Judging Books By Their Covers

Jason Diamond analyzes his obsession with Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks from the 80s.

Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)

I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.

When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.

I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.

Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

***

“Taste is a peculiar and maddeningly vague concept, but to me it seems rooted in having first an excellent education and then continuing it with experience,” Knopf editor-at-large Gary Fisketjon told me when I talked to him for an article I was writing last year. For me, it was the other way around: Education came mostly through experience. Fisketjon, I believe, has some of the best literary taste in America. He has worked with everybody from Patricia Highsmith to Gore Vidal and Haruki Murakami. He was also the one to launch the book, and the imprint, I’ve been obsessed with for my entire adult life. In September of 1984, the Vintage Contemporaries paperback imprint published Bright Lights, Big City as its first original title. The book would go on to become a bestseller, spawn a movie starring Michael J. Fox, and kick off the trend of “yuppie lit” with the “literary brat pack,” of which McInerney was the founding member.

High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie.

I first loved Bright Lights, Big City as a teenager stuck in the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s. To my 15-year-old, Clinton-era mind, the book was moody and weird, an example of the kind of urban malaise I would have preferred over the suburban brand I’d experienced growing up. I can’t recall a book so perfectly set up by what was on the cover — a man in a trench coat framed by the neon glow of The Odeon restaurant and the glittering World Trade Center. McInerney’s Manhattan was the city I wanted to go to, in all of its decadent and gritty glory. If I was going to be lonely, I’d rather be lonely around people like me.

In those last days before the rise of the internet, I was an explorer. I’d connect things on my own. I liked the record label Kill Rock Stars, so when I saw they were putting out a spoken word album by a writer named Kathy Acker, I had to know more about the author. The Great Gatsby had been my favorite book in high school, so when a guy who worked in a bookstore claimed that Fitzgerald was overrated and John O’Hara was better, I immediately looked for a copy of Appointment in Samarra. A mention of Grace Paley alongside Philip Roth led me to her books, Stephen King’s worship of Shirley Jackson led me to her haunted mansions. This was how a teenage love of fiction became a full-blown obsession by my twenties. It started as something to escape into, something that felt like mine. I could see myself in stories by Charles Dickens, felt cool reading Albert Camus, paired Gothic fiction with a teen goth phase, and enjoyed giving off the impression I wasn’t paying attention to the world around me.

As I got older, I never developed an interest in writing fiction, but I needed to find ways to talk about it. A love of fiction indicated I had something in common with somebody, the way particular band shirts could in high school. Picking up Brideshead Revisited for a third time served as a distraction from the trouble in the world and my life — wars, shitty jobs, and the recurring feeling that I’m out of place. A decade after high school, I began meditating as a way to escape, to lessen my anxiety, to have some little bit of time that was totally for myself. The only comparable experience is reading. My breathing slows, my mind calms, and I feel a sense of peace.

***

My fiction obsession turned into a career when I became a literary editor for a culture website, tasked with churning out multiple posts a day on a subject I cared a great deal about. A dozen or more packages would arrive at my desk each morning, envelopes filled with hardcovers and paperbacks. I’d tear them open as soon as they came in, put the ones I wanted to cover on a shelf, and then read them when it came closer to the publication date. It was a dream come true to be flooded with books –– until it wasn’t. The job involved the constant writing of lists and reviews, searching for any morsel of news I could conjure a take on. My day revolved around the hope that Jonathan Franzen would say something that would piss off the internet. Reading three to four books a week. I soon found myself burnt out on fiction. The thing that had kept me afloat during the darkest times brought me little pleasure anymore.

The books, however, kept piling up. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and coffee-table books filled the living room, stacked on shelves and on the floor instead of on bookcases. I kept on reading, but I felt aimless. I’d become more enthusiastic about collecting books than I was about diving into them.

I’ve always been a collector. I think it’s something you inherit, something in your blood, something you’re predisposed to. My grandfather, who kept a number of click pens from different restaurants and hotels on his desk (as do I), as well as collections of matchbooks, and magazines, started me down the path when he bought me my first baseball cards. One of my clearest memories is him taking me to the kind of a trading card shop that seemed ubiquitous during my childhood, and buying me a ten dollar 1988 Donruss Mark Grace rookie card. As he handed me the piece of cardboard encased in a plastic, my grandpa told me, “If you bend this, I’m going to bend you.” He was a large, gentle man, and I knew he was joking. Still, I took his words to heart and handled the card like it was a Fabergé egg. I would go on to handle all my cards that way.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out — a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

Eventually, baseball cards gave way to comics, comics gave way to rocks and fossils I found on solitary walks. As I got older, records, old LPs and 45s, mostly blues, soul, garage rock, and other weird and wild post-war American sounds, became my obsession. I always loved having books around, but as I got older and started moving around more often to new apartments, I usually just borrowed from the library or put out books I was finished with for somebody else to discover.

