Saturday 30 July 2022

On photographs of books

Way back when, maybe 20 years ago, I wandered by chance into an exhibition of photographs by Martina Geccelli at the Goethe Institut in London: photographs not of the covers of books and not the spines but the opposite of the spines – the loose page edges, gathered but hanging free. In 2010 I got in touch with Martina and in an act of extraordinary generosity she took photos of the early CBe books and said I could use them for free. The above photograph is from a sequence of 14 (deserving fine-art reproduction, better than this blogpost). Another is on the cover of by the same author.

Martina Geccelli photographs books like Morandi painted jugs. She now runs RAUMX, a project space within her own studio in north London: ‘an open, intimate platform, outside of the commercial setting of a gallery’. Her website (not up to date but still good) has more books and examples of her other photographs (including plastic bags, pallets, and abandoned offices in the World Trade Center in NY, where she had a residency in 2000).

99% of photographs of books are photos of product, commissioned by marketing departments. They show flat fronts and elicit comments on the cover design (though frankly, until you’ve seen the spines and the backs this feels premature). Other than Geccelli, one of the very few photographers I know of who is interested in the physical form of books is the Cuban-born Abelardo Morrell. A link to some of his book photos is here, and below is ‘Dictionary', 1994:

Admittedly, Morrell favours books that are old. Books need wear and tear, or dust and neglect, to take on character. Here’s my own copy of Middlemarch, which I took on holiday and left outside on a damp night:


Photos of books being read are a different thing. Among the most famous are the (posed) photos by Eve Arnold of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. What’s going on here? Even if the official message was She’s not just a ditzy blonde, there was no way through: men of a certain ilk like their ditzy blondes to read posh, it’s cute. Adding a link here to the list of books owned/read by Marilyn Monroe, who was far from dumb, won’t change that.

The best photos of books being read are the 65 (unposed) photos in On Reading by André Kertész. Here’s a photo of a CBe book being not read, and (posed) the aftermath:


A photo I took last week of 15 years of CBe (82 books, 3 pamphlets, 2 issues of a magazine, 1 CD) owes a debt – in concept, not in execution – to Martina Geccelli:

Here's the official version. And then the whole rickety edifice came tumbling down:

Saturday 23 July 2022

Serve chilled

Finished copies of all these beauts, pretty little things, CBeebies – I need a series title for them: suggestions welcome – are now in: Agota Kristof, The Illiterate; Charles Boyle, 99 Interruptions; Caroline Clark, Own Sweet Time. They are small (A-format: 178 x 112mm) and slim (the longest is 82 pages).

£8.99 for one of those? Yes, actually. Like the temperatures last week, printing costs are hitting record highs. But if you scroll to the bottom of the Books page on the website you can get all three for £24; and if you press the Season Ticket button on the Home page you can choose them for £6.25 each. (The Season Ticket has been tweaked: up by £5 in price but more books for your cash, up from 10 to 12 books of your own choosing.)

They have insides as well as fronts and backs. I wrote about the Kristof’s The Illiterate here. 99 Interruptions is in some ways a sequel to The Other Jack, published last year (but life rarely proceeds in a straight line). Caroline Clark’s Own Sweet Time offers two texts, running parallel on the versos and rectos; for more about ‘one of the most tender and moving books due to be released this year’, listen to this Rippling Pages podcast.

There are many precedents. New Directions offer Bolano, Bulgakov, Gogol, etc, in a slim A-format minimalist-designed series titled Pearls. Melville House offer novellas by Chekhov, Maupassant, Kate Chopin, etc, in a wide A-format. OUP offer more than 700 books in their excellent A-format Very Short Introductions series (one of best publishing projects in recent decades; titles range from Abolitionism to Zionism and include Terry Eagleton on ‘The Meaning of Life’). Among the most desirable A-formats – both for their content and because they are now scarce – are the Cape Editions published in the late 1960s and edited by Nathaniel Tarn; below is a handful from my shelves:

No one is reinventing the wheel here. But these are good wheels. Buy while stocks last. Read within one month of opening. Serve chilled.

Sunday 10 July 2022

How many books in a caravan?

Roy Watkins’ Simple Annals is on the shortlist of three for the PEN Ackerley Prize, which is wonderful news. David Wheatley’s Stretto, published in June, is reviewed in the current issue of the Literary Review: Adorno and Walter Benjamin are invoked but happily the text is ‘leavened … with moments of properly Beckettian bathos.’

I’ve been on holiday (a proper one, with beaches and sunburn and platefuls of fish) and I need more space. Poor sales through the distributor during Covid lockdowns have helped to trigger a formula – relating sales of a given title over the past 3 years to the amount of copies in stock – according to which the distributor is (rightly) entitled to charge storage. Stock reduction at the distributor’s warehouse means the arrival of a van at my front door with boxes and boxes (I’ve lost count) of books. One way to solve the resulting space problem would be to build an aircraft hangar in my back garden. Or I could buy a caravan and ask a friend to let me park it in his driveway. Or – I’m trying to be realistic here – I could sell more books through the website. I commend to you, again, the Season Ticket button on the website home page: 10 books of your own choice over 10 weeks for £70, free postage. (That’s a saving of at least 25% on each title, I think; if you include Agota Kristof’s Trilogy, you’re saving 50% on the cover price of that book alone.

Two September titles – Caroline Clark, Own Sweet Time and me, 99 Interruptions – are up on the website for pre-order. They are short and small and £8.99 each may seem a bit steep but let me tell you (another time) about hikes in printing costs. If you include them in your Season Ticket choices, of course, you get them for £7 each. These books and Kristof’s The Illiterate are a new, white-cover look; I’ll write more about this later.

If there are any CBe readers who would like to come to a summer party in west London next Sunday, the 17th, email me.