Everyone knows that you should never judge a book by it’s cover. Except that everyone also knows that this is a falsehood. A stunning illustration, an exquisite font, a matted cover, well chosen colors, the cover can be just as much a work of art as the words it contains. Judging a book by it’s cover is exactly how my children ended up with Read the Book Lemmings and The Hug Machine, which are in my opinion two of the best picture books of their childhood.
Twenty years ago I became enamored with a series of books published under the banner “Crime Masterworks.” Put together, the spines made for an exceptionally beautiful display on my bookshelves. I am a sucker for an aesthetically pleasing row of like-spined books. I love my row of English Harry Potters, and my series of fortunately attractive Snicketts. I have an entire wall in my bedroom covered in classic Penguin covers. These (mostly) orange covers have an almost tactile appeal, in much the same way that rows of Pantone samples appeal to me, they are exquisite in their symmetry and repetition. In fact, Penguin books released a limited line of Puffin Children’s classics in Pantone covers just a few years ago. Currently I am obsessed with amassing a collection of what I personally feel is the spiritual successor to the iconic Penguin cover.
It began quite innocently about two years ago, when four titles kept catching my eye in every book store I visited. I visit a lot of bookstores. The Neopolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante has quite the following these days, but at the time I had never heard of the mysterious Ms. Ferrante, or cared much for how varied my to-read list was in terms of translated works. I am an easy sell however, and if I see something often enough, I will end up reading it. Thus it was with these books. I was unprepared, however, for how much I would enjoy both Ferrante’s style, and the substance of the books. Here was a whole new world I had never been exposed to before. Beyond the pages, I was equally unprepared for the pure bliss I got on seeing these spines lined up on my shelf.
To my great delight, I discovered that I already owned a few more from this particular publishing company, Europa Editions, and so I broke with my alphabetical filing tradition and lined them up. The covers are designed by the owners Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, and Italian designer Emanuele Ragnisco. With a French flap, consistent font, and simple use of color and design, the books alone send shivers down my spine, before even diving into the prose within. Then began book sale season. In Spring in Maine, most thoughts turn to mud, mine turn to book sales. New England is a smorgasbord of used book sales in the Spring, and I love a good hunt. This year I hunted for the colorful spine and stork that marks a Europa Editions book.
What began as a purely aesthetic pursuit has, however, become so much more. As I have curated a collection of aesthetically pleasing books, a world of translated fiction has been opened up to me. My Goodreads challenge tells me that thus far this year 30% of the books I have read were originally written in a language that is not my own. At this point every third book I am reading is a translation. I am ahead of the curve now, when you consider the “two (or three) percent problem.” The idea of this problem is that of published fiction in the English language, just two or three percent were originally written in another language. This number fluctuates depending on your primary language, and goes down even further for Young Adult fiction. Just think of all the worlds that are lying in wait out there, undiscovered by the English speaking reader, un-translated even. How many Hobbitons, Discworlds, or Hundred Acre Woods do we not know about, simply because we do not speak the language.
The world is an exciting and varied place, and adding a translated work into your reading repertoire this year, might actually be one of the best things you can do for your soul and the state of your news feed. I know I have been enriched and challenged this year, by reaching beyond best selling translations like A Man Called Ove, and immersing myself in such things as the short stories of The Most Beautiful Book in the World, or the intriguing world of Anima in A Winter’s Promise. For Europa Editions, their body of work reflects their founding belief:
“…dialogue between nations and cultures is of vital importance and that this exchange is facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate but also to inform and enlighten.”
In recent years they have begun diving into non-fiction, which is very appealing, especially at this time when the very nature of “truth” and “fact” is so hotly contested in the American media. When our news feeds are tailored to our search engines, advertisements, recommendations, all respond to your personal preferences, it becomes even more vital to seek out voices that are distinctly not your own.
As I continue my foray into translated works, next up on my wish list are Negar Djavadi’s Disoriental, which won the 2019 LAMBDA Literary Award in the category of Bisexual Fiction; the third installment of Christelle Dabos’ Mirror Quartet, which has yet to be translated from the original French; and a copycat pilgrimage to the stunning Europa Editions office in NYC, hey, a girl can dream.