Brain Pickings

A Vintage Illustrated Love Letter to Books and How They’re Made

“There is a reason for nearly everything.”

A Vintage Illustrated Love Letter to Books and How They’re Made

Zen monks in 12th-century China bemoaned books as a perilous distraction to be avoided at all costs, and yet we’ve come to embrace that singular medium of immersive contemplation as one of life’s greatest joys. “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote nine centuries later in one of the most beautiful reflections on reading ever penned. For Kafka, great books were “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” For C.S. Lewis, they both change us and make us more ourselves. But what is a book, really? Where does it come from and what does it do?

The celebrated mid-century graphic designer John Alcorn remains best known for the opening title sequences he designed for a number of Fellini films, but he was also a prolific book jacket designer and children’s book author — a love affair with the written word that began early and lasted a lifetime. He was only twenty-seven when he illustrated the 1962 treasure BOOKS! (public library) by Murray McCain — part love letter to books, part PSA on how they’re made, part timeless manifesto for why they matter, at once a masterwork of typography and an illuminating primer on the practical production and cultural purpose of books. Irreverent yet full of deep reverence for the written word, aimed at both kids and grownup bibliophiles, this witty and wonderful gem promised to “turn children into book-lovers and parents into BOOKS! lovers.”

Half a century later, it has been reissued in a beautiful new edition that does justice to the vision and integrity of the original — a pleasure to both hold and behold, and a timeless, ever-timely celebration of books as bastions of the human spirit.

Complement BOOKS! with the four psychological functions of literature and the greatest books of all time, as voted by 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The Jacket — a sweet illustrated meta-story about how we fall in love with books.

Published January 15, 2015




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