Back in April, The New York Times noted an Instagram trend: NYRB Classics were popping up everywhere. The imprint, issued by the New York Review of Books, “specializes in reissuing volumes that have fallen out of print or been otherwise neglected,” the Times reported, yet the books have now “become design objects and totems of intellectual status.”
What attracted people to this relatively obscure set of books? Their design. Their dimensions (in photos shot from above) are identical, their cover layouts are standardized. But their spines are varying, seemingly random, colors. Arranged together — for instance, on a shelf — they are chaos within limits, and perfectly Instagrammable.
This was, by all appearances, unintentional. The NYRB Classics line didn’t set out to be an Instagram favorite; they’ve looked the same for ages. But that reversal of intent might now be occurring elsewhere in the publishing world as, more and more, book jackets are designed with social media in mind.
Of course, books aren’t off-limits as Instagrammable objects. Aesthetic appreciation of books might be more worthwhile than fetishizing other consumer products. Yet, literary purists are likely depressed by the idea that book covers could be designed to be purposefully displayed as totems — that is, as reflections of the reader’s taste and style — without an awareness of the words inside. After all, whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover?
But maybe all is not lost. Maybe sharing book covers on Instagram isn’t just about projecting intellect or lifestyle. Maybe books — as objects used to display one’s taste — are fundamentally different from furniture or clothes. Maybe there’s more beneath the filter.
. . . .
We are not the first generation to spend time arranging the books on our shelves for public display. As far back as the 16th century, members of high society in Britain elaborately embroidered book covers as an alternative to leather binding. In the late 1800s, the craft underwent a revival.
“In a variety of publications, from magazines to histories of bookbinding and collecting, middle-class Englishwomen were encouraged to ply their needles within an explicitly patriotic historical tradition,” Jessica Roberson, an Ahmanson-Getty postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, wrote earlier this year in a review of a spate of late-19th century book embroidery histories.
Link to the rest at Medium
As a consequence of PG’s sheltered life, he had never heard of book embroidery.
In the event one or two of the visitors to TPV are in the same sorry state of ignorance, here is an example of book embroidery. It is the embroidered cover to a 1578 edition of The Epistles of St. Paul, owned by Queen Elisabeth.
Here is yet another example of book embroidery.
As PG is certain many have immediately surmised, this is an embroidered book cover for Henshaw’s Horae Successivae (1632), white satin with a floral design edged in gold cord, featured in Cyril Davenport’s English Embroidered Book-bindings (1899).
PG must note that he has always preferred the 1891 edition of Davenport’s masterpiece due to a better job of typesetting. The 1899 edition was basically a rush job necessary to meet unexpected demand when Lord Curzon praised it as the definitive work in its field and said he would be taking his copy to India.
As members of a particularly astute group, visitors to TPV have undoubtedly realized that causing the death of book embroidery is yet another sin one may be accused of committing when one purchases an ebook instead of a printed book.
If you are one of those sinners and need a snappy retort, you can point out that Amazon offers handmade fabric iPad covers created by Hmong artisans living in the Lanna district of Northern Thailand. You can also ask any critics whether they realize that the northern Hmong tribes originate from the Tibetan area of China, so they are refugee artisans. Additional points may be awarded for this attribute.