Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Book By Its Cover

by Drew Martin

Several years ago my mother gave me The Winter Zoo, by John Beckman. She had considered giving me Prague by Arthur Phillips but, despite the title, it is actually set in Budapest and although I had lived in Prague a couple years, I had also spent a lot of time in Krakow, where Beckman set his story. The clincher for her was that despite the popularity of Phillips' novel, The Winter Zoo got better reviews.

To my amazement, not only could I relate to The Winter Zoo, but it was too familiar. After completing it, I noticed it was dedicated to (and therefore loosely based on) a dear friend Beckman and I both lost. I later found that that he even started working on it in the very room I used to stay in when I visited Krakow. I did not know Beckman, so I reached out to him and he came up from Annapolis to visit me for an evening in NJ: there was a lot to talk about.

One of the more pedestrian things we discussed was the cover of his book. I was interested in the choice of the image: it did not really relate to the book and it did not remind me of Krakow at all. He explained that it was a bit beyond his control. The publisher originally chose a picture, as he described, of a man ripping open his own head, which was certainly not fitting, so this cover image was replaced with the photograph of a freckled, naked young woman lying on a slab of marble.

I have always wondered, but never investigated, how an image is typically chosen for a cover. In today's market, this is left to the brainstorming and creative juices of the art departments at big publishers.

This past summer, a friend who is a professor of political theory and who I have assisted creatively before, asked me to come up with an image for a festschrift he was editing in honor of a colleague. He described the contents and suggested using an abstract expressionist painting. It was an intriguing request, which I wanted to do to help him out but also to see what this journey was like.

The image we agreed upon was Cy Twombly's Ferragosto V. I thought it was going to be a trial to go through the proper channels to get rights to use the image but it was too easy. Within a matter of minutes I located the gallery in Switzerland that owned the painting. I emailed the gallery explaining the reason why we thought Ferragosto V would be perfect for the collection of essays. In a few days I got a positive response, a high resolution scan and a transparency was on its way in the mail.

At that point, I was no longer involved in the project. Personally, I wish I could have had some design input because the image would have worked nicely as a full wrap. None-the-less, it found its way to the cover of a book I am eager to read.

A note on Rational Radicalism and Political Theory: Essays in Honor of Stephen Eric Bronner on the publisher's website:

Paying tribute to one of the more original theorist of the late 20th and early 21st century, Rational Radicalism and Political Theory probes the thought of Stephen Eric Bronner. This collection of essays encompasses themes such as the Enlightenment's radical legacy, the impulse of cosmopolitanism, the rejuvenation of socialist theory and politics, and advances in Critical Theory. These essays make new contributions to many areas of left political theory, while at the same time reflecting on the ways Stephen Bronner's ideas serve to generate a new kind of critical political theory. Blending political and intellectual history, normative and moral argumentation, and forays into the nature of politics itself, this book brings together new voices in political theory to assess Bronner's contributions and pave new paths for the future of political theory.

"This magnificent collection of essays in honor of Stephen Bronner is powerful and propitious. Bronner is one of the last grand figures in the rich tradition of Critical Theory. And in this time of the declining American Empire and contracting transatlantic capitalist vitality, we need this tradition and Bronner more than ever!"
Cornel West, Princeton University

I had a serendipitous moment trying to find an image of The Winter Zoo: I happened upon a brilliant blog maintained by a writer/editor/designer from Australia. He's been prolifically posting since the summer of 2007 about book design. The cover of The Winter Zoo is compared to another book, which uses the same Ben Stockley photograph, at the Caustic Cover Critic: One Man's Endless Ranting About Book Design.