Back from beyond with a songsheet in my heart and awful book jackets on my mind

So, here it is: my first post of 2013 and it’s already February. Since my Strawberry Santas melted I have:

  1. Written a book (or a long short story as a particularly pedantic friend insisted I call it).
  2. Sold some of my literary gifts to the big, wide world and even got a mention in this month’s O Magazine, all the while choking back new-business terror.
  3. Chased a Cornish family through time – overground, underground (oh dear, now I’m singing The Wombles theme song) – and into history so distant it feels like myth.
  4. Ushered the children into a new year at school. The 3 year-old princess now has a real-deal ballet outfit, an obsession with becoming a librarian mother to 4, and is convinced that she is going to win a prize for her handprints. The 8 year-old visionary has joined the choir, reads sneakily in his room ’til well past bedtime, and makes “music” on an elastic band stretched between his feet all afternoon with nary a care for the girls of the house, whose noise-level tolerances are at an all-time low. “You can’t stop creativity, Mom”.

But I think that sometimes you can or at the very least you should.

As you may or may not know, I have been a bookseller since I was 18. Even though I now sell literary gifts, I still consider myself to be one. It is, for me, a noble profession deserving of its own title; no mere ‘retailer’ for those who work behind the counters of book shops. No! We are mighty among men.

However, times are changing: Kindle, ebooks, self-publishing, print on demand, 3 for 2, loss-leaders. It is exhausting and terrifying and it makes me want to rush off to bed with a smelly old book and only wake up when it’s 1891 again.`Keeping me busy though in this new world is the ridiculously compelling Tumblr, Lousy Book Covers. I have spent hours and days “paging” through it. It is a selection of the worst (in the subjective opinion of the site’s author) book jackets self-publishing has to offer.

This is a mash up of two of the author's jacket but it is as it appears on

This is a mash-up of two of the author’s jackets but it is as it appears on

Looking through the blog, I have wondered if perhaps the art of book jacket design is soon to become an anachronism in a world that has moved on. In a bookshop I do certainly judge books by their covers but on my Kindle, the black and white image that comes along with my purchases does absolutely nothing for me. I hardly look at it.

And I wonder if beautiful book jackets will become just as strange to imagine as a time when these beautiful Victorian sheet music covers were luring people to whip them off shelves.

Victorian sheet music covers: an anachromism

Victorian sheet music covers: an anachronism

Sheet music covers representing the beauties of the day, the rock stars (or polka stars as the case may be) of the 1890s: how quaint! How beautiful though too; made almost more so for the fact that they are simply no longer useful. I am a fan of useless beauty.

Quadrille music sheet cover

Quadrille music sheet cover

Dolly Varden is a character in a Dickens’ novel. (Happy birthday for yesterday, Sir) Hers became the name that represented an 1870s fashion which mimicked 18th century style. As is the case with most fashionable fashion only the dandiest followed it and a popular song with the following lyrics was written mocking the flounced up fashionistas:

Have you seen my little girl? She doesn’t wear a bonnet.
She’s got a monstrous flip-flop hat with cherry ribbons on it.
She dresses in bed furniture just like a flower garden
A blowin’ and a growin’ and they call it Dolly Varden

Victorian burlesque shows were also called travesties. Isn’t that wonderful? “All these femmes gallantes with their ankles on display. This is a travesty. This is a Travesty.” The following is the sheet music cover from an 1888 travesty, Faust Up To Date.

Burlesque sheet music

Burlesque sheet music

The next cover could possibly have been entered into a lousysheetmusiccover.tumblr of the day but it does make me smile. Spirit Rappings was a song written in 1853, capitalising on the Victorian fascination with Spiritualism.

Spirit Rappings 1853

Spirit Rappings 1853

I certainly hope beautiful books don’t disappear in the same way that beautiful music has. I hope Stephen Fry is right (I have a massive crush on Stephen Fry’s brain, so I think he is almost always right) that the e-book will no more replace the book than the elevator did the stairs. But just in case he is wrong, here’s a picture of the future and it’s not pretty.


25 thoughts on “Back from beyond with a songsheet in my heart and awful book jackets on my mind

  1. First of all, congratulations on all you’ve been doing! And continued success with your writing. When will your book, or long short story, become available for purchase, via one venue or another? I’m excited for you!

    Secondly, I do think you must have the most entertaining children in the world. Of course, I base this strictly on the tales with which you and your husband regale us. But I’m pretty sure it’s a sound guess. I raised a boy and a girl, too, and try as I might, I don’t remember them ever being that funny, though my tall, skinny son could get out of almost any punishment by launching into his John Cleese “Ministry of Silly Walks” impersonation.

    And last, I cannot WAIT to go visit the Lousy Book Covers site. I’m almost sure I want the cover of MY first book to look pretty much like Man With No Name, only with the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, a log cabin, and a 1962 red Chevy Impala behind him. And replace the red sarong-thingie with a plaid flannel shirt tied around his waist, of course.

    Thanks for a great post! You started my morning off with a laugh, and that’s the way I like it.

