Last week, I took to Twitter with a question: What are your favorite titles from The New York Review Books? I also asked, even though it almost sounded like a joke, what colors people liked on the covers.
And let me tell you, people responded.
If you’re unfamiliar, the NYRB book series combines Edwin Frank’s editorial curation and Katy Homans’ brilliant design, the latter of which is what we’re focusing on here. Each book has a photo or image with the author’s name and title inset in a box on the front cover, and then a lively color along the spine and back where the jacket copy and blurbs go. It’s simple but offers endless variation across hundreds of books.
So pretty basic, right? And yet… NYRB books are instantly recognizable, and no matter how obscure the text, these paperbacks always seem like old friends. Unlike the iconic orange Penguin Classics covers, NYRB’s range of colors – from inky black to searing pink and all across the spectrum – encourage building a collection. You can have all kinds of fun arranging by color or, as in my case, just piling one on top of another with absolutely no curation or alphabetization and they still look great.
“I think people like collecting and owning books that look good and go together. Also, the books are proven to be good. And it’s an eclectic range which readers seem to like, ”said NYRB’s Nick During an email when I asked him why they were so popular.
During also shared a secret about the rule for the color scheme: There is no rule, just what Homans “picks based on what she thinks will look good with the cover art,” he said.
The responses I got to my query were varied, illuminating and, as Twitter can be when it’s not a Dante’s inferno of hot takes, completely heartwarming. I heard from colleaguesfriends, strangers and the hosts of my favorite books podcast. There was an expat in Tokyo who loved Henry Green. A teacher and writer who shared a tribute to the series. Several people who swore by “The Long Ships,” the works of JG Farrell and a vote or two for the gruesome “Kaputt.”
Even as we all pitched our own favorites, we agreed that NYRB titles are absolutely wonderful.
“A perfect book AND the perfect cover, just 10s across the board,” tweeted Lindsay Goldwert about “A Way of Life Like No Other” by Darcy O’Brien.
“So many great NYRB books but I do not think I loved any as much as I loved A High Wind in Jamaica. I think of rereading it every year, ” said Cathy Messier as she echoed a love of the purple spine.
“Alan Garner ‘Red Shift’ it’s RED,” wrote Terrence Hannum with pleasing clarity. Because, reader, that book is very red.
There were lots of photos of colorful shelves, and there were suggestions for other titles, too. And it was lovely: How often does a happy consensus happen on Twitter?
I hope you’ll take a look at what others offered, or just go to your shelves or the library or bookstore and run your finger across the spines in search of something that appeals to you. You will find something.
Let me tell you about one that I recently read, which is why I even decided to ask the question…
I’ve long meant to read Elizabeth Taylor, the British author not the Hollywood star, and the recent NYRB publication of “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont ”was an excellent introduction to her work. (Speaking of covers, the Paul Caulfield detail on the front reminds me of a Tintin comic, which I learned was not an accident.)
The story of a widow who takes up residence at a dour hotel filled with older long-term residents, the novel is a richly observed look at aging, loneliness, friendship and more.
And despite my grim description, it’s a terrific read.
That setup may make you think that you could not possibly be invested in the outcome, but it’s really just the novelist setting the hook before reeling you in. I will not give any spoilers, but I’ll say that at least once I shouted out loud about something in its pages.
I could go on, but instead I’d rather pass you on to a conversation from late last year about the book. Conducted by author and critic Merve Emre, poet Michael Hofmann and novelist Gwendoline Riley for a Community Bookstore event, the three of them know the author’s work and provide a deep look into the text. I’d been holding off watching the whole thing until I’d read the book so now I will dive into the conversation and contemplate the Taylor novel I’ll read next. (It will be “A View From the Harbor,” a Virago paperback, already sitting on my nightstand with the mountains of other books promising unknown delights, though I also have the NYRB collection of her stories I may dip into as well.)
Got something you’d like to share? Email me at [email protected] and I may include your comments in a future newsletter.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Wajahat Ali is polyamorous with his books
Wajahat Ali is the author of “Go Back To Where You Came From: And, Other Helpful Recommendations on Becoming American.” A columnist for The Daily Beast, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and New York Review of Books. He recently appeared on “Bookish,” and he answers some book-related questions for the newsletter.
Q. What are you reading now?
I’m monogamous in my marriage but polyamorous with my books. I wish I had the discipline of other mature adults and could simply read one book at a time, but I usually tackle 3 at a time. It allows me to satiate my multiple curiosities and keeps it fresh. So, right now, I’m reading Sabaa Tahir’s YA novel “All My Rage,” Stephanie Foo’s “What My Bones Know,” and then I’m going to dive into “All of the Marvels” by Douglas Wolk. Also, I read my monthly comic books which I get from my local comic book store once a month. I also spend way too much time reading articles, newspapers and Twitter.
Q. How do you choose what to read next?
It all depends on what strikes my fancy. If I’m excited about something, then I just want to devour it. I get slightly obsessive and must consume it like a delicious meal in one sitting. Some might call it gluttony. But, thankfully, I do not gain weight when it comes to books. I do not have a specific rule or system where I need to switch from fiction to nonfiction, play to comic books. It’s all about what fascinates or intrigues me in that moment.
Q. Is there a genre or type of book you read the most – and what would like to read more of?
I always feel so ignorant and overwhelmed whenever I step inside a library or bookstore. All these books. All this knowledge. So little time. “Why did I spend so much time playing video games and watching movies?” I ask. Recently, I was trying to devote a bit more time to fiction. Due to our distressing political and world events, I overindulged in nonfiction and political books. I want to get back to the creative whimsy and power of narrative fiction. It soothes the mind, the heart and the soul, and I think it can inspire our imagination to seek some bold solutions to the pressing problems of the day. It also helps us rediscover joy, which is essential, especially now.
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