Friday Book Design Blog: The Dig, by Cynan Jones

Jonathan Gibbs

dig front cover 201x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Dig, by Cynan JonesI picked up a copy of Cynan Jones’s The Dig from a display in The Book Hive, a favourite independent bookshop in Norwich, just before taking a train, and in fact at 158 pages (and more on that below) it is very well suited to a journey of a couple of hours.

The shop display was seemingly one of beautifully designed books, and it is that too, stark and dramatic and bigger in intention than the restrained dimensions of the book itself might suggest. It is 205mm by 138mm – roughly the same width as a trade (posh) paperback, but a little shorter.

The cover is by Fuel, a London-based graphic design and publishing company whose covers, I only realised on looking at their website, I have long admired.

Two particular favourites are these, for Don DeLillo’s Point Omega and DT Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. See a theme running through them?

Yes, it’s text-lead design, text made big and set centre stage, but text tilted, manhandled and disrupted. This isn’t all they do, though. Their site shows plenty of other styles, but it’s this, I think, that attracts me.

I asked Fuel about their work on this, tentatively suggesting a 20th Century Soviet influence – more perhaps on Point Omega, though there is a certain brutalist aesthetic about this grey and black cover, with its misshapen letters and torn paper stripes – and this seemed about right.

point omega every love stor Friday Book Design Blog: The Dig, by Cynan Jones

“We’ve had an interest in Soviet culture since our trip to Moscow in 1992 while we were students at the Royal College of Art,” they say, and indeed their publication list (which also features plenty of strange looking pieces from artists such as the Chapman Brothers and Tracey Emin) includes The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia (currently in three volumes, each running to 400 pages) and a new book, Soviets, which contrasts satirical illustrations by Danzig Baldaev, drawn right across the second half of last century, with contemporaneous propaganda photographs.

But back to The Dig.

The Dig is, partly, about badger baiting, and, largely, about the life of the country. And that’s a badger on the front – perhaps a little easier to make out when you see the front and back jackets together. But just as there’s nothing bucolic about Jones’s vision of the two sides of the country life – the farmer’s, and the badger digger’s – so there’s nothing remotely loveable, or even, really, knowable about this badger.

The Dig Open Friday Book Design Blog: The Dig, by Cynan Jones

The stripes are thick and blocky. I keep wanting to think they’re torn paper, but it’s not. I assume it’s computer generated. But, blocky though it is, it is far from simple. The way the blocks of the animal intersect with the lines of the text make me think of maps, and the way natural lines (rivers, contour lines) cross man-made ones (roads, fields, designated areas like army ranges and nature reserves) and also possible the vertical cross-section of a badger sett. There seems to be digging going on on the cover itself, some digging down.

As I say, it’s a strong cover, that matches the stocky, muscular writing inside, but there’s one other element of the book design I want to mention. The paragraphing.

Jones paragraphs his story with line breaks, rather than indents.

the dig inside crop1 Friday Book Design Blog: The Dig, by Cynan Jones

My first thought was this was a cynical move by the publisher to bulk out what is really quite a short novel (it might be better classed a novella, though it doesn’t really feel like one), but apparently this isn’t the case.

What does laying a story out like this do? (Apart from upping the page count.) Well, it gives the prose plenty of space. It suggests an affinity to poetry, which takes white space on the page as its birth right. It suggests a bluntness about the thinking behind the narration – things don’t flow, but rather each paragraph stands alone, like an island, or hummocks of grass in boggy land, and the reader must leap, rather than step, from it to the next. There’s something gruff, and bluff about it, perhaps rather like the bluff, gruff, take-no-nonsense attitude of the men in the story, whose thought processes, it must be said, tramp and stamp rather than skip forwards.

I’m not sure I totally buy it, though. It does irritate me a little. And part of the reason it irritates me is that, though I can’t think of very many other examples of this paragraphing style in published books, it’s something I see quite a lot of from the Creative Writing undergraduates I teach, who often seem to present their work that way as a default.

Why? Is it because their word processing program uses it as a default? Is it because it looks better on screen?

For, the fact is, this is how a lot of text is presented on websites. It works on screen, but not on page.

When the undergraduates hand something in presented like this I ask them why, and they often don’t know. I tell them that it makes it just that little bit harder to read, and that when you indent, a paragraph break can be a very useful tool, to show a jump in time or perspective, that isn’t open to you if you use line breaks like this.

I’m not trying to teach Cynan Jones how to write, and I think his reasons for presenting his work like this are probably very concrete, and very far from those of those students, and perhaps I will buy it for this book, but I think I hope this isn’t something that I start to see in printed books more often.

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