May 14, 2009

Penguin Magnum Collection

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Tosches Nick at 7:25 am by John Self

Whenever Penguin bring out one of their enticing new series, I feel like Homer Simpson (sans sarcasm).

Marge: We don’t think you’re slow, but on the other hand it’s not like you go to museums or read books or anything.

Homer: You think I don’t want to? It’s those TV networks, Marge: they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves, but they won’t! They won’t let me live!

Yes, it’s Penguin’s fault: they won’t let me live. But these series are one of the best ways to give older books new life – particularly to magpies like me – which is in part what this blog is supposed to be about anyway. So now, after Gothic Reds, English Journeys, extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics and more, we have the Penguin Magnum Collection. These are six titles of 20th century reportage by American authors: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Fight by Norman Mailer, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, and Hellfire by Nick Tosches.

At least three or four of these titles hardly need new promotion, but the USP here is the wraparound covers from the Magnum photo agency. Click for larger versions.

manonthemoonsml

incoldbloodsml

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hellfiresml

The title are stickered on, so when removed, the brilliance of the design takes effect. The reader looks on a wordless front cover, with an image which draws the eye around the spine – an apparently bare piano and mike stand on Hellfire, say, or a series of telegraph poles on Hell’s Angels – and suddenly the focus of the image is there – Jerry Lee Lewis talking to the audience, a phalanx of bikers roaring into the distance – on top of which the words appear like an explosion. It’s a narrative cover, like a cinematic trailer for the content of the book, and it’s bold and beautifully executed. There are further Magnum images on the inside covers. You need to see them to appreciate it – though of course then you would have to buy the books so you could peel off the stickers and really experience it. What can you do?

It is not all good. The barcodes on the spines are, for a series where cover design is their raison d’etre, a disaster. They transform the books from the most desirable paperbacks I’ve seen in some time, to ones I would be reluctant to display on my shelves. Why couldn’t the barcode be discreetly printed on the inside cover, or even on a removable sticker (as Penguin have done before on clothbound hardbacks or the Bill Amberg collection)? Also, the type has not been reset, so we are left with whatever font was considered fashionable when the paperback was first published. This detracts from the series as a matching set.

And what of the books themselves? I wanted to try them, but In Cold Blood, Hiroshima and The Fight were already familiar to me (and the first two I recommend without reservation, if I need to). I didn’t fancy 600-odd pages of Apollo missions. So I opted for Hell’s Angels and Hellfire. The former I admit I haven’t opened yet, due to a horrible prejudice that Hunter S. Thompson was a self-regarding berk to whom no encouragement (even posthumous) should be offered. So the stylish reissue has not quite worked the magic of winning a new reader in this case. (I would welcome responses on whether I am completely wrong about Thompson; I really hope I am.)

That leaves Nick Tosches’ Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. I am ashamed to admit that before reading it, I had only a faint idea who Jerry Lee Lewis was. After discounting the possibility that he was the one who chummed about with Dean Martin, I nailed him as the man who gave us ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’. Truth be told, after reading his story, that seems still to be pretty much the summit of his contribution to the world, but what a story, and what a journey he takes to and from that summit. The Killer:

I hated that damn name ever since I was a kid, but I been stuck with it. I don’t think they meant it killer like, like I’d kill people. I think they meant it music’ly speaking. But I am one mean sonofabitch.

We begin long before his birth, with a warning from history. The settlement in Louisiana which would become Lewis’s birthplace was formed by what one of its own pioneers called “the scum of all sorts of nations. They excel in all the vices. The women are as vicious as the men. The savages, though savages, who have occasion to see them, hold them in contempt.” They were prone to inbreeding too, “this whole queer-living, breathing, cotton-farming, marrying, multiplying mess of Chinee arithmetic.” Yet from this would come a strange musical genius who, at the age of ten, sat at the piano and “took a whip” to the tunes of the Depression and “shook them down to boogie-woogie.” By the age of 21, he had had his two biggest hits (“distinctly smart wax” – Billboard) and was on his third marriage and second bigamy: to his thirteen-year-old cousin. That sort of thing ended no better for him than it had for Edgar Allan Poe, with Lewis forced to abandon his UK tour after the story got out. “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS”, cried the Daily Herald (precursor to The Sun) while back home the New York Herald Tribune offered, “The Jerry Lee Lewises are going to have an addition to the family. He bought her a new doll.”

Hellfire is flamboyantly overwritten, consciously biblical and portentous when describing Lewis’s religion-soaked origins, and high-octane and spectacular when reaching the heights of his excesses. (“He was taken away and made to blow into an Intoximeter. He registered .15. The police at the station were impressed, for many of them had never known the device to register beyond .10.”) The model here seems to be Tom Wolfe, whose compelling if not comprehensive The Right Stuff is one of the reasons I’m putting off Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. Tosches brings Lewis’s bewitching contradictions not only to light but to life. It’s a sizzler, a blast and a breeze. A Magnum of champagne for this reissue.

