E.M. Forster’s Howards End, written in 1910, was first issued by Vintage Books in 1954, with a cover by E. McKnight Kauffer. The house is Forster’s central character, but it is never described in the book, and trying to convey it visually would be like attempting to illustrate the face of Lolita or Holly Gollightly. [Incidentally, Forster based the house on his childhood home in Hertfordshire. —Ed.] Instead, McKnight Kauffer chose to convey the novel’s triangular relationships in the form of trees. You could say that the two white trees are the Schlegel sisters and the black tree is a member of the Wilcox family, or Mr Bast. The two white trees lean into each other and away from the upstart black tree, but they are all connected by foliage.
In re-packaging this book for a Vintage Classics reissue that will come out later this year, a homage to the original cover seemed too tempting to pass up. Textiles were the theme for the four novels being re-issued (also A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey). So a pattern of trees by the Spitalfields silk designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite, was chosen from the Victoria & Albert Museum. It shows two apple trees and a pear tree. In the spirit of E. M. Forster therefore, we were able to “only connect…”
For all we were taught, as wide eyed young readers, to never judge a book by its cover, it’s actually not a bad strategy. Just as film trailers are tailored to their intended audiences, so is the design of a book — inside and out — intended to reflect what sort of book it is. (In bookstores it’s not hard to tell what section you’re in just by looking at the colors of the spines: black and purple for mystery, pinks and lavenders for romance, and sensible creams and off whites in literary fiction.) So why, Wired’s Priya Ganapati asks today, do e-books scream “Dull!”
They blame it on the growing pains of any new technology, likening it to the horrorshow that was the first decade we spent with the internet. (Remember animated gifs? Yikes!) They also blame Amazon’s stubborn insistence on using their proprietary file format, .mobi, which allows for nearly no creative design. For Ganapati, this makes reading depressing:
After about four hours of flipping through blocks of grey text I found myself feeling strangely melancholic. It couldn’t have been the lack of sunshine. Moving from one book to another, while easy, didn’t help: I was still staring at the same font, the same gray background and the same basic layout.
E-books would sell better if they were as sexy as iPhone apps — and Amazon is having trouble convincing users to pay more — but even typographic variety, or a color Kindle, wouldn’t solve Ganapati’s melancholy. The words are still just text on a screen, and will always lack the individuality of different books. E-books feel as disposable as blog entries, and this is the real hurdle facing the technology.
On the subject of design, I wanted to point out I Was a Bronze Age Boy. Mark Justice posts three or four old pulp covers daily — detective stories, space exploration, westerns — and each one is an argument for color screens on e-book readers.