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Friday book design blog: First Novel by Nicholas Royle

Jonathan Gibbs

On the landing outside the bedroom is a white bookcase. In it I keep Picador paperbacks from the 1970s, 80 and 90s. At some point in the 90s Picador abandoned the classic design of white spine and black lettering with uniform typography. They still occasionally publish some interesting books – Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, John Banville’s recent novels – but they don’t look the same and so I don’t collect them.

The way things look is important.

nicholas royle first novel 186x300 Friday book design blog: First Novel by Nicholas RoyleNot me (though it could be), but Paul Kinder, the narrator of Nicholas Royle’s new novel (definitely not his first). Kinder is a novelist and Creative Writing lecturer who is obsessed with first novels, perhaps partly because he has never been able to follow up his own with a second. Like many inveterate book-lovers he orders his library according to publisher and series – putting all the “eggshell-green Penguin Modern Classics” together, and all the white-spined Picadors.

Putting these two traits together, Suzanne Dean has come up with this marvellously witty jacket – surely a very strong early contender for Cover of the Year. The bookshelf wraps around the whole jacket, continuing over the spine onto the back cover. As a whole, it is a hymn of praise to the humble paperback, that often-overlooked object of desire, repository of our hopes for the future (the books on our shelves we haven’t read, that they will improve our lives), and for the past (those we have read, that they did).

There is something interesting, too, in the stark uniformity of those spines – beyond the surreal detail that they all carry the title and author name of the book they are wrapped around. The novels line up like soldiers on parade, obedient, undifferentiated, ready for inspection. Each book is an individual, but it is the vanity of the publisher (or the conceit of their sales pitch) that they are not treated as such. All we need to know about them is that they are published by Picador, or Cape, or whoever. That is guarantee enough.

The cleverness of the design doesn’t stop there. The plane and the car may look like mere aesthetic ornaments, but read the book, and their presence here becomes entirely justified.

My favourite touch, though, is the sliver of cover we can just make out on one book, the first of the ones leaning to the left, with the car’s wheels resting against it. Like any inveterate book-lover, my instinct is to crane my neck to the right, to try and work out what it is. The colour palette, and style of illustration, remind me of my Picador Thomas Pynchons – but it doesn’t quite match up to any of them. So much can be learned from the books on a person’s shelves that I can’t help thinking that, if I could just work out what that book is, my understanding of the novel would be deepened immeasurably.


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