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26 Comments »

  1. Tim Footman said,

    But do you get a free ice cream?

  2. New covers for old editions is one of the worst dirty tricks in publishing. How often do you open a book with a brilliant-looking cover (e.g. a new Penguin Modern Classic) only to find a typeface from the 1960s with a massive amount of fuzziness as a result of its age.

    My favourite is Humboldt’s Gift. You open the new-look edition to find it’s still the old edition in fuzzy, worn-out type. But that’s not all. The back cover proudly says “with an introduction by Martin Amis.”

    Open the book and there is no introduction at all — Amis or otherwise!

  3. John Self said,

    Yes, I was fooled by that one too, Jonathan – I mean, I probably would have bought Humboldt’s Gift anyway, but the idea of an intro from Amis did sell it to me more keenly.

    Another example is Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now – the Penguin Modern Classic edition, not the NYRB selected stories edition I wrote about recently – which on Penguin’s website is still (at time of writing) promising an introduction by Susan Hill. I am here to tell you that there is no such introduction.

  4. Regarding Thompson, his main contribution was as the creator of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (which I have but have yet to read) and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are proably the best known two.

    Las Vegas is an interesting work, it’s funny and well written, it’s also admirably brief which is sometimes an underrated quality.

    Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail I haven’t read yet as noted above, but my understanding is that the key difference to other works of the time is the insertion of the journalist into the story, the journalist therefore becoming himself as much the story as that he observes. The Boys on the Bus is a good read on this front, it’s not by Thompson but he pops up in it and you see the contrast between him and his journalistic peers.

    The thing is though, he was a journalist, he’s now judged though as a writer. I’m not quite sure that’s the correct way to approach him though. That and although I liked Las Vegas, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t both be able to write well and be a self-regarding berk.

  5. Rob said,

    I wonder if there’s a particuar law / regulation / unbreakable tradition that keeps barcodes on the outside of the books? Something to do with shrinkwrap or machines in warehouses, maybe?

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks for the Thompson info, Max. My blind prejudice against him is just that – prejudice – so I suppose the only way to find out if it is justified is to read the book(s). Interesting point you make though about how he is now judged as a writer rather than a journalist. Though when he inserts himself into the story in such a way, isn’t he asking for this really?

    Rob: probably. Though that doesn’t explain why they didn’t use stickers for the barcode (except that it would have made them even more expensive: as it is Hellfire in this new edition is £2 dearer than the existing Penguin paperback). Or they could have put the barcode on the cover sticker, thus encouraging more people to peel them off (I suspect many won’t) – everyone’s a winner!

    I did make a half-hearted attempt to contact someone on the design side of Penguin to ask about the barcodes, but didn’t get anywhere. But then I didn’t try very hard.

  7. Rob said,

    Barcode on the cover sticker could work, you’re right.

  8. When I was still running the newspaper, we were told the bar code had to be on the front page (not inside) because the checkout punchers could not waste time looking for it — bar codes existing mainly to reduce worker time. Then again, putting it on the spine actually does increase the confusion since no other books have it on the spine (and I can’t imagine how Orwellian the book shelves would look if every volume had a bar code on the spine). And it seems to me that people at the cash register in book shops just might be up to looking at the inside cover, since that is normally where the price of the book is printed. And given that the titles are all stickers anyway, why not sticker is an excellent question to which I have no answer.

    As much as you like these volumes, John, I’m afraid for me they fall into the genre of marketing gimmick — particularly since I dislike all of the books except for Hiroshima and wish that new/gonzo journalism would be sent to the trash heap where the journalist in me says it belongs. I hate to see design talent and innovation wasted on inferior work. Then again, I guess it had to be some kind of “journalism” or there wouldn’t be pictures available. And I do have the right not to buy.

  9. John Self said,

    Indeed you do, Kevin, though I personally wouldn’t have included In Cold Blood (or, based on what I’ve read about it, A Man on the Moon) in the “new/gonzo journalism” bracket. Yes, Capote inserted himself into In Cold Blood and claimed he invented a new form, the ‘nonfiction novel’, but I think it is a fine book. Is your journalist’s distaste related to your dislike of the idea of a novelist producing a history book, a la Baker’s Human Smoke?

    (Incidentally, on the new journalism angle, I would bet a high stake that Penguin would have included a Tom Wolfe in this series if they had the publishing rights.)

