Choosing books by the cover

I once worked in a school where the librarian arranged the non-fiction by the color of the spine. It made for some serendipitous browsing. He was a friendly fellow with a big bushy beard, a scholarly demeanor and who claimed to have a PhD in philosophy. We got along well.

There came a day when two men in suits arrived to take him away in handcuffs. We were never told why but the rumor was they were from the FBI and it was a case of embezzlement. A little excitement.

Most school librarians of my acquaintance have been eminently well qualified for the job, knew their books and loved working with the people who read them.

That anecdote aside, I like that bookstores I frequent sometimes arrange books by the publisher.

This is especially helpful with re-prints as it serves as a guide to lost treasures carefully selected for their enduring interest.

Book Culture on 112th Street in Manhattan (formerly Labyrinth Books) is an independent bookstore with an excellent selection of literary best-sellers, remainders, literary fiction, art books and academic titles. It has such a shelf – or rather bookcase – of NYRB  (New York Review of Books) Classics.

These are editions with an appealing distinctive design that draws the eye and triggers book lust. Such is the power of good marketing! Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica was the first in the series in 1999. The latest – this August 2017 – is Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern, introduction by Philip Roth, afterword by Wendy Doniger

You can buy the 250 volume 10th anniversary set for just over $4,000 – a bargain!  At a book a week, the eclectic mix of titles, authors, genres and eras, fiction and non-fiction would make for five years of exploratory reading and discovery.  

Scanning the NYRB shelf is a great way to find old favorites and discover hidden gems. Adventurous reading made simple. 

The second such bookshop is Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, NY. And it was there that I found the eye-candy shelf of Persephone Books.

The mission of Persephone is to re-publish neglected books – mostly by women – that were “unjustly out of print”. The result is a treasure trove assortment of wonderful novels and non-fiction works – diaries, memoirs, short stories and cookery books – each with a unique interest and appeal.

Persephone Books are handsome uniform trade paperback editions in a most appealing sleek silver-gray. These are ownable books to feel, fondle and stoke. One of the appealing details is the endpaper – a printed textile from the time period of the original printing or period of the book. And there’s book mark to match. I immediately bought two.

My first Persephone was Wilfred and Eileen by Jonathan Smith – number 107 in the Persephone series.

It’s a war story, a love story and a based-on-true story that opens in Cambridge in 1913 and ends with hope.

The chosen endpaper is from “Maud” – a 1913 furnishing fabric by Vanessa Bell.

Maud, Vanessa Bell 1913

My second Persephone is Saplings by Noel Streatfeild – best known for her children’s books and especially Ballet Shoes (1936.)

Saplings is about children but not for children. But Saplings deserves a post of its own.

Before NYRB classics and Persephone there were others. Orange Penguins of course – they always looked good shelved together. Even my meagre collection of childhood Puffins was lined up side-by side.

And who can forget the delight of the early Virago books? Virago – a feminist printing press – was established in 1973 by Carmen Callil to publish the work of forgotten or overlooked women writers from the literary canon and to promote the writings of new and emerging women authors.

With their distinctive green livery and art covers, Viragos begged to be shelved together. A fashion statement and a feminist statement in one simple bit of home decor.

More from NYRB Classics

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