killing time club: edumacation

by Art Chantry:

this is an advert for one of those horrible “TIME, INC.” book clubs from the 1960′s. i don’t know how long it was around (the oldest examples i have are from the mid 1960′s). it was one of those lame clubs you can join through the time/life empire and get a book a month from them to read and cherish until you finally throw them into a box and give them to the goodwill store. basically, that’s how i now collect them – shopping at goodwill. i also find them in garage sales and thrift stores and garbage bins. once in a blue moon you may find a lone copy of an individual volume in a used book store (cheap). basically, they’re worthless crap that nobody buys or collects. well, except me, of course.

i discovered them in a huge warehouse thrift store (we call it “the bin”), where all the rejects from the area thrift stores go to die. everything is dumped into large wheeled bins and you are allowed to dig through the piles and piles of junk to your heart’s content. everything that was deemed unworthy to display or broken and useless or just plain didn’t manage to sell (no matter what they tried) ends up in these bins. everything is sold for $1.38 a pound. books are 25¢ (paperbacks) and 50¢ (hardcover). magazines and brochures are a dime. everything that doesn’t sell in this store goes directly to the landfill in huge compactors. you can actually watch them dump hundreds and hundreds of unsold books and records into compactors and watch as they crush them into a small block of landfill. makes you wanna cry.

i was digging around one day in the book bins and found a huge collection of these TRP books (somebody was a member and must have died). normally, i pass them by as uninteresting, but because they were all in one pile, i noticed how cool the covers were. these “TRP’ (time reading program) books were sold as a book club that sent modern classics of literature of all stripes to the member. it could be history or a novel or dylan thomas or nathaniel west or james thruber or aldous huxley or thomas jefferson. the point was, they were all “intelligent” books – no ‘trash’. it was an attempt to ‘edumacate’ the average american reader and appeal to the intellectual ego in all of us. “join this club and prove that you are a brainiac to your friends”. that sort of thing.

the books are all 5 1/2 x 8 and have heavy paperback covers and beautifully printed interiors. they are lovely paperback books – beautifully crafted. but the covers are uniformly stunning. what time, inc. was doing was hiring the best illustrators of the day on a freelance basis to create images for the covers of these books. what made them special is that this was one of the truly peak periods for american illustration – the mid-1960′s. i started buying these books just for their amazing and beautiful covers. they stand out in a bin of used books like a giant beautiful sore thumb.

i’ve found covers with images by seymour chwast, tomi ungerer, ronald searle, james thruber, james mcmullen, paul hogarth, leo and diane dillon, antonio frasconi, joseph low, alexy brodovitch, alan e. cober, jacob landau, and dozens and dozens more. because these books were not sold in book stores or other places where paperbacks were sold (like supermarkets) there is no promotional considerations given to the ‘package’ design – other than ‘looking nice.” there are no ‘blurbs’, logos, artist photos, or advertising and the cover image wraps all the way around onto the back cover as well. usually the only typography is some wonderful creative lettering made by he illustrator as part of the cover creative design process. each one is a tiny masterpiece, a place where the illustrator was allowed to go hog wild and do something really nice. they experiment in odd mediums (for that particular artist) or styles. each one is a total surprise when you see it.

this advert shows you a couple of covers: “kabloona” (cover by leo & diane dillon), and “disraeli” (cover by louis di valentin.) both are beautiful in the flesh (i have both of those), but by no means exceptional or even representative of how great these covers are. you just have to go look for them yourself and keep your eyes open. you won’t be disappointed.

i’ve gone through dozens and dozens of these books. when i find them (usually around 10-50 cents apiece) i just can’t help but buy them. i keep them in boxes to look at and admire. eventually i send collections of them to other writer/designer/archivists out there to enjoy. they are always thrilled to see them, because 99% of the time, they knew nothing about this series of books and they are so wonderful and are such amazing documents of the peak of american art/illustration or the 1960′s. this is one of those ‘low-brow’ attempts at ‘high-brow’ culture that always went snubbed and dismissed by academia and thereby flew under the radar.

twice, now, i’ve sent small collections of these books to other people only to have them flip out and write articles about them in design trade publications. i sometimes feel like i’ve single-handedly discovered a lost treasure and brought it to

attention of the design world to ponder and discover for themselves.

so, if you spend time in thrift stores – always go check out the book section. be patient and be thorough. once you figure out what these TRP club books look like, you can spot them by checking out the spines. buy them and see for yourself. you’ll want the whole happy set.

hell, maybe you’ll even read a few and learn something?
AC:that’s actually the opposite of my experience. i’d love to just rip the covers off these things and put them in a 3-ring binder as a collection (less shelf space). but, you can’t! the covers are to firmly applied to them to remove in one piece. so, yeah, you are seeing a problem but, it’s not the problem you cite. the real reason nobody collects them is that ‘book-of-the-month’ clubs books have no collector value. just the rules. i don’t make them. i just have to live by them (or against them)….

…do you folks know that the goodwill originated in tacoma? it’s true. it’s yet another gift from tacoma to the world. also from tacoma – m&m’s, the needle exchange, punk rock, flying saucers, men in black, alcoholics anonymous, baskin & robbins 31 flavors, coin-op pocket pool, the photo booth. hell of a place, tacoma….

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