looking smart

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

this is what a smart book looks like. new directions paperbacks were throughout the 1950’s, 60’s & 70’s the quintessential image of intelligence. all you had to do was walk around with one tucked under your arm and EVERYBODY knew immediately that you were really a brainiac. new directions became the sort of branding prerequisite of all college grads, who kept them on their bookshelves for decades after graduating.

the publisher james laughlin, then a mere college sophomore (albeit a harvard sophomore), started the company in 1936 – after a challenge to ‘do something important’ by the poet ezra pound. i believe his first actual published book became a volume of poetry by ezra pound as well. from there, it was a simple transition to continue releasing editions by all the hip cool, new underground writers of the day. it worked. new directions paperbacks became the major player of contemporary literature, often introducing and exclusively publishing such noted folks as william saroyan, wallace stevens, lawrence ferlenghetti, dylan thomas, james agee, william carlos williams, f. scott fitzgerald, gary snyder, robert creeley, henry miller, james joyce, herman hesse, evelyn waugh, e.m. forester, henry james, nathaniel west, andre gide, yukio mishima, nicholai gogol, frederico garcia lorca, jorge luis broges, octavio paz, pablo neruda, jean-paul sartre, vladimir nobokov, and even tennessee williams. if not for new directions paperbacks, many of the most important names in literature of the last century may have gone out of print entirely.

Read More: artchantry.com

but, what fascinates me is the way these books looked. to begin with, they were printed in a format now referred to a ‘trade paperback.’ it’s that size you commonly see in bookstores now that is larger than a “pocket book” size, almost the same size as a ‘hard back’. but it’s still a paperback and priced closer to the pocketbook size rather than the over twice as expensive hard cover version. the ‘trade paperback’ has become the yuppie ideal of intellectualism. they will happily buy a trade paperback version of a book they could easily grab that is the less expensive pocket book size. it saves them the expense of paying for the hardcover format, but still looks like the expensive hardcover (get it?) it looks great on a bookshelf, too. nobody would ever accuse a person carrying a trade paperback of reading trash (like romance or detective or westerns). again, it looks like you’re smart and sophisticated.

this format sort of reminds me of when the early mobile cell phones came on the market (back when they still had antennas and were the size of a beer bottle.) i had a cousin who actually had a fake cardboard version of one of those early cell phones that he used to drive around and pretend to talk into just to make himself look important and cool. somebody actually broke into his car and STOLE THE THING! trade paperbacks sort of remind me of that fake cell phone – no real function for the consumer, but loads of imagined status.

however, for the publisher, the trade paperback is a bonanza in profits. when ordered in large numbers (like books are) the larger format is actually a much more efficient use of paper (much less wastage of paper parent sheets) than a ‘pocket book’ size (which was created to fit in your pocket and initial promoted primarily for it’s portability). the pocketbook format stuck in the marketplace and the trade paperback floundered because it “didn’t fit in your pocket.” so, the trade paperback was almost exclusively the province of the educational and classical reprint houses like dover and assorted textbooks, et al. though cheaper to manufacture, consumers could even be charged at a slightly higher price than the pocket book – after all, it was bigger, right? profits were especially good if you didn’t have to pay for royalties because the authors were dead.

new directions started using the trade paperback format almost exclusively – largely because it was cheap. their market was primarily alternative and college bookstores, anyway (which were already used to giving shelf space to odd formats and textbooks). as a result several entire generations of students and intellectuals became so comfortable with the trade format that it quickly became the format of choice. new directions paperbacks seems to have been the primary promoter of this culture shift. as students moved into the real world, they stuck with the familiar and comfortable trade paperback format until a new market for that size became a standard profit center for publishers everywhere. ‘pocket books’, in response, stuck to the real MASS markets and became an intellectual ghetto.

the other fascinating thing for me about new directions is that they almost from the very start recognized the value of a great cover design. maybe it was because they had no budget and no extended market to speak of they didn’t really have to compete with the smarmy glossy garish sleazy paperback market). so, maybe it was a strictly aesthetic choice. maybe it was a quirk of the publisher. but the 20th century master designer alvin lustig was hired to design the covers from very early on. they were simple, intelligent, witty, clever and almost always cheapo black&white.

this low budget DIY style of high concept/low production values essentially became the visual language style of the college educated intellectual radical. were else could they have learned and adopted it? if you go back and examine the imagery used over the years by the various subculture and protest movements, you’ll easily see the influence of new directions paperback cover designs in the street style. alvin lustig’s simple expedient design decisions became the hallmark look of several generations of underground culture – up to and possibly including (dare i say it?) the more intellectual aspects of punk design.

my last statement will be met with a scoff by most academics. but, i don’t know if i’m incorrect in my observation about punk. but, these extraordinary cover designs became the covers of the post-modern generations’ various bibles (and calling cards and proclamations.) cheap, smart, attractive, disturbing, challenging. lustig didn’t stick around long, but he established the look and style of his generational visual slang. his thinking is still car

on in new direction’s covers to this very day (as well as all their competition).

this cover i show you,’amerika’ by franz kafka (ND paperback 117, 1962) was designed by gilda kuhlman, with a stock photo by ‘partridge’ (through black star). great great stuff.

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One Response to looking smart

  1. Inès Ortega (Clauni) says:

    Jorge Luis Borges
    Vladimir Nabokov
    Federico Garcìa Lorca

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