Judging a book’s cover

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Christopher Shea
November 1, 2009

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An exhibition based on “50 books/50 covers,” an award sponsored by AIGA, the professional association for design, was part of the association’s annual conference last month in Memphis. The books represent the association’s picks for the best-designed of 2008.

The MIT Press boasted that this was the second straight year that its designer Emily Gutheinz made the list. This time it was for a book called “Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space,” by Charlie Hailey, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s School of Architecture. The book has a raw-looking cover that resembles, at a glance, cardboard or pressboard. The cover text is spare, as is the illustration - a glimpse of elegant leafless tree branches.

Nonlocal standouts include “Le Corbusier: A Life,” by Nicholas Fox and published by Knopf, whose blocks of bold primary colors surrounding a black-and-white photograph of the architect effectively evoke midcentury modernism, and “Wishful Drinking,” a memoir by Carrie Fisher. It’s hard to resist the illustration of a possibly passed-out Princess Leia, holding a martini glass, with pills at her side.

Carl Sagan, the remix
The Washington-based composer John Boswell has a project called Symphony of Science, whose goal is “to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.”

He had an astonishing recent success with “A Glorious Dawn” (1.3 million YouTube views), featuring cosmic imagery, Boswell’s ambient music, and the Auto-Tuned voice of Carl Sagan (with a guest appearance by Stephen Hawking) marveling once again over the intricacies of physics and nature.

“The sky calls to us,” Sagan “sings.” “If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

Yeah, it doesn’t work at all in summary, but the video itself is eerily effective at capturing the sense of wonder the late Sagan brought to the subject. Boswell has just released a somewhat less sublime follow-up, “We Are All Connected,” featuring Sagan as well as the late physicist Richard Feynman, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”). Carrie Brownstein, of NPR’s Monitor Mix, describes something that will occur to younger viewers immediately as they take it in: “Bill Nye’s enthusiastic gesticulating - coupled with the camera angle - perfectly emulates certain hip-hop stylings.”

World’s worst SUV?
Feel like showing up that neighbor who rubs his eco-conscientiousness in your face with that know-it-all, wedge-like Prius, yet also feel that the Hummer is 1) showing its age; 2) watered down by smaller, plebeian iterations like the H3; and 3) somewhat less manly after the shift in ownership to an obscure Chinese company? If so, your vehicle may have arrived.

A Russian armored-car builder, Dartz, has announced a four-ton, four-wheel-drive armored vehicle that can withstand a grenade-launcher attack yet does not sacrifice luxury in the pursuit of security. The truck’s bullet-proof windows are gold-plated, according to the company’s promotional materials, its exhaust pipes fashioned of tungsten, the gauges encrusted with diamonds and other jewels.

In the pièce de resistance (or something), the seats of the Prombron Monaco Red Diamond Edition will be covered with “whale-penis leather” - the same ultra-rare material, Dartz hastens to add, that adorned the bar stools in the Christina O, a yacht owned by the late Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. (Buyers especially aroused by that feature may be in for a disappointment. In response to an e-mailed query, a Dartz spokesman said the company was “under great pressure” from animal rights groups to forgo the special seat covers, after Dartz started publicizing them, and was considering a change in plans.)

The company is scheduled to introduce the $1.6 million vehicle at a luxury-auto show in Monaco next April called Top Marques, it says. No word on whether it is headed for the US market, or on gas mileage, but buyers will get three bottles of ultra-expensive vodka, gratis, Dartz promises.

Christopher Shea is a weekly columnist for Ideas. He can be reached at