November 24, 2004


Posted by shonk at 06:11 PM in Literature, Ramblings | TrackBack

As most of you have no doubt noticed, I tend to buy a lot of books. Aside from the fact that I’m something of a compulsive reader, I’m really enamored of the whole ritual of owning a book, from the initial purchase to the freedom to dog-ear and underline to the imposing solidity of a well-stocked bookcase.

That’s all completely irrelevant to my point, other than to establish that I buy a lot of books. And, increasingly, the books that I buy, especially books published in the last decade or so and aspiring to literary merit, are adopting a sort of rough matte finish as a necessary part of good cover design. Apparently there’s something about matte finish that graphic designers think screams this book has literary merit.

Now, admittedly, there’s something more compelling about the matte-finish-and-chiaroscuro-graphics school of cover design than the glossy-cover-and-embossed-letters school that reigned supreme in the ‘80’s and still dominates in the thriller/romance sector of the market. The understated look certainly suggests greater intellectual depth.

But I wonder if it’s necessary to make the matte so rough that it actually gives the book a distinctive, gritty texture. The other day I bought five books at the local Barnes & Noble, and four of the five had a distinctly gritty texture to them. As I held them in my hand and the covers lightly scraped against eachother, it almost felt as if sand had gotten lodged in between the books in the stack. Call me old-fashioned or obsessive-compulsive, but there’s something vaguely unsettling about that.

Personally, I blame book critics. You see, I have this fear that the graphic designers at all the big publishing houses have read too many reviews of over-pretentious pseudo-literature; you know, the sort of reviews that overuse terms like “metafiction” and “narrative” and always manage to call something or someone “dysfunctional”. Well, these graphic designers, as I envision them, notice that words like “gritty”, “textured” and “chiaroscuro” are overused in positive contexts in these sorts of reviews as well, and say to themselves: “Hell, we’ll give ‘em gritty, textured and chiaroscuro. Just use that rough matte and take some soft-focus pictures of something indistinguishable and we’ll be all set to go.” And sure enough, there you go, a book with a distinctively gritty texture with an indecipherable cover photo.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting. But then again, maybe not:

When you pick up the front page of any news publication, you are looking at someone’s attempt to win a design contest; everything that comprises that page—the words, the images, and even the white spaces between those words and images—are nothing more than props. In the eyes of the modern newspaper designer, all of those elements have equal value. This is not an exaggeration; stroll past any newspaper design desk and you will hear people talking about the “creative use of white space.” This means people are discussing ways to better utilize the parts of the paper that are blank (this includes the gaps between columns and the borders at the top and bottom of a page). Just think about that for a moment: People are literally discussing the creative significance of nothingness.
—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, pg. 216

(Speaking of books, this past summer I was bored one day and decided to compile a complete list of books I own. That list is now available for your perusal and is permanently linked from the Books sections. I’m willing to lend virtually any of the books on that list to people I trust will return them.)


Doesn't the whole "gritty" image (I'll call it the Vintage school of design) emphasize the essential tactile/sensual component of the book and accentuate its difference from electronic media (e-books, Internet publishing, etc.)? It's therefore in the financial interest of book publishers, except for those with a heavy investment in IT, to emphasize the importance of all five senses in the appreciation of a book. It also probably has something to do with that obsession with unvarnished, un-homogenized "authenticity" on the level of consumer products, especially among people of our parents' generation (who are, let's face it, the vast majority of book buyers), that David Brooks identified fairly well.

Posted by: Curt at November 25, 2004 05:05 PM

I should take care to mention that I actually like the matte/soft-focus photography school of design. What I find more annoying is how authors, publishers, critics, etc. have banded together to defend the unique powers and wonders of the print-book experience, or the novel, or whatever else to enlighten/entertain/reveal reality to us, which resembles nothing so much as the rent-seeking and -defending behavior of a heretofore-privileged cadre.

Posted by: Curt at November 25, 2004 05:10 PM

I should take care to mention that I actually like the matte/soft-focus photography school of design.

I do too, at least up until the point where the matte is so coarse as to make the cover feel like low-grade sandpaper.

Posted by: shonk at November 25, 2004 05:33 PM

a list of all of the books that you own? you are such a huge dork. and i admire you. as soon as i get back to the states, i'm will make my own such list.

Posted by: elliot at November 26, 2004 03:31 AM

That crack about people discussing the creative signficance of nothing seems like a pretty vacuous point to me. A white spot on a piece of paper is no more nothingness than a block of marble. If manipulating its placement, shape and surroundings is fiddling with nohing could not that verdict be equally rendered on line-drawings or Michelangelo's David?

Posted by: Curt at December 17, 2004 03:44 PM

I don't disagree, but you have to understand it within the context of the essay, where Klosterman is describing his experiences as a newspaper writer, and specifically how in recent years layout has taken primacy over content in the newspaper business. In other words, I don't think he's saying that manipulating whitespace is worthless, in and of itself, but rather that it's somewhat ridiculous when such considerations take precedence over copy in a newspaper.

Whether there's any parallel between that and what I was talking about is, of course, open to question.

Posted by: shonk at December 17, 2004 04:41 PM