Even as a boy, I was already a book critic — of sorts. Any paperback I might buy underwent intense scrutiny for manufacturing flaws and other irritations. Bantam Books used dark, ugly paper little better than newsprint, the shiny cellophane on Mentor covers regularly delaminated, the design of Pocket Books struck me as bland and the glue binding for Dell titles occasionally dried out. None of them could match Signet or Penguin in terms of quality. Alas, I never saw any Oxford World’s Classics or Anchor Books until I went off to college.

Signet’s superiority derived, in large part, from the quality of its paper stock, which was whiter and brighter than that of its competitors and without any dreaded see-through. Such considerations partly explain why, in my 20s, I worked my way through Dard Hunter’s magisterial “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.” As John Bidwell says in Paper and Type: Bibliographical Essays (The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia), Hunter’s book retains its place as the basic primer of paper history. As curator of printed books at the Morgan Library, Bidwell himself addresses most of his writing to other scholars, but several articles here do carry slightly wider appeal, notably the introductory “Study of Paper as Evidence, Artifact and Commodity” and a long survey of “Fine Paper at the Oxford University Press.”


(Penguin Classics)

(Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia)

Few people collect old Signet paperbacks, but Penguin fans are legion. Published next month, Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Classics Book is essentially a catalogue and pictorial history of that company’s ongoing effort to make great works of literature available to everyone. Initially relying on an austere typographical design for its overall look, Penguin eventually learned to match its texts with complementary cover art: Who better to evoke Henry James’s world than contemporary painters like Whistler and Sargent? This oversize volume features full-color reproductions of some 3,000 paperback covers, as well as brief synopses of works as different as the Shahnameh and “Fanny Hill.”

The Boston publisher David R. Godine has long championed fine bookmaking. Witness John Wilmerding’s American Masterpieces: Singular Expressions of National Genius , a gathering of essays contributed to the Wall Street Journal by this distinguished former curator of American art at the National Gallery. Some of Wilmerding’s masterpieces will be familiar — Mary Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair,” Saint-Gaudens’s memorial for Clover Adams (in the District’s Rock Creek Cemetery) — but others will be surprising, such as Henry H. Richardson’s Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, Mass. It tickles me that I took pictures of this library just last year when I happened to be in Quincy for a science-fiction convention called Readercon.


(Cover design by Sam Weber for the Folio Society’s edition of Gene Wolfe's “The Sword of the Lictor.”)

(Cover artwork and design by Jonathan Burton for The Folio Society’s edition of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.)

These days, it sometimes seems that half of our award-winning novels could legitimately be labeled fantasy or even science fiction. As a result, old “genre” classics are increasingly regarded as classics, period. The Folio Society, for instance, has long issued a range of ­well-designed and appealingly illustrated books, such as — to name some from 2019 — Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, If Not, Winter; Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales; and the nautical adventures of C.S. Forester’s ­Captain Horatio Hornblower. But it has also begun offering exceptional works by Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams and ­others. Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, for instance, is exuberantly illustrated by Francis Vallejo and carries a prefatory essay by the ­award-winning Afrofuturist Nalo Hopkinson.

All of these are dwarfed, however, by the company’s sumptuous limited edition of Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun, signed by Wolfe (who died in April), artist Sam Weber and introducer Gaiman. Is it, as I believe, the greatest long work of American science fiction? Seeking other masterpieces, just this summer Folio launched its own ­edition of George R.R. Martin’s epic “A Song of Ice and Fire,” ­beginning with a ­two-volume boxed set of A Game of Thrones, introduced by Joe Abercrombie, with art by Jonathan Burton.

Devotees of the darker forms of fantastika know that much of the best work originates with small publishers, often in print runs of just a few hundred copies. So don’t delay in checking out Sarob Press’s Their Dark & Secret Alchemy: Stories by Richard Gavin, Colin Insole & Damian Murphy , with a cover illustration by the genre’s master artist Paul Lowe. In feel and elegance, the book closely resembles titles issued by Swan River Press, whose most recent offering is John Howard’s unsettling story collection, A Flowering Wound. More of Howard’s fiction, coupled with equally polished work by his friend Mark Valentine, appears in Inner Europe, a companion to Secret Europe. Both these handsome volumes — from Tartarus Press — are suffused with that air of mystery, transgression and foreboding one associates with continental literature and film during the 1920s and ’30s.

Unlike the above publishers, Centipede Press tends to specialize in sumptuous and expensive collector’s editions — except for its affordable “Library of Weird Fiction.” The latest in the series, Robert Aickman, edited by S.T. Joshhi, assembles 18 of this master’s strangest stories in a well-printed hardback, one designed for use, not ostentation. Of course, some books merit an appropriately extravagant treatment, such as Lucia/Marquand Press’s oversize (14 by 21.5 inches) facsimile of an outstanding 19th-century livre d’artiste: Poe’s The Raven , with six illustrations by Edouard Manet and a French prose version by Stéphane Mallarmé (retranslated here into English by Holly Cundiff).

Let me end by remembering a now-vanished literary landmark. Wise Men Fished Here: A Centennial Exhibition in Honor of the Gotham Book Mart, 1920-2020 (University of Pennsylvania Libraries) reproduces photographs, artwork and ephemera celebrating a beloved Manhattan bookstore and its legendary founder, Frances A. Steloff, who died in 1989 at age 101. While most of the text was written by Penn curator David McKnight, assistant curators Camille Davis and Katherine Aid contribute, respectively, accounts of the store’s publishing arm and its long association with that highly collectible and charmingly eccentric artist, Edward Gorey.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

FINE BOOKS