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Jonathan Lethem talks book covers with Sean Manning on Saturday

March 01, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • Novelist Jonathan Lethem at Pomona College, where he teaches.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem at Pomona College, where he teaches. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Sean Manning loves book covers -- so much so that he created a blog, Talking Covers, to explore the design process. On Saturday afternoon he'll be at the Last Bookstore (itself the subject of this feature) talking about book covers with novelist Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem will discuss his own book covers and will reveal the one for his forthcoming novel "Dissident Gardens," due out in the fall. Book-cover designers will make video appearances.

Manning, who is author of the memoir “The Things That Need Doing” as well as a blogger, answered question via email about the event, the challenge of ebook design and his favorite designers.

What was the genesis of the Talking Covers blog?

I've always been obsessed with book covers. A lot of my favorite books and authors I've discovered from browsing in used bookstores and coming across an intriguing cover. That's how I found Joan Didion. My first year living in New York, when I was 21, I was working at the Strand bookstore and found this first edition of "Play It As It Lays." (Somebody had written their name in it, so it wasn't worth much.) I'd never heard of the book or this Didion person, but it had this insane hot pink and orange cover with a big black snake. It was so trippy I had to check it out.

With the whole ebook boom and so many bookstores going out of business, I was worried that kind of accidental discovery would disappear. So I started the blog to show the indispensability of book cover design. There'd already been a few terrific blogs that talked to designers about their covers, like the New Yorker's Under Cover []. What I wanted to do differently was talk to the books' authors as well — show how important it is to them how their work is presented to the world and hopefully make an even stronger case for the necessity of cover design.

What's the plan for what will be happening Saturday?

It'll be like that old TV show "This Is Your Life" but with book covers. We'll be talking about nearly all of Mr. Lethem's hardcover jackets plus a couple paperbacks and foreign editions. An image of each cover will be projected, I'll ask him a few questions, and video comments from some of the designers will be mixed in. That includes the cover for his new novel, "Dissident Gardens," which doesn't comes out until September. This will the public unveiling of the cover. I'm a huge fan of Mr. Lethem's work, so I'm beyond honored he agreed to this. And I'm really excited to be doing it at the Last Bookstore—such a fitting name in light of why I started the blog. 

With ebooks growing increasingly popular, do you think the print cover is becoming a lost art?

Surprisingly, most designers I've talked to are excited about the challenge of designing for ebooks. They think having to come up with something eye-catching for an Amazon or ibookstore thumbnail will lead to a lot more experimentation and innovation. But of course you can't — or shouldn't — rest a coffee mug on a tablet. A tablet doesn't have a spine for you to glance at and reminisce about what store and city you bought it in or who gave it to you and how old you were. With print covers, you don't just look at them — you live with them. No matter how inspired the design of a ebook cover, it'll never have that personal resonance.

Do you have any favorite book cover designers, past or present?

Every one that's contributed to the blog! Seriously. They're all amazing. But my favorite designer of all time would have to be Lorraine Louie. She's the one who came up with the iconic design of the Vintage Contemporaries imprint started by editor Gary Fisketjon in the early 1980s.  

Even if you're not a big reader, you'd recognize those covers. I was really honored to be able to do a tribute to her work [] for the blog. She died in 1999, but her husband, Daniel Pelavin, who's a designer himself, was generous enough to talk to me about her working process and provide images of a lot of her early drafts. I also got comments from as many of the Vintage Contemporaries authors I could — including Richard Ford, Joy Williams, Jay McInerney and Thomas McGuane— as well as from several of the cover illustrators and Fisketjon himself. Her work on that line deserves to be in a museum. It revolutionized not only book covers but graphic design in general.

What role do you think authors should have in cover design?

I definitely think they should have a little say. But I agree with what Rick Moody wrote for a post [] about the cover of his short story collection "Demonology": "I see my role as being the guy who makes the interior of the books. Therefore, it is important for me to try to stay out the jacket discussion, unless I really love what is on there, or if I am so unhappy that I think I will not be able to let go of my feelings."

So: Should we judge a book by its cover? (Why or why not?)

Print books are a lot like relationships. It's what's on the inside that counts ... but it helps if they're really hot.


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