiled by Olivia Laing, author of A Trip to Echo Spring (one of my favourite books of the year), for the November issue of Elle magazine:

there’s an unmistakably eerie element to what Mantel does: a summoning of and speaking with the dead. Although she insists that she has “a very constrained imagination” and is happiest working within a scaffolding of fact, she is nonetheless adept at the act of mediumship that fiction requires. More than any other historical novelist I can think of, she also has a knack for conveying the slipperiness of time, the way it sloshes backward and forward, changing even as you watch. “History and memory is the theme,” she agrees, “how experience is transmuted into history, and how memory goes to work and works it over. It’s the impurity, the flawed nature of history, its transience—that’s really what fascinates me.”

November 11, 2014
by Dan

A Cartoon About Football by Tom Gauld


It’s possible this is only funny if you’re British, but hey…

Did you know that Tom has prints of his Guardian cartoons for sale?

November 6, 2014
by Dan

Matchbox Theatre Design by Alex Kirby


One of the fun things about doing this blog is that you never quite know when one post might lead to another. After posting photographs of Alex Kirby’s jacket and cover design for Amnesia by Peter Carey yesterday, I realised Alex had also sent me photographs of his work on Matchbox Theatre by Michael Frayn, published by Faber & Faber last month. As you can see, it is rather splendid:


matchbox4 matchbox5




November 5, 2014
by Dan

A Little Film About… Jean Jullien


Another cover featured in this month’s round-up was Jean Jullien‘s illustrated design for Dear Reader by Paul Fournel, published by Pushkin Press. In this short film by Handsome Frank, Jullien talks about his work, drawing with a brush, his relationship with technology, and laughing at yourself:

(via It’s Nice That)

November 5, 2014
by Dan

Amnesia Cover Design by Alex Kirby


The cover for the new Faber & Faber edition of Amnesia by Peter Carey was featured in this month’s ‘book covers of note‘ post, and designer Alex Kirby kindly sent me some lovely photographs of the book with and without it’s acetate dust jacket so you can get a better look at it:





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