Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Judge a book by its cover

     One of my personal mythologies is that, when it comes to writing stuff, I'm an endless font gushing quality material, a steely newspaper veteran who can firehose a constant stream of columns and blog posts and freelance articles and books, on command. That's being a professional.
     On Monday, however, I hit SEND on the proofread galley of my next book, due out in the fall from University of Chicago Press, and felt, well, about as drained as a human being can feel and not actually be dead. If I were a cartoon, I'd just collapse into a heap of ash and be blown away on the breeze. 
     It's always been an article of faith that the extra writing I do enhances, rather than detracts from, my job as a newspaper columnist. But this past six weeks, well, I was starting to think I was cheating the boss. Not that the column suffered—I think the writing was up to snuff. But I took on a big story on a certain Wisconsin manufacturer that would have been in the paper by now, but kept getting pushed aside. No gas in the tank. Which isn't the worst crime in the world, and a lapse I'm going to leap to address.
     But not now.  After sending the nearly-500-page book on its way (don't get scared; there's art) I sighed, stood up, and went to water the tomatoes, which helped, then folded a load of laundry.
     Now I'm back, good to go and onto the next task, today's post. Let's, ah, umm, share the cover of the book whose copy I have just picked over like an obsessive mother ape going after ticks on her child. For the past six weeks.
     Seeing the cover of a new book is always a moment of excitement and anxiety. It's like seeing your new face, designed by a stranger. This is my ninth book, and some covers I loved on sight, some hated. This one, I liked it when I first saw it, and like even more now. 
     Although when I first saw it, I did have a nagging qualm. I liked it; but I didn't love it, in the sense that what I wanted was a gorgeous Barry Butler photo—I already had one picked out, and helpfully sent to the Press—something that would shimmer like a gem on the shelves at the book shops at the Art Institute and the Chicago Architecture Foundation the way "You Were Never in Chicago" has done for a decade.
    This was bold. But not shimmering. I'm proud of my response, applying one of my superpowers to the situation, the realization that it isn't all about me. People smarter than myself in the art of selling books chose this route. So I didn't complain. Didn't ask or changes. What I did say is, if I've learned anything, it's that the purpose of a book cover is not to tickle the aesthetic sensibilities of the author, but to catch the attention of readers, to draw them in, and this cover will look fantastic on your phone, shrunk to a half inch tall. 
I remember looking at this and
thinking, "Could you MAKE it 
any smaller?"
      That was my initial take. Love builds over time, and now that a month or two has passed since I first saw it, I do kinda love the thing. Take a look at it and figure out why. Well, there is the artwork of Lauren Nassef, a Chicago artist and illustrator, who did a masterful job illustrating the book, and was a pleasure to work with (the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" domed silver server illustrates the Chicago Jewish community's famous, to me anyway, "dinnerless dinner" at the Drake in 1921, to benefit the needy in Europe. It was smartly repurposed to give the sense of presenting the city of Chicago, on a platter). I like the colors, the big bold block letters of "EVERY GODDAMN DAY," the way the server cover just hooks the top corner of the Y. And the way the gloved hand nudges my name up. Okay, I'll say it: I like my name being so big, splayed across the whole cover, and not the tiny type other books have used. Maybe they didn't get the memo from the Humility Department.
     The cover, I should point out, was designed by Isaac Tobin (who happens to be married to Lauren Nassef. Small world). 
     Does it work? Well, you can pre-order the book from the University of Chicago Press (it costs the same as on Amazon, and you aren't underwriting the Leviathan). There's a value to that beyond merely displaying enthusiasm. One way the University of Chicago Press stays in business is by not ordering up vast print runs. My last book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise" kept selling out, especially after Scott Simon interviewed me on National Public Radio. So when it was published, sometimes people would have to wait for weeks while the presses ground out more copies and barefoot children sitting cross-legged in drafty warehouses in Malaysia sewed the bindings (kidding; I believe they use machines now). 
     Although to be honest, I'm not hanging fire on sales. First, it's my ninth book, so I'm familiar with the range of the possible. They always do well, or wellish, or well enough that I get to write another one, which is my main goal. And second, I learned so much doing this one, it was so much fun exploring the wide sweep of Chicago history, blowing dust out of the crannies and taking a peek inside, that I've already had my success. "You don't even have to publish the thing," I told my editor, turning it in. It was worth doing even if I were the only one to read it.
     That said, I'm glad it's coming out—Oct. 21, for those of you who want to mark it on your calendars (what? You haven't ordered yet? Order it! Please).  And I do hope you read it, because, well, it's got a lot in it. I'm glad they gave the book such a kick ass cover. Because despite the old saying, you can judge a book by its cover. People do it all the time.


