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2011-12, 371, 372, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Publishers

Book Reviews

Eighty Years of Book Cover Design by Joseph Connolly  Faber 281 pp. $49.99

A History of Longmans and Their Books 1724-1990 by Asa Briggs  The British Library and Oak Knoll Press 587 pp. $120

2009 MARKED the 80th anniversary of famous British publisher Faber and Faber. They marked this event with several initiatives recorded on their website at <www.faber.co.uk/faber-80> and Joseph Connolly’s Eighty Years of Book Cover Design. Connolly provides in his words ‘a lavish celebration of the art and beauty of these (Faber’s) magnificent covers’.

Connolly, who has had ten novels [by 2009] published by Faber, provides a personal perspective of the firm, followed by a brief history. Connolly recounts that the founder Geoffrey Faber worked in the family brewing business before his wife Enid, objecting to the smells from the brewery where they lived, told him to find a new career.

There was no other Faber in the publishing firm, but Geoffrey was apparently advised by Richard de la Mare, the father of Walter, the poet, that ‘you can’t have too much of a good thing’. Connolly writes ‘There never was a second Faber . . . The second Faber was no more than a whimsy, a deft and harmonious sleight-of-hand’. Half the company still remains in the Faber family and half with Valerie Eliot, the second wife of TS Eliot, who was a Director until his death in 1965. Eliot’s editorial reports were often devastating, Eliot once writing ‘I am paid to PREVENT as many books from being accepted as possible’.

Faber authors have included Eliot, Joyce, Larkin, Beckett and Plath. Eleven Faber writers have become Nobel laureates, while PD James has been involved with the firm for nearly 50 years. The 80 year Faber history is reflected through the stunning Faber book covers from 1929, through the innovative years of designer Dr Berthold Wolpe, to the present day. Connolly states that Wolpe ‘used clashing colours, had letters touching each other while some were big and others small. Lots of other people started copying him. What might look like a reflection of design trends is actually Berthold’s making’.

The formative design influence of Wolpe is related in a separate chapter. After Wolpe retired in 1975, there was a complete cover rethink by the design company Pentagram, but by the mid-1990s, their designs were seen as too restrictive and a ‘looser approach’ was adopted. Connolly notes that not all the Faber authors were pleased by Wolpe’s dust jackets, quoting from the correspondence of a design dispute between Wolpe and Lawrence Durrell over the dust jacket for Justine. Nonetheless most authors benefitted from the distinctive house style.

The covers are a wonderful tribute to all the designers, listed in an Appendix, such as Edward Ardizzone and Rex Whistler. Connolly’s main fault is that he provides no information under any of the book cover reproductions, nor any quick cross reference mechanism in the Appendices. The superb covers, however, stand for themselves and, as Connolly writes, ‘makes you want to take them off the shelves’.

Connolly’s history is largely pictorial seen through the perspective of the cover designs, while Asa Briggs’ exhaustive history of Longmans, the oldest commercial publisher in the United Kingdom, is a more traditional narrative based company history. Lord Briggs’s history is told not only within the context of the development of the British book trade, but is also placed within the contemporary frameworks of social, economic and cultural history.

Asa Briggs once wrote that ‘Thought, work and progress’ were the key words of mid-Victorian England and these might stand also as the motto of Longmans for most of their history. Briggs notes in his Prologue that ‘the word “publishing” has a long history of its own’. He cites Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), which on its title page records the House of Longman as one of its publishers, for definitions of ‘to publish’, namely ‘to discover to mankind’ and ‘to make generally and openly known’. An admirable sentiment in the current era where multi-nationals are crowding out the works of smaller independent publishers.

Founded in London in 1724 by Thomas Longman, Longmans published in its first century, either on its own or with others, nearly 5,000 titles. Longmans also established its qualitative reputation through promoting and publishing authors who included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, Macaulay, Disraeli, Rossetti, Nightingale, Conan Doyle and Stevenson.

It also established a global reputation for educational textbooks and for standard reference works, such as Roget’s Thesaurus (1852) and Gray’s Anatomy (1858). These bestsellers and the educational publications, especially schoolbooks, became ‘the twin pillars of Longman success’. Longmans avidly pursued ‘colonial’ markets in North America, India, the Caribbean, Africa, Australia and the Far East. Longman especially succeeded in the Indian market with schoolbooks, many in local languages, and ‘library editions’.

The last sections detail the decline of the family presence. Longman has not been a family firm since the death in 1972 of Mark, the last (seventh generation) Longman. Briggs, however, takes the history up to 1990, stopping, because of archival restrictions, just before the incorporation of the Longman Group into the Pearson publishing empire in 1994.

Briggs’s history, which is profusely illustrated, will long remain the standard history of Longmans, as well as a major contribution to British social and book history. Briggs, now in his nineties, deserves praise not only for the final scholarly product but for also for the tenacity to complete, as he terms it, an ‘often daunting, always absorbing enterprise’.

Colin Steele

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