I’ve just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his early writing days in Paris. Here’s a passage that made me happy. Hemingway has just been befriended by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who brings him a copy of his newly-published The Great Gatsby to read:
A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust-jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book-jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.
Of course, Hemingway loves the book and decides because of it to forgive Fitzgerald for being a huge pain in the ass.
I did some Googling and this must be the book cover Hemingway was referring to:
On the blog from which I borrowed this image, Sexuality in the Arts, the author describes the cover as “marvellous”. I tend toward Hemingway’s view, that it’s kind of atrocious.
One pictures Hemingway as one of those guys who doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of him. So it’s touching to hear him say he’s “embarrassed” by an ugly book cover. Possibly he means that he’s embarrassed on Fitzgerald’s behalf – embarrassed that Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to veto this ugly cover art – but that doesn’t explain why Hemingway removes the book-jacket before reading the book. I think he doesn’t want to be seen in the cafés reading a book that looks like “bad science fiction”. Hemingway is an artiste, after all. He’s got to keep up appearances.
Of all the books in my collection, the one I’d be most embarrassed to be seen reading in public is Kingsley Amis’ Collected Short Stories:
The illustrator’s name is Arthur Robbins. Robbins illustrated the covers for a number of Amis’ books when Penguin reprinted them in the early 1980s. They’re all more or less ugly:
Unfortunately these ugly Penguins are the ones that turn up most frequently in secondhand book stores, at least the ones I visit. I’ve been trying to avoid them as I piece together my Kingsley Amis collection.
My friend Jenn hates what she calls the “short, fat” paperbacks. By which she means “mass market” paperbacks, thick and wrapped in shiny covers, the kind you find on racks near the checkout counter in Wal-Mart. I gather she finds the Wal-Martish associations embarrassing. I don’t share this particular embarrassment, but I can see where she’s coming from.
My friend Olin likes the smell of book glue, and he always subjects his books to a sniff test before purchasing. I don’t have an olfactory response to my literature – or if I do I’m not conscious of it – but again, I can see where Olin is coming from.
Some book collectors collect first editions. Others collect “sets”, preferring to display a uniform, monochrome shelf of hardcover Dickenses or Jane Austens. Me, I don’t like hardcover books; they can’t be comfortably held open to the light while lying on one’s side in bed, which is how I usually read.
There are a handful of authors that I like well enough to wish to own all their works: Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis. But I prefer to put together my collection from used paperbacks bought for a few bucks apiece. Greene and Waugh can both be acquired cheaply in handsome orange-bound Penguins. Roth’s novels from the ’50s through the ’70s are easily found used in Bantam paperbacks, while his more recent novels are published by Vintage in trade format.
Amis has given me more trouble. I believe all his books are available in Penguins, but unlike the Waughs and Greenes, the Penguin Amises aren’t handsome at all. Depending on when they were printed, many of these Penguins are too ugly to own.
Panther published a number of Amis’ novels in the ’70s, often with naked or half-naked girls on the covers. Although they look a little like stroke books, these are less embarrassing than the Penguins. Unfortunately they’re also harder to find:
I own Amis’ most famous novel, Lucky Jim, in the baby-blue Penguin Classics edition:
At least I’m not ashamed to be seen reading it. But I don’t like the baby-blue Penguin Classics. There’s something stuffy and uninviting about them. The covers murmur, “I’ve been accepted into the canon. I deal with serious themes and may be taught as part of a college curriculum.” This studious dressing looks particularly wrong on a light comic novel by Kingsley Amis. At least the naked girls on the cover of the Panthers seem to go with the contents of the books. Even the Arthur Robbins drawings on the ugly Penguins are a better fit.
As gaudy as the first edition of The Great Gatsby is, I would have no problem reading it in public. Why? Because everyone knows Gatsby is “literature”. Even people who’ve never read it. Even people who couldn’t tell you wrote it. It doesn’t matter what they put on the cover. Anyone who sees you reading The Great Gatsby knows you’re a Reader of Serious Books.
It was different for Hemingway back in 1925. Fitzgerald was a new writer, not well-known outside of America. If Hemingway wanted to preserve his rep among the arty denizens of the Left Bank, they couldn’t get the idea that he read (ugh) science-fiction.
As for Kingsley Amis, the name might be vaguely familiar to literate people, but what are the odds that the waitress at the coffeeshop, or the cute girl sitting across from you on the train, will recognise I Want It Now, with its photo of a nude blonde girl sprawled across the cover, as a Serious Book? Sorry, buddy, but you’re going to have to find some other way to differentiate yourself from the ballcap-wearing herd with their iPods and Maxim magazines. Better pull out a Penguin Classic and save Kingsley Amis for when you’re at home alone.