Steven Heller | Essays

Confessions of a Book Catalog Reader

Thames & Hudson catalog cover, Fall 2007.

I read publishers' seasonal catalogs the way some people go to the movies, in part to watch the trailers for coming attractions. You get the gist — if not the best parts — but don't necessarily have to see the film. Likewise, from catalogs I glean what's up-and-coming, but I don't necessarily have to buy the book. Or conversely, after seeing what's not yet in the stores, I have something special to look forward to — another reason to live.

Book catalogs are considerably more elaborate lately — full-color object photographs of books are alluring (and the covers and jackets look better in miniature anyway, especially with drop shadows). A few, like the Taschen bi-annual magazine/catalog, even include excerpts and other exclusive editorial content; so as not to be simply sales pitches but proxy cultural experiences. It's like receiving the New York Review of Books but without the pressure of having to read the long essays, or the guilt of not doing so.

Most publishers issue catalogs twice a year (some three times), so it is around early to mid-summer that Fall and Winter offerings come through the mails. When I was art director of The New York Times Book Review I looked forward to the en masse arrival, and while I'm not at that job any longer, I'm still on a few choice mailing lists.

Yesterday the Thames and Hudson U.K. catalog arrived and after ripping off the plastic, I found my groove on the couch and started to peruse its glossy pages. I'm not just singling out T&H because (full disclosure) I have a new book in this catalog, but because I truly enjoy scanning the coming attractions and reading the florid promotion copy — and florid it often is, even to the point of making me wince — but that's a large part of the experience.

In fact, the only problem with book catalogs these days is that some tend to read like computer software mail-order circulars. The book business is just so competitive, and so few books actually make big bucks, that hard sell has become de rigeur. Decades ago, promotion for books was itself a literary art — much of it written either by wannabe novelists or interns from Smith and Sarah Lawrence colleges.

Nonetheless, what I particularly like about the T&H catalog is that it is laid out in a small-journal format, featuring twenty-one categories, from "Art" to "Children" (obviously not in alphabetical order, but rather based on what the T&H sales force sells the most). It also includes sections on "Product Design," "Visual Communication" (i.e. graphic design) and "Popular Culture" (the catchall for all manner of weird and wonderful things).

I'm always anxious to see what other authors have done in my field, although it can be depressing when I find that a book I'd been working on, or dreaming about doing, is already on the list before mine is finished or even started. It has happened more than once, but this season I'm free and clear — at least with T&H. Still, in this catalog I admit to being rather green-eyed over quite a few books I would have wanted to do.

Thames & Hudson catalog art-section spread, Fall 2007.

The first in this category is Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins by Peter Conrad, about all the major and minor art ever produced featuring deities — or as the catalog copy intones: "A book of breathtaking scope in which the mystery of how the world began unfolds in an epic narrative that sets the Gods against the world's great artists, their rivals in creative energy." How can you not be inspired? A few pages later I was struck by The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance by Gabriel Badea-Päun, which surveys "a dazzling array of works of art" from David to Warhol, "a lesson in elegance, grace, and style." Yummmy.

Jumping to "Textiles" there is a global survey of trends and traditions, and a world guide of quilting, patchwork and appliqué (you might knot know it but I live for appliqué). Under "Decorative Arts" is a history of the shell as decoration and ornament (a long time in coming, I'd say) and The Majesty of Mughal Decoration ("an essential reference work for art historians, designers and anyone interested in the arts and life of India"). In "Architecture" is offered a "vibrant, quirky survey of the finest examples of parking garages," called The Architecture of Parking (and at under $40 it costs less than my monthly garage payments).

Moving on to "History" I'm simply yearning for The Story of Measurement by Andrew Robinson (who would have thought that "the first fully illustrated guide to the human passion for measurement — of ourselves, our experiences and our surroundings" would be so fully illustrated?). In the "Food" section I can't wait for Food: The History of Taste ("The perfect foodie's gift for Christmas 2007"). And in "Travel & Transport," an area I've never been too keen on because I hate to travel and am not found of transport, I was nonetheless smitten by How to Fly a Plane by Nick Barnard ("Get airborne with the aid of this lavishly illustrated guide to flying"). Sign me up.