At some point, my stays in apartments stretched from months to years. My book collection started to grow, bookshelves were purchased, and my focus as a collector switched. I had some new books, but with estate sales and thrift stores routinely picked over by professionals who turned around and resold dollar concert T-shirts and vintage denim for two-to-three hundred times what they paid, I put almost all of my attention on books. The act of going to places like The Strand or Mercer Street Books, the hope that I’d find one of those little nuggets of gold, filled me with joy. Perhaps it was an older edition of To The Lighthouse, an old Trader Vic’s cocktail guide, or just a book with a really great cover. Walter Benjamin wrote in his own essay about book collecting, “I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is a rebirth. This is the childlike element which a collector mingles with the element of old age.” There’s something about collecting books that makes me feel like I’m back with my grandfather, picking out that Mark Grace rookie card — only now it’s building my collection of paperback copies of books containing Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts, or hoping to stumble upon a first edition of Conversations in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.

At some point, my primary obsession turned to collecting Vintage Contemporaries from the 1980s. Going to a used bookstore and finding at least one or two titles from that imprint isn’t too strange. Most people discarded their Vintage Contemporaries somewhere between the Bush and Clinton administrations, along with their giant block cell phones and Oingo Boingo cassettes. That was the fate of so much from the 1980s: there was new stuff to buy, new technology to use, and new credit lines to purchase it on. By the end of the decade, we wanted nothing to do with any of it.

For the most part, people seem to be sharply divided as to how they feel about Vintage Contemporaries. As one Chicago bookseller put it as I strolled up to the counter with six different editions: “They’re ugly as fuck, but they put out some amazing titles.” Others, like Sean Manning, who wrote a tribute to the series back in 2012 on his blog “Talking Covers,” is also as interested in what’s on the outside of the book as what’s written inside. “I always just loved how they tapped into that ‘80s collector-craze vibe in the same way as baseball cards and Garbage Pail Kids and the Columbia House record club and those Costacos Brothers sports posters,” he tells me over email. “I mean, they had checklists in the back of every book so you could keep track of which ones you’d read!” Manning, who is around the same age as me, and also comes from the Midwest, had a similar conversion moment. “Those covers changed the way I looked at reading literature — from something that was stuffy and pretentious to something that was fun and approachable.”


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The De Stijl-style layout of the early Vintage covers was created by designer Lorraine Louie, who played with a number of drafts for the imprint’s first title, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. The final design almost always has the author’s name at the top, a little dot matrix in the top left-hand corner. The titles came in different colors, but always the same font: Kabel. Developed in 1927 by the German type designer Rudolf Koch, it’s just one of the many design styles incorporated into the covers. You’ve got a little Dutch, some German, and the surreal, haunting artwork that could call to mind René Magritte or Henri Rousseau. The imprint’s logo, a little yellow ball atop a square with two red lines through it, looks as if it could have been designed by any of the members of the Memphis Group. It is, admittedly, a lot to take in. You could pick out any cover as an example of everything people considered good and horrible about 1980s design.

What everybody can agree on is the quality of the titles and the lingering influence of their authors: Denis Johnson went on to win a National Book Award; Don DeLillo, Joy Williams, Richard Russo, Mona Simpson, and many of the others included on the imprint’s early list of authors have become icons of literary fiction. Looking at the Vintage Contemporaries list is like a trip to a literary Murder’s Row, but as McInerney told me last year, “literary fiction was in the doldrums,” in the early 1980s. Renowned figures like Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Cormac McCarthy were not yet the iconic figures they are today.

A year before the first Vintage Contemporaries release in 1983, Granta editor Bill Buford introduced the term “dirty realism” to describe the work of authors like Ford, Carver, McCarthy and other American authors who wrote “about the belly-side of contemporary life — a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict — but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy.” Not only were a number of the early Vintage Contemporaries by some of the writers Granta featured in that issue, but a handful of the imprint’s best titles could easily be lumped under that umbrella as well.

I’ve always been a collector. I think it’s something you inherit, something in your blood, something you’re predisposed to. My grandfather started me down the path when he bought me my first baseball cards.