  1. I don't know that I have ever judged a book by its cover. I mainly read a book if I have heard something about or read a review

  2. I will purchase every GODDAMN book. Can't wait.

  3. Congratulations Neil! I would feel liberated to badger you more regularly now, but I have a project of my own (in Oregon). I'm looking forward to reading it.

    1. My gut tells me you'll get that Oregon project done faster than I took to finish mine.

    2. Well, I hope so, but this is about you, and I'm glad you've got that weight off your shoulders. Something tells me you and your family went out for a little celebration this afternoon. I hope so, and again, I look forward to reading the book.

  4. Congratulations! I'm looking forward to reading it and it'll make a great gift. Any reason I shouldn't order directly from U of C Press? I've been avoiding Amazon -- or am I misguided?

  5. Congratulations! Exciting, indeed. Gotta say, "alternatingly" is not a word I believe I've seen on a book cover before, but humorous and heartbreaking are both right up your alley. ; ) In fact, as I just discovered, alternatingly gets red-lined right here on your own blog!

  6. Very much looking ditto reading this

  7. "I'm an endless font gushing quality material, a steely newspaper veteran who can firehose a constant stream of columns and blog posts and freelance articles and books, on command...it was so much fun exploring the wide sweep of Chicago history, blowing dust out of the crannies and taking a peek inside..."

    Does the above remind anyone else of the monologue that accompanies Stephen Colbert's "MEANWHILE" sketch on CBS-TV's Late Show? Kudos, Mister S, if you did that intentionally. And if not, no big deal. Why? Because I like it...either way!

    I've already begun nudging (and "noodging") my wife to order it, by dropping multiple hints. Maybe I'll get it for my birthday this summer, when I officially turn 75. Or perhaps in December, at Hanukkah, or on Christmas, which are one and the same in 2022..The eighth and last night, when all the candles are kindled on the menorah, falls on Dec. 25th this year. That's very rare. And very cool!

  8. Cool pic of someone reading digitally in front of walls of real books.
    We've been clearing our bookshelves as part of our "death cleaning", keeping a rare few that we may read again or holds our son's interest.
    I've been reading from my tablet more and more often but I still prefer reading hard copy. I will buy the occasional book that I will read and pass on.
    The library still has walls of books, you can read what they have for free, and not have to worry about your son going through them after you die.

  9. I've never pre-ordered a book before, but there's a first time for everything, as they say. Having been miserly in holding out for the paperback of Out of the Wreck I Rise, I jumped on this one out of the gate. Pretty acerbic of them to describe you as acerbic in the description at the Press site, it seems to me...

    1. Thanks Jakash. Acerbic is good, is it not? "Sharp and forthright." I've been called worse.

    2. I don't have nearly the vocabulary that you do, Neil, but my off-the-cuff feeling was that acerbic had a negative connotation. "Sharp and forthright" would be fine, yes. The online dictionary I usually look at, dictionary . com, had 1.) sour or astringent in taste, 2.) harsh or severe, as of temper or expression. Thesaurus . com says "bitter, sharp or sour" with "caustic" "acidic" and "astringent" among the options. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate says only "acid in temper, mood or tone."

      So "sharp" is in there and, obviously, a positive interpretation is what the U of C folks were intending, but it seemed to me the actual sense of the word refers more to barbed than discriminating, e.g. But, guessing that "sharp and forthright" is from your Oxford doorstops, I'll stand corrected! That's what I get for using 3rd-rate reference material...


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