Friday Book Design Blog: The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad

Jonathan Gibbs

Mirror of the sea Friday Book Design Blog: The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph ConradChristmas is a time for giving, and giving books - everybody knows how important the festive season is for publishers and booksellers, and what with the spiraling commercialisation of the season I make no apology to family and friends for giving all of them books as presents.

But there is the question of what to give. Somehow, though there’s always plenty of very exciting fiction out there, I feel weird about giving it as a present. There’s something very intimate about giving a novel as a gift. A novel, a good novel, gets inside your head, and takes control of your thoughts, and giving someone a novel is a bit like trying to elbow your way into their head: you must experience this!

Giving them a piece of non-fiction, on the other, has a little distance and formality about it. Plus it’s improving and educational.

And, best of all, on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, it gives them something to dip into, in between the bouts of bad television and food-induced naps. You can’t really get stuck into a novel under those conditions, now, can you?

But then on the other hand, you don’t want to dump something entirely dry and factual on someone you love. Which, I suppose, is why biographies, celebrity and otherwise, are such a major seller around this time. They’re unintrusive, but still ‘proper’, solid, but not oppressive.

There is one publisher that I’ve found myself buying fairly frequently at Christmastime, and not just because various members of my family are highly interested in the environment and nature writing, and that’s Little Toller (featured previously on this blog for their first piece of original writing, Deer Island by Neil Ansell).

The usual Little Toller list is made up of well-appointed reprints of classic nature and rural writing, presented with an introduction from someone more contemporary. The cover design is simple, with a white title band at the top, and the rest of the cover given over to an illustration (occasionally photograph) – again, not usually new, but from a noteworthy artist, and matching the book well.

Recent additions to the series include Rowenna Farre’s A Time From the World, about Britain’s Gypsy communities (introduction by Jay Griffiths), a detailed account of Suffolk rural life by George Ewart Evans (with a classically Little Tollerish cover by David Gentleman, that makes a ploughed field look halfway between a Jackson Pollock and a mid-Century piece of fabric design inspired by the Lascaux cave paintings) and The Mirror of the Sea.

The memoir, by Joseph Conrad, was published in 1906, between Nostromo and The Secret Agent. It is a collection of ‘memories and impressions’ from the author’s early life under sail, and a wonderful reflection on the nature of the sea. The illustrations are by renowned maritime painter John Everett, and indeed the publisher notes that Conrad did try to organise an edition of this book with illustrations by the artist. Nothing came of it at the time, yet here it is now, with 15 colour illustrations inside, to go along with the bright, colourful piece on the cover.

Beautiful on the outside, beautifully written on the inside, evocative and enthralling to read, but not deadeningly factual – sounds like the perfect present. (hint hint – no, actually, I’ve already got a copy, but thanks anyway…)

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