    You are right about the barcodes – I bought two more of these at the weekend (the Thompson and Tosches I received from Penguin as review copies), The Fight and Hiroshima to replace my existing copies. The bookseller had the darnedest job finding the barcodes, which in the end I had to point out to him. And the only reason I didn’t buy A Man on the Moon was because the two copies my bookstore had both had creased covers. Very careless.

  10. You intuit my distaste perfectly. And I will admit it is a highly personal prejudice. I did read In Cold Blood in the original New Yorker serial, but haven’t reread it since — it rather marked an end to Capote’s work, which is to bad. You are probably dead right about Tom Wolfe as well. Perhaps I should just keep those negative opinions to myself.

    I love it that you had to point out where the barcodes were. A very bad mistake, not just from the aesthetic perspective, but business as well. Given that the back cover seems to be the norm for barcodes, was there no reason a sticker couldn’t have been put there? I have been more down than I should have been on this — Penguin should be acknowledged for at least making the effort to provide a new approach to historical works that some people at least like (and their Amberg editions, which finally made it through customs, are perhaps my favorite books of all time — I’ve been fondling them, but haven’t yet started an actual read.)

  11. blah said,

    Hell’s Angles was Thompson’s first book, and it isn’t really written in the full-fledged Gonzo style. It’s much closer to straightforward journalism than his later stuff.

  12. John, not necessarily agreeing with it, but wasn’t the point of the new journalism in part that the journalist was always present so in some senses including him within the story made for a more honest account?

    I’m not sure I wholly agree with that, the journalist is always present but it seems to me in embracing that presence you risk increasing the impact it has and so materially changing the story through your involvement, but at the same time audiences were reached who otherwise weren’t being so it may have worked. Again, I’d have to bow to Kevin’s greater knowledge on the point.

    If you do decide to try Thompson despite his rather annoying public persona, go for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s both a classic and very short so if you find that the written work is too similar to the public man (and intentionally it is part of that persona, so if you find him irritating there’s good odds you’ll find the book equally so) at least it’s over soon.

    On another note, Kevin, I like to read negative opinions. I hardly spared Amsterdam in the Ishiguro thread after all. Negative opinions are just as interesting as the positive ones really, after all well stated dislikes are just as valuable in forming a view on a work as well stated likes. It’s when there’s not much to say either way I find I really struggle.

  13. Penguin is just trying to get a final suck on the money teat before Kindle dries it up – for good. Everyone’s backlist will be permanently available soon.

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks for the Thompson info, blah, it is in fact helpful to know that Hell’s Angels was his first book.

    And Max, yes I accept that Capote is in that sense ‘new journalism’ – particularly if you believe some allegations about just how far he, um, inserted himself into the story as far as Perry Smith was concerned – and agree too that negative opinions are welcome. I think the review I post on Monday of next week might have some detractors…

    Kevin, it’s OK to be down on Penguin once in a while (I’ve done it myself on the Alone in Berlin post) – they get enough praise on this blog as it is; they’re big enough to take it!

    Paul: an interesting point but I’m not sure I follow. Although the Kindle is Amazon’s proprietary format, presumably they have to pay Penguin (and other publishers) for the rights to publish books on the Kindle. I take your point that if books are permanently available on electronic format (or even in hard format, through print on demand technology) then rejacketings like this could be less lucrative. (Then again, as previously stated, these six are mostly books that were readily available and in print anyway.) However I don’t think that anyone, Amazon included, suggests that e-books will replace paper books entirely. I’m not a Luddite but I wasn’t at all won over by the Sony Reader I was given (the UK market leader; the Kindle isn’t available here yet) and haven’t used it since first trying it.

    Last year, amid the Kindle hullabaloo, I checked the last twenty or so books I’d read and found that only three or four of them were available on Kindle. I’ve just checked back with the last 14 books I’ve read – see Recent Posts sidebar – and again only three of them are available on Kindle: Tóibín’s Brooklyn, Lewis’s Naples ’44 and Eagleman’s Sum. So there would have to be significantly wider range before I would consider it. And it would need to be less ugly. And have a lot of advantages to outweigh the disadvantages of not having a nicely produced paper book in my hands. And not linked to Amazon, whom I don’t shop with. Once they have all those issues sorted out, hold me back.

  15. On the Kindle issue, I have on my PDA a now out of print Edwardian post-apocalypse classic (the Edwardians, bizarrely enough, loved post-apocalypse fiction) – After London, or Wild England.

    It’s actually fairly easy to read on a pda, I read about 30% that way, however I found I rather liked it so I bought a print on demand copy which I now have at home (and ironically haven’t finished yet, the interruption waiting for it to arrive caused me to go on to other things).

    The thing is though, there’s a utility to a physical copy that the PDA doesn’t have. I’ve seen the Sony Reader and like John I wasn’t won over. Kindle isn’t available in Europe, so I don’t think it will be eating Penguin’s lunch here anytime soon.