Then there's "Visual Communication" with entries on the following tantalizing themes: "the ultimate book on signage in all its different forms, packed with real-life examples from around the world," "AGI's who's who of the world of international graphic design" and "the bible of street culture, in the same format as Graffiti World." But the two I most envy are Vietnam Zippos by Sherry Buchanan, which showcases for the first time the "personalized Zippo [lighter] engravings by American soldiers during the Vietnam War (1964-1973)" and War Posters: Weapons of Mass Communication by James Aulich, "a mesmerizing collection of hard-hitting propaganda and groundbreaking graphic design."

Other than browsing a bookstore's shelves, there's probably nothing better for this bookophile than browsing publisher's catalogs — if only the books themselves took up as little space.

Posted in: Media

Comments [9]

Perfect bedtime reading when you're too tired to read anything else.
Matthew Tiffany

Wow. Sold.

note to self: Hmm. Conrad's "Creation" is surely a send up to Milton Glaser's Dante's Divine Comedy, if not, he's gonna burn.
felix sockwell

someone really needs to make a screensaver that will stream all these lovely book visuals, even fragments of the book content themselves, so we can all just sit back and watch it like movie. call it bookstream or something like that.
Gong Szeto

As a high school kid, I requested catalogs from publishers like Penguin, Signet (classics) and, above all, New Directions. This would have been ca 1968-69. The ND catalogs featured high-contrast photographs of authors like Ezra Pound, Stevie Smith, Gary Snyder, William Everson; there may have been excerpts from recent publications, I can't remember. Catalogs were simpler affairs in those days, way simpler than the T&H catalog, to be sure.

All of these catalogs fed the imagination, encouraged reading ambition, informed one of obscure or backlist books unlikely to appear on a bookstore shelf. They provided an education of all sorts, including aesthetic.

Catalog reading may be a guilty pleasure, but, like other forms of list reading, and non-narrative, non-argumentative reading of disconnected bits of information in general, may well be the norm.
John McVey

i too love these catalogues, and wind up with many of the review copies, some of which i request and some which by default wind up on my cluttered desk. i used to have shelves and shelves of books, for my so called reference and the office. after years, i realized that i never referred to them but treated them as mere objects of acquisition, and knew exactly the market price of each one. one weekend, sick of looking at the increasing amount of detritus, i decided to pack most of them into boxes and sold them for a pittance, gave other ones (mass market paperbacks, what i knew were worthless airplane time filler hardcovers, magazines)away to the library and charitable organizations and yes, i even burned some of them too. the reason i did this was because of the idea of a bad book in another's hand would give rise to more bad books. i had them in the first place because i was young and susceptible to nonsense, graphic nonsense and hype. now i own about fifty books, which i actually do like, and look at, and sometimes even refer to. although i do like getting reviewers copies, though most of them are not worth reviewing or even being printed on in the first place. oh look at me, i love books, so they keep going to the strand, and when they try to sell it back, they get a penny. books take up a hell of a lot of space, and not just physical. it's hard to give up being a book loving poindexter, though. i'll keep trying, though.
jimmy mccready

This year the annual BEA (Book Expo America) was at the Jacob Javitz center in New York. I get a pass courtesy of the book publishing house I work at. Theoretically, I'm supposed to look at what the other commmerical houses are doing with their covers,
but I always beeline over to the art books. Each or these exhibitors have catalogs and sometimes books for sale at a big discount. Thrilling.
I have my favorite art book publishers, but this year I discovered Actar D. It was their first time exhibiting, but (according to their catalog) they have been publishing out of Barcelona for over a decade. Their catalog measures only 5 X6 and fits in ones pocket for subway reading. www.actar-d.com check it out.
Anne Twomey

Sorry to be perdantic but...

I think it's 'bibliophile' not 'bookophile'.
I'm fairly sure bookophile is not a word.

correct me if i'm wrong.

$10 T&H book voucher if you spot the deliberate mistake.

Spotted: "...you might knot know it but I live for appliqué."

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