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Friday Book Design Blog: Serpent’s Tail Classics

Jonathan Gibbs

astragal the walk Friday Book Design Blog: Serpents Tail Classics

We live in the age of the full bleed cover. Whether it’s a technological thing – we can print right up to the edge of the paper, so we’re damn well going to – or an aesthetic one, I don’t know. But it was certainly the borders of the covers that most caught my eye when I saw these new Serpent’s Tail Classics, designed by Peter Dyer – especially that of Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal, for reasons I will go into below.

Yes, there’s something delightfully retro about the rim of off-white running around the central image, and also something bold about leaving that image to stand for itself – and, above all to leave it uncropped and un-overlaid! If there’s one thing that screams turn of the millennium cover design it’s the cropped image, that very postmodern sense that meaning resides just outside the frame.

And, naturally, when you have full bleed imagery covering your cover, it’s most usual to overlay the text straight onto it; is it only the NYBR Classics that still persist with the overlaid frame for the cover text, in the way that Penguin Modern Classics used to, back when they were that strange aquamarine colour and called Twentieth Century Classics?

This design is nice and distinctive, but hardly aggressively formulaic (the fonts, as with the images, change to reflect the period of the contents) in the way that other classics series can be. It reminded me of something, of a style, or a period, of cover design, that I thought I would be able to pin down, resulting in a half hour’s trawl of my shelves, and the net, but all more or less to no avail.

There are books, and series, today, that use borders in this way, such as Oneworld Classics (now Alma Classics) – or this delightfully retro cover for Russell Hoban’s Linger Awhile, which perhaps points us towards a design aesthetic more pulp than prestige. Is there something of that in Serpent’s Tail’s, look? Maybe. There’s certainly something approachable about them, though obviously part of the appeal of that Hoban cover is the illustrations (by Mark Thomas) and the kitsch font. (Note, too, the rounded corners of the frame.)

linger awhile good soldier Friday Book Design Blog: Serpents Tail Classics

Part of my shelf trawl was based on the niggling memory of a big format paperback that used this border to great effect, but the best I came up with, in terms of older books, was a neat little New English Library paperback of Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy – a 1983 ‘new edition’, though it’s unclear if the previous editions (1969 and 1974) looked any different. This Pelican paperback has obvious similarities, too, but the logo and fonts mark it out as part of the Penguin stable – I like that there’s no logo on the front of the Serpent’s Tail books, and that the author and title run right across, slipping from upper to lower case in the same font, and giving a little tag line down at the bottom.

myths clichy Friday Book Design Blog: Serpents Tail Classics

I never found the paperback I thought this frame design reminded me of (it lingers in my mind still) but I did realise the other book of mine that it did bring to mind, and which, really, is one of my most treasured books. It’s a novelisation of the Godard classic A Bout de Souffle, published by Editions Seghers in 1960, the year after the film came out. It has four black and white full page plates, and, cutely enough, more stills on the front and back flaps.

a bout de souffle Friday Book Design Blog: Serpents Tail Classics

It’s the two-tone pink that does it, and, though share and Jean Seberg are hardly lookalikes, Sarrazin was alive and writing and just this kind of time, and, the tag line has it, her story (a bewitching and timeless tale of youthful rebellion and romance) has something of the Godard movie about it. If only Serpent’s Tail had gone the whole hog and called it a ‘roman choc’!

a bout de souffle flaps Friday Book Design Blog: Serpents Tail Classics


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