You can’t talk about 2666 without mentioning the book design. Praised almost as enthusiastically as the text itself, the paperback edition features three separate volumes, each with a unique design, that fit neatly into a handsome brown slipcase. Recently, I spoke with New York-based designer Charlotte Strick of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) about her work.
Strick designs about ten book covers over the course of three months. She spends most of her time reading, though in the case of 2666, only two-and-a-half of Bolano’s five books had been translated to English while she was working on the design. Strick’s approval process at Farrar, Straus and Giroux involves emailing jpegs of the design to her editors, who in turn send it off to the author for comments. I asked her if writers ever criticize her ideas.
“The goal is to try and satisfy everybody as much as possible, and certain authors have a track record that gives them a louder voice than others. I don’t mind redesigning, as long as it’s pushing the design forward, and really, it’s their baby before it’s mine,” Strick said.
When an author is deceased, his/her estate has to approve the design, which can prove more frustrating since extra voices must weigh in. For 2666, Strick only needed approval from the FSG office, and the later stages of the process mostly involved crunching numbers to make sure the design wasn’t too expensive to produce.
Most striking is 2666‘s first book. It features 18th-century painter Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele, which Bolano references in the novel’s first section. Strick explained that the choice to feature Moreau’s oil painting came from her editor, Lorin Stein.
“The Moreau painting is apocalyptic and kind of insane,” Strick said. “Lorin [Stein] thought Bolano and Moreau would be an interesting pairing. Both were brilliant artists with fantastic views.”
The second book bears the abstract work of Cy Twombly. The sparse, chaotic aesthetic of Twombly’s calligraphic scribbles speaks to 2666‘s most disturbing yet ambitious chapter, “The Part About the Crimes,” which details the unsolved murders of Ciudad Juárez (named Santa Teresa in the novel). For the last book, Strick picked Albertus Seba’s hand-colored Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, based on one character’s fascination with seaweed.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of Strick’s design is how all three covers are distinct yet work together tonally, forcing readers to contemplate their differences and similarities, much like the sections of Bolano’s text. The title, which appears on the spine in elegant woodcut type, ties the designs together as the numbers move down vertically with each volume.
Unlike the hardcover edition, which presents only the eye-catching Moreau painting on its dust jacket, the brown cardboard slipcase that houses the three paperbacks is the set’s least attention-grabbing feature.
“I kept thinking about Juárez and abandoned landscapes, so I stripped the slipcase down as much as possible,” she explained. “I wanted the experience to be like pulling precious things from an old paper bag.”
According to Strick, hardcover and paperback editions usually try to appeal to different audiences. Hardcovers, in general, are geared toward older readers, while paperbacks attract younger, thriftier buyers. Paperbacks are often redesigned to reach an audience the previous cover didn’t. But FSG decided to do something different with 2666: they released the hardcover and slipcase paperback editions at the same time, both set at the same price.
“I thought the paperback design would appeal to Bolano’s underground audience, but when I last checked, the hardcover was selling better,” Strick said. “I asked my editor, who thought that because the slipcase had to be shrink-wrapped, people felt more comfortable buying the other edition.”
I was surprised. Anyone could see that the paperback edition was more attractive, more ambitious. Was I overestimating the average reader’s appreciation of book design? Fittingly, our conversation led to discussion of electronic book formats. Strick talked about FSG’s recent (and somewhat ironic) adoption of Sony e-Readers to review manuscripts internally.
“We waste a tremendous amount of paper, and on top of that, carrying around hundreds of pages of manuscripts is kind of a hassle,” she said. “Playing around with the e-Reader has been an unexpected joy, but I suppose it could signal the end of my industry.”
Strick laughed, and I asked her if she was serious.
“I certainly don’t think it’s going to disappear, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens to book design in the next decade.”
After our talk, I went on Amazon to compare the sales ranks between editions of 2666. Even online, where customers can’t see the shrink-wrap, the hardcover was clobbering the paperback version. Though Strick had predicted it earlier, I was still surprised that anyone would choose the traditional hardcover over the gorgeous slipcase design. In the case of 2666, it seems impossible to think of the book separate from its design.
And for some reason, I took comfort in the fact that 2666 wasn’t available for the Kindle.
See more from Reading “2666.”