    In a few years, I think ereaders will make a real impact into book publishing, but I don’t think the present generation is good enough yet. The present ereaders aren’t flexible enough, don’t show a full page and lack many features that physical books already possess. Given too many people just plain like books, I don’t think the permanent backlist issue is that big a deal.

    Hell, I’m about to place an order for some works by Lord Dunsany, he’s long since out of copyright and legitimately downloadable in full in several places. I have Penguin Classics editions of HP Lovecraft, also available in full online. It takes more than mere availability to move people from the advantages of the print format.

    Personally, I quite look forward to a future generation of e-readers replacing the printed book, but I think we’re still a good five years at least from technology which will even begin to do that for serious as opposed to casual readers.

  16. One addendum, wasn’t it Penguin that recently released the loose-leather-bound books from its back catalogue? All of those are otherwise available, that still didn’t stop people buying the leather volume.

    Availability isn’t the issue, desirability is. If people love those covers, they may buy those works regardless of how they may otherwise be available.

  17. ‘My guess is that print-on-demand in its various forms will have a much greater impact on publishers like Penguin than the Sony reader or Kindle. Already more new books in the U.S. are self-published than being published through traditional routes. The other side of that coin is that traditional publishers are less and less interested in first-time authors. I would see both trends continuing.

    In fact, that makes projects like this Penguin one (and their Amberg series, which I love) even more likely as business propositions. The backlist is not only not going away, it is a paid for asset and finding a new way to present it becomes the business challenge.

    As for Kindle, as a proprietary product of a retailer, I susect it will be to e-reading as the Beta format was to VCR (both now dead and gone). Art still sells despite the wonders of photography, television and DVDs. Physical books will still sell even when the e-reader does get better. Somehow I think it is unlikely that Kindle will be that better reader.

  18. Print on demand makes micropublishing possible, there may be only three people in the world interested in say a particular romantic novelist from the 1850s, print on demand potentially allows each of those people to have full sets of that novelist’s work on their shelves.

    On the self-publishing issue, Kevin’s of course right about that, the problem then is getting attention to the more deserving of those self-published works. That’s probably fairly easy for those writing in microgenres, zombie horror or pirate romance or whatever, for would be literary fiction writers I suspect it will be much harder.

  19. Tony S. said,

    Non-Fiction. What’s that?

  20. See what you meant when you tweeted about the burning barcode issue the other day. That’s horrible placement. Not what you’d want sticking out of your bookshelves. Urghhh. Would track down a second hand copy before buying a new one like that.

  21. kimbofo said,

    I once wrote a 5,000-word essay on New Journalism as part of my Masters in Journalism. Capote is definitely a leading light, followed by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer et al. It wasn’t so much that the journalists inserted themselves into the story, but that they used the techniques of fiction writing to write non-fiction pieces. Or, at least, that’s the bit I remember.

    I find Hunter S. Thompson a bit hit and miss. My favourite is a short article he wrote about horse racing called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” — it is absolutely hilarious. And the stuff about the Hells Angels is very, very good, too.

  22. Thanks for the correction kimbofo, interesting stuff.

    Tricky as a form of journalism though, I enjoy such works, but I tend to treat them essentially as fiction.

  23. John Self said,

    Further Penguin spine bashing: I’ve noticed some new paperbacks have quotes of praise on the spine. I thought at first that this was just for fat books like A Fraction of the Whole and Kieron Smith, boy, but also saw it this week on Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots. Makes them look cheap in my view, though presumably does attract browsers when the books are spine-out on the bookstore shelves.

    Still, Penguin have form in spine eccentricity – remember how, until 10 or 15 years ago, their paperbacks (all orange-spined at that time, except for classics) had the ISBN on the spine. What was that all about?

  24. Joshua Meggitt said,

    Just discovered your blog and am mighty impressed, just what I’ve wanted from book blogs, led here by ReadySteadyBook and a very dull job in the public service. I’m also ensnared by NYRB editions.

    Just wanted to point interested readers in the roundabout direction you discussed at the beginning. Tosches was something of a gonzo-ist himself, cutting his teeth alongside rock’s premier gonzo-esque writer Lester Bangs, so the links with Thompson are close. Tosches also wrote a fabulous biography on Dean Martin, partner to the ‘other’ Jerry Lewis, called ‘Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams’. Biographies are all too often drab affairs but this is fascinating.

    Look forward to more posts, thanks!

  25. John Self said,

    Thanks Joshua, that’s very kind of you, and I’m grateful for your background info on Tosches. Certainly in Hellfire, the style seems as important as the content, suggesting a little self-love on Tosches’ part, so the gonzo connection fits well enough.


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