Tuesday, 13 October 2009


A recent purchase was the Library of America's two-volume American Fantastic Tales set, a 1500-page collection of short fiction by the United States' best. Everyone is in here, from Edith Wharton and Henry James to John Cheever and Paul Bowles, from Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe to Willa Cather and Vladimir Nabokov. It's a genuinely excellent collection of the creepy, the peculiar and the savage.

What I want to talk about, of course, is the cover design. Both volumes were designed by Chip Kidd, with rather effective photographs. Volume one, which goes from the late 1700s to the 1930s, looks like this:

The second volume, which goes from the 1940s to now, looks like this:

The photographers are Andy and Michelle Kerry (volume one) and Fredrik Broden (volume two). Both images are well chosen. The earlier stories of volume one tend to focus on threats from the outside world, appropriate for a densely forested continent with settlements perched around the edges. The cloaked figure with the lamp is at risk from things in the woods or roaming the roads between villages. In volume two, much of the danger is found in domestic settings: the backyard, the home or the workplace.

The two are available together in a slipcase, which I couldn't resist. I'd have preferred less text on the box, but then I suppose that when the whole thing is shrink-wrapped, the potential buyer can't actually look at the individual books, so you need to let the box do the selling with all of the author names and so forth.

Here's the box...

..and here's what it looks like when possessed.


Ian Koviak said...

I will have nightmares now. thanks.

Chip Kidd is such an asshole (i mean that in a nice way). He always get's to work on the cool stuff with cool photographers and cool publishers...

Now, back to my self-help hell...;)

Levi Stahl said...

I've just finished the first volume of this set, and it's such fun.

Agreed on the loveliness of the design. I'm particularly impressed with the decision to use color photos rather than some sepia-toned or black-and-white image; color photos are so risky, especially when the image is supposed to be creepy or suggestive--it's just not that far, in color, from that to hokiness. But these both use the central points of light and the surrounding shadows so well. I particularly like the way the first volume suggests that night is falling, quickly.

I also agree about the text on the box: a better solution would have been to put that information on a sticker on the shrinkwrap.

JRSM said...

I've been dodging back and forth between the two--a few older stories, then a few newer stories. But that comment about the night falling fast is so true--whoever it is in the cloak isn't going to make it back home in time.

A sticker would have been the perfect solution!

Matthew Adams said...

Putting writing, logos, 20% of deals all over the exterior packaging seems par for the course nowadays. I bought my sister an old nestle tin the other day, covered in these beautiful 50's style drawings of butterflies, with the only indicatation it was a tin for nestle products on the bottom unseen part of the tin. Now if nestle or arnots (arrghh...nuts!!!) bring out a tin, the logo would take up almost half the tin. It must shit designers off no end.

Rex Parker said...

You make me want to read.

JRSM said...

Matthew: The only thing that seems to escape this is SOME CDs--the last few I've bought don't even have the name of the band or album title on them--they're on removable stickers instead. Odd.

Rex: This book, or in general?

Craig D. said...

I'm in love with the Library of America books. It's not the hardcover binding I love, but the thin Bible paper. They can cram over 1,000 pages into a single compact and lightweight volume. My longest LOA book is 1,128 pages, and it's significantly less thick and heavy than my 688-page paperback copy of The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. They also lie flat everywhere except the very beginning and end, and my hardcovers and paperbacks that use paper of regular thickness tend to not lie flat anywhere.

I tend to avoid buying anything from LOA that's in the public domain, though, simply because of money. Money is a huge influence on the editions I buy. Buying paperback copies of all five Dashiell Hammett novels would cost maybe $60 if I got them on sale, but I got LOA's "Complete Novels" collection for $23 on Amazon. On the other hand, I could have bought LOA's complete collection of Poe's poetry and tales for $30, but chose instead the Barnes & Noble Classics paperback mentioned above for $7. I'll even buy those cheap Dover Thrift Edition paperbacks of something that's in the public domain if it's significantly cheaper than other paperback editions.

Love those American Fantastic Tales covers, Volume II especially. Simple and effective. I like how LOA is starting to break away from the uniform covers that most of their books use (black background, black and white author photo in the top right, with red, white, and blue stripes going through the middle). I admit I find the story selection a little suspect, though. Of all the Stephen King stories worthy of inclusion, you're really going to choose "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French"? Did someone put all of King's stories on the wall and throw a dart?