Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Being something of a soft touch for any book labelled a 'classic', I always try to keep abreast of what Penguin and Vintage have coming up in their respective Classics lines. One of Vintage's new additions to this category is the Classics edition of Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, about his experiences after being left for dead on a mountain by his best friend. The cover, with its irritating house-style insistence on not using the author's first name (because it's not as though there are many writers with the surname Simpson, are there?) looks like this:

While I like the idea of its simplicity, it unfortunately takes it a little too far into straightforward dullness. Much better, yet also going for a simple vibe, is the cover for the new Folio Society edition.

That's much more like it. This cover is by Geoff Grandfield, about whom there will shortly be another, bigger post. Grandfield also provided a number of striking interior illustrations, some of which are shown here:

Looking at these illustrations, I was strongly reminded of the work of another artist, Aaron Douglas (1898-1979). Among other things, Douglas is known for his work illustrating the writings of a fellow black American, the great poet James Weldon Johnson.

Their best collaboration was probably God's Trombones. This is abook consisting of "Seven Negro Sermons in Verse", as the subtitle has it: Johnson travelled the South, listening to preachers, and capturing the dramatic rhythms of their speech in seven long poems. It's a beautiful, stirring book. The current Penguin edition looks like this:

Weirdly, it uses a Douglas illustration for a different book entirely, Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The earlier Penguin edition used one of the proper images (sorry for the tiny pic--my copy is not easily to hand).

The original edition of this book looked like so (the typography also being by Douglas):

And here's another early version:

The illustrations inside--and, indeed, the whole book--can be seen online thanks to the University of North Carolina. Here they are.

Lovely stuff.

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