    • Thanks Marcia. The book (long short story) was a family’s history for a client. I research and write up families’ stories for profit as well as being a gift-maker. I also decorate school libraries for book days. Anything bookish for money!

      Our offspring is interesting! I think all kids are. It’s just a matter of finding that perspective in the moments when you’d rather throw yourself down on the floor in floods of tears, never to rise again.

      As for your book jacket…I think the plaid shirt is a nice touch. I think you might have to change the tattos too. A bald eagle perhaps?

      • Ah, I see. I hadn’t realized #1 and #3 might be related. But whatever it is, it’s WRITING. And you made money at it. And that puts you a giant step ahead of me, so I’m impressed. Then there’s Item #2! So, I’m still congratulating you, and still excited for you.

        Well, truth to tell, my kids were a constant source of joy for me. (At least that’s how I remember it in my old age, so probably it’s best to not look at it more closely). They were bright and funny, and mostly good. Then they grew up, moved far away, and are now having children of their own, who will no doubt be bright and funny, too. But your stories are the best! And when 23 starts in on his attempts at solo parenting, it makes me snort Earl Grey on my keyboard!

        Yeah, I wasn’t really feeling that turtle tattoo, or that other big…thing. I do think an eagle is a good idea. Also maybe a junker car up on blocks, or a package of Redman chewing tobacco. No, wait. His favorite NASCAR driver’s number! Yeah, that’s the ticket. I can just see it all now. It would look SO good. Sadly, my Mountain Man is a lot more sophisticated than that. He quotes Thoreau and stuff. So maybe something more literary? A topographical map of Walden Pond? An angst-and-dope raddled portrait of Edgar Allen Poe? A quip by Oscar Wilde? Oh, the possibilities are limitless.

        But really, if I don’t get back to writing, I’ll have no need for a book cover at all. Hope to see more posts from you in coming weeks! They always give me a smile. And I love that you are fond of Useless Beauty. Me, too. Pretty much describes most of my ex-boyfriends. And one ex-husband, too.


      • I’m all for literary tattoos. My torso is one giant subcultural mess of tattoos, some of which are literary. It is my own quiet, hidden rebellion against the quotidian. Of course, it screams mid-life crisis but I’m entirely fine with that.

      • You go, girl! And btw, after checking out the Man With No Name book cover full sized…being unable to resist the siren call off its overall beauty…I couldn’t help noticing that the Man With No Name is more like the Twelve Year Old Boy With No Name. Sheesh. I purely hate misleading titles.

  2. I’m laughing out loud because some days are exactly that; bury myself in bed with a great old book and dream about waking up in 1891. That would be so wonderful. Great blog!

    • Thanks Natalie! I think the 1890s would be good: after the major plagues and epidemics, before the big wars. Of course, we have antibiotics, mangoes for all throughout the year and we have it better than anybody else has ever had it ever before, but sometimes a little less speed would be nice.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Pingback: Out with the old? | braith an' lithe

  4. Hooray! You’re back! I was wondering just how long I’d hold out before emailing Sue and saying ‘what has become of tracyloveshistory and 23thorns’? All those references to security gates and so on make me nervous.
    I have put a reference to this post/your blog into the end of my latest. Yay for bookjackets and Mr Fry.

    • I came across your mention before this so thanks again. And yip, hip hip hooray for beautiful books, however useless they may become in the digital world.

      As for South Africa and security and and…we are all fine. 23 started a blog about driving to work that turned into a political treatise (grrrr…the iPad wants to correct my spelling on that, much like your Kindle Fire). He felt that it got too heavy, so he’s been working on a fascinating article about grass!

      Not afraid of getting too heavy myself…today was a rape awareness day in South Africa. I think I’ve quoted some of the stats before – we’re the rape capital of the world with 66 000 reported cases a year- but these two were new to me. Between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 men in South Africa has raped! 1 in 9 has witnessed or participated in a gang rape! In a room of 10 South African men, 4 of them will be rapists. Shocking! Entirely off the subject but I feel the need to rant.

      • Those statistics are horrifying, and I would be ranting, too. Sometimes ranting feels like all you can do. It keeps you from having an aneurism, at least. And when you are done, you often feel cleansed if enough to focus on the positive, like making people laugh, which can only increase the good in the world.

  5. That’s horrific. The social scientist in me wants to know how they worked that stat out though? Is that from the reported cases? Or from surveying a random sample of men? Or…
    If you need something to take your mind off it all, look at that BBC News article I linked to about pianos – I can just imagine you writing a fantastic post about the piano through history.

  6. Hank might need some literary room fresheners for his brain after viewing the likes of the Man With No Name holding his conch (and such a very large conch it is) and the other equally Lousy Book Covers. Hilarious. And the actual book descriptions on Amazon…holy amazing. Freshen! Freshen! In dire need of freshening!

    • I hear you! I’m not sure why I didn’t include some of the drawn or painted jackets on my blog- a wholly different genre of awful they are. Maybe because I draw a little in my spare time and secretly know that my drawings would be cause for hilarity if posted on WordPress.

      For what ails you, I prescribe several hours in a darkened room with a heavy dose of Hilary Mantel.

      • I am trying so very hard (