There’s plenty of evidence the Vintage Contemporaries influence has lasted. Stephanie Danler’s 2016 bestseller Sweetbitter garnered comparisons to Bright Lights, Big City. Reviewers draw lines back to Denis Johnson when discussing the work of Claire Vaye Watkins or Victor LaValle. Numerous current authors say they attended MFA programs from Syracuse to the Iowa Writers Workshop so that they could learn from various Vintage Contemporaries authors. I wonder how many of these young authors picked up the old paperbacks in thrift stores and discovered an early influence.

For me, searching for the books rekindled a love I thought I’d lost with fiction. I started with Mona Simpson’s excellent Anywhere but Here, Richard Russo’s Mohawk, then was drawn to Janet Hobhouse’s smart and decadent Dancing in the Dark based solely on the cover’s illustration. I’d close the book and just stare at the rendering of the author, drawn by Marc Tauss, the same artist and photographer who designed Bright Lights, Bright City. She’s dressed all in black, seated and set against a blue wall, which gives the impression that you’re looking down at the oceans from outer space. I dreamed of having the work framed on my wall.

***

Today, book cover illustrations are splashed across T-shirts, mugs, and just about anything that can be sold in an Etsy shop. There’s a mini-industry that specializes in putting Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick cover on tote bags, or Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes from Francis Cugat’s iconic Great Gatsby cover, staring out at the world from a thousand screen-printed sweatshirts. I’ve never cared for those things; I prefer my covers attached to books. Yet with each new Vintage Contemporaries title I’d collect, I started to appreciate the book cover as art unto itself. I wanted to understand why, if any reason existed in the first place, the art was picked for the particular title. Sure, the Twin Towers and the Odeon on the front of Bright Lights, Big City made sense to me as a snapshot of Lower Manhattan in the early 1980s, but what about the bulldog standing in front of a camcorder and light, next to emptied bottles of beer on James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss? The black panther in a desert with an art deco building in the distance on Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations? I had to find out what connection, if any, these images had with their books.

I was tearing through novels I’d already read, and ones I’d never even heard of, all because I’d purchased them based on their covers. I’d pull a book off a shelf at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn because I saw the familiar Vintage Contemporaries logo on the spine, but then realize it was from the imprint’s later-generation upon examining the book’s cover, and decide I’d give it a shot. More straight-forward now, sometimes the covers were still pretty, but often times nowhere near as interesting to me as that first generation. I struck gold on some occasions, like rereading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – an American classic that originally came out on Arte Público Press in 1984 and was released to a wider audience by Vintage Contemporaries in 1991. And even without the dot matrix and white background, the cover of the V.C. version of Valerie Martin’s A Recent Martyr comes complete with a Margaret Atwood blurb, and an illustration that could be mistaken for a lost Edward Hopper; his redheaded woman from Nighthawks (modeled by his wife, Jo) finding herself alone and staring out the cafe window from the painter’s Sunlight in a Cafeteria. Hopper’s influence can be felt throughout the early Vintage Contemporaries editions and some of the later ones. That, maybe more than anything else, might help begin to explain my fondness for the covers.

***

In the mid-1980s, when I was 5 or 6, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time on a field trip from my school in Skokie, Illinois. This was around the time of John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film I believe contains the greatest single scene in all of Hughes’s films. You probably know it: Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron walk up to the museum, one of the city’s many architectural wonders, with one of the famous bronze lion statues looking off into the distance. The trio tags along with a chain of schoolchildren who were probably my same age at the time, as the Dream Academy’s instrumental cover of The Smiths “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” plays. Hughes called the scene “self-indulgent” in the film’s 1999 DVD commentary. He also says the museum was a “place of refuge” for him when he was a kid stuck in suburban high school hell not too far from where I grew up. In the scene, Hughes is showing off the art, and his first closeup of a work of art is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

With each new Vintage Contemporaries title I’d collect, I started to appreciate the book cover as art unto itself. I wanted to understand why, if any reason existed in the first place, the art was picked for the particular title.

Acquired by the museum in 1942, the famous shot of four people in a Greenwich Village diner is one of the museum’s most popular paintings. Four decades later, Hopper’s influence has been noticed across the culture, especially in films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and especially the works of Pedro Almodóvar. Hopper’s impact was everywhere if you just stopped and looked. Even as a young child on my first ever visit to an art museum, I remember looking at that one work of art and not understanding what I was feeling. There was something unsettling about it, something lonely, but also something beautiful and maybe familiar. I can go back to that moment, a little sliver of time wedged between years of family trauma. I can recall standing there and looking at the painting, some strange, uneasy feeling washing over me. To this day I am still trying to figure it out, still attempting to figure out what’s happening in that single shot. Did somebody say something awkward? Is it a holdup? Is there about to be a holdup? Did somebody die? Do these people all know each other? I’m still trying to figure it out.

