Beautiful old book jackets

Or dust jackets, if you prefer. look-homeward-angelFriend Jenny Snider sent me the link to a wonderful post from (whose only crime is being a subsidiary of Amazon) that includes pictures of some gorgeous old book jackets.

At the time these were produced, they were still called dust jackets, a term left from the days when books were shipped with paper “jackets” that protected them from dirt and dust until they reached the bookstores.



I don’t know if the authors of these well-known books were permitted to have a say in what went on their jackets; one presumes that the publisher wanted to keep the author happy and therefore included him (or her) in the decisions. Maybe. call-it-sleepIt’s likely that the bigger the author, the more input s/he had. That’s still the case—except that today publishers rely much, much more on dubious advice from their marketing departments when coming up with book jackets. A book jacket is, after all,  a marketing tool.

The problem is that no one really has any idea at all what sort of book jacket sells books. tree-brooklynWhen a book sells well do we attribute the sales to the book jacket? Or to the brilliance of the writing? Or to the popularity of the author? Who knows? Certainly not publishers. Many an author has been driven crazy by a publisher who insists that a truly awful jacket design is not a truly awful jacket design. But the author—unless s/he’s a really, really big deal—has no control over the design. None.

This is not to say that an author would necessarily be a better judge of jacket design than a jacket designer; plenty of writers have no eye at all. The point is just that it’s interesting to realize that there’s no more logic to choosing a book jacket design today than there ever was.


appointment fer-de-lance




  •  Look Homeward, Angel, 1929
  • Tender Is the Night, 1934
  • Call It Sleep, 1934
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943
  • Appointment in Samarra, 1934
  • Fer-de-Lance, 1934
  • To the Lighthouse, 1927
  • Stuart Little, 1945


Technically speaking, I probably shouldn’t be grabbing and posting AbeBooks’s photos of these wonderful jackets, but they should be shared. And btw, the only one shown in the AbeBooks post that was familiar to me might be familiar to you too…




FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Oxford Exchange, Tampa, FL

Broadside Bookshop, Northampton, MA

Lift Bridge Book Shop, Brockport, NY



Happy birthday

To me. Today, October 13, is my birthday, which I must sometimes share with Columbus Day. This was annoying when I was younger and worse when I was very young, since every seven or so years My Day would be subsumed in that guy’s day. No mail! No birthday cards!

Now I don’t mind: I like sharing a day with an explorer, adventurer, seeker of the strange and unexpected. The thought of setting sail on a tiny boat with no bathroom of my own isn’t a huge draw, but the idea of setting out to find something new is.

IMG_0610I was trained not as a writer, but as a visual artist. Though writing is now my art of choice, painting is still a source of deep pleasure and inspiration. A visual way of thinking informs all my fiction and a lot of my nonfiction too. My tendency toward overindulgence in descriptive writing is a function of having been a visual artist for more than half my life: I like to describe what I see. Both criticism and appreciation have come my way for that particular sin.

I can’t give up the visual just because I’ve embraced the verbal. Aside from looking at art in museums (this birthday afternoon will be spent at Dia:Beacon, with friends), I still have to make art too. Not the paintings, drawings, prints I made when I was a serious visual artist, but smaller, less demanding projects that satisfy my need for color and design.IMG_0607

If I don’t make art with regularity, I get—well, crazy. Sometimes I can’t go to sleep at night without doing a little paper-cutting for the collaged cards I love to make. Cards aren’t important art by any means, but the beautiful Japanese papers I use are a banquet of color; cutting out intricate shapes with a small, very sharp pair of scissors is utterly absorbing; and arranging those cut-paper shapes is design heaven.

IMG_0604But then there is painting, probably my first nonhuman love. To me there is nothing–nothing–that is like painting. Since I can’t, won’t, don’t make paintings anymore, I paint ceramic tiles. I know, I know, that sounds like ladies painting plates. It’s not.

Maybe there’s an element of left brain/right brain adjustment going on when I paint tiles, but I’m never sure which side of my brain is asserting itself when I switch from writing to tiles to writing again. What I am sure of is that five or six hours of painting a tile gives me a rest–in the way that riding a bike or baking a pie or pruning the roses gives other writers a rest.

Because is it my birthday—and an official holiday—I indulge myself by sharing a few of my ceramic tiles with you.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Marcus Book Stores, San Francisco, CA

R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT

Unabridged Bookstore, Chicago, IL

Following Sendak to Connecticut, via the Cumberland Mountains


A small article in the New York Times, Philadelphia Museum Losing Its Maurice Sendak Collection,” tells us that the Rosenbach Museum and Library will be turning over more than 10,000 Sendak drawings and other items to the Maurice Sendak Foundation. The foundation intends to create a strictly-Sendak museum in Ridgefield, CT.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1928 and died in Connecticut in 2012, and in his eighty-three years wrote and illustrated some of the most beloved and controversial children’s books of our time. You know them all.

But here’s something I’ll bet you don’t know: Between 1951, when Sendak first made illustrations for a children’s book (The Wonderful Farm, by Marcel Aymé), and 1956, when he wrote and illustrated his own first children’s book, he made ink drawings for a book called Singing Family of the Cumberlands, by folksinger Jean Ritchie.IMG_0396

Singing Family was published in 1955 by Oxford University Press, and it is one of the most charming and affecting memoirs you’ll ever read, written long before the emergence of tell-all family stories—yet it’s full of drama, romance, comedy, tragedy, and American history. IMG_0397Ritchie, born in 1922, describes growing up in tiny Viper, Kentucky, deep in the Cumberland Mountains—the southern Appalachians—with her parents and thirteen older brothers and sisters.

Hardscrabble farming and raising some animals sustained them, but the most important activity for the Ritchies was music: singing (especially ballads), often accompanied by mountain dulcimer. In her memoir Ritchie includes the words and music to many of the songs she later sang at festivals, and recorded as well.

My mother owned all her records; I grew up knowing that reedy southern voice very well. But it was the memoir I adored, almost to the point of pain, certainly to the point of being unwilling to share the actual book with anyone: I borrowed it permanently from my parents when I left for college. Some years later, in a moment of madness, I loaned it to a friend who not only took his time returning it but appeared, for a brief while, to have misplaced it. I’ve never let it out of my hands since then.

What I loved so much in Singing Family of the Cumberlands was the value Ritchie’s community placed on a fine storyteller and a well-told story; I loved also the intimate view of family life, the privilege of looking in through the Ritchies’ windows. I loved learning about a tradition almost unimaginably different from my own.

And all of the stories were enhanced by Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak’s gentle, respectful drawings. There are only thirteen chapters and only one drawing at the head of each chapter—not very many drawings, but they are as eloquent as the memoir. It was many years before it dawned on me that those drawings were by that Maurice Sendak.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands is still available in paperback, even from non-Amazon sources: try Powell’s,, Alibris, Barnes & Noble.

For a real treat, listen to Jean Ritchie talk about writing and publishing Singing Family.

 SIDEBAR: Maurice Sendak hated e-books.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, Farmington, ME

Island Books, Mercer Island, WA

Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

First day of summer: the subject was…



Summer on Shelter Island

For your viewing pleasure, since we can’t exist on words alone.



Thanks to Michael Rubin & David Kamp