That’s where it starts for me, I believe. Those seeds planted in my brain early on, images from my childhood that affected me then have stuck with me to this day. That’s how these things work, right? Things we taste, hear, and view when we’re younger get carried with us. Whenever I hear the opening chords of “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac I’m instantly brought back to a specific moment, a place I lived in for maybe six months when I was 2 years old. When I taste horseradish, I’m reminded of my grandmother, who died when I was 3. There’s a certain faint scent of tobacco that reminds me of a pipe store that was stashed away in some dark corner of one of the malls I visited as a child. I start to feel scared but also curious, like the idiot in a horror movie who goes into the woods or the basement even though you know they shouldn’t. The smell of diesel fuel in the cold comforts me, as does the scent of burning leaves off in the distance; I began tearing up a few months back while walking through MoMA’s Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibit, and find myself as attracted to staring at splatter-painted floors as I am the sculpted lines of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings.

I’m deeply moved by art in a way that’s almost embarrassing. My senses often overwhelm me and I rarely ask why or what the root of my feeling is. I believe there is a reason certain tastes, scents, sounds, and sights move me the way they do; part of it is conditioning, the other is deeper. For instance, I have no connection to the church, but I have grown to love gospel music and feel myself moved by the passion. I’m a Jew, but I listen to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” every morning just to get to Kirk Franklin’s verse, his prayer “for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up,” and who “feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times.” I’ve learned to understand what’s so beautiful about another person’s devotion; I grow by learning to love and appreciate new things. Anything that touches off that feeling of being a little kid at the Art Institute of Chicago looking up at Nighthawks, however, that’s instantly familiar. Those roots run deep. That probably begins to explain my obsession with Vintage Contemporaries. The covers beg me to try and understand the story the way I tried to understand that painting.

***

There are certain books from the Vintage Contemporaries series that I have a feeling I’m never going to be able to find, and sometimes I look at my shelf and I wonder what that means. Will I eventually prove myself wrong and find those books? And if I do, how will I feel?

We’re a wasteful culture. I can’t say I’m any better than other people when it comes to this. I’m both a waster and also a hoarder. According to Dante, I’d end up in the Fourth Circle of Hell for these transgressions. There is, however, a reason to my insistence that I have “stuff” and it makes me happy to possess it — that’s what I believe matters. The things I have around me tell some kind of story.

I’m deeply moved by art in a way that’s almost embarrassing. My senses often overwhelm me and I rarely ask why or what the root of my feeling is.

Like my grandfather, I have click pens from hotels and restaurants, along with old coffee mugs, pictures of people I love, plants, and lots of paintings; I like to be surrounded by stuff while I work from my living room, and on my desk I have six coffee mugs and one blue and white “We are happy to serve you” cup. That cup holds a bunch of pencils and click pens I will never use from various places where I’ve eaten or slept; one mug holds business cards and assorted ephemera; two mugs are filled with pencils of various colors; while the big yellow mug holds an old Boy Scout knife, two magnifying glasses and a pair of scissors. There’s a vintage Abercrombie and Fitch ashtray from the days when the brand was Ernest Hemingway’s hunting gear provider of choice, that’s used as a catch-all for loose change, watches, pins, whatever.

At any time, there’s no less than three notebooks on my desk, a picture of my wife when she was a baby, and a picture of a painting by Marc Trujillo that I cut out of an issue of Harper’s a few years ago. The painting, 4504 Van Nuys Boulevard, is a lonely shot of two people buying tickets to see a movie. I’m obsessed with the painting in the same way I am Hopper’s and everything that came after him. He tells the same stories, captures isolation and loneliness, and I can’t help but get lost in it. I sometimes look at that copy of a painting, then feel the need to walk over to my bookshelf and pull the Vintage Contemporaries copy of Bright Lights, Big City or Paul Hoover’s Saigon, Illinois, or any of the other titles off the shelf and just look at it. These clues to the past that I have all around me, these books and records that are mine for this short time on this planet, they are material things, yet they have taught me so much. They’ve filled in dark moments with color, and, in the case of those paperbacks from the Reagan era, they’ve made me search a little bit deeper to find the stories I’m looking for. These things give me reason to keep searching and wondering.

* * *

Jason Diamond is the author of the memoir Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from 80s Movies, and founder of Volume 1 Brooklyn

Editor: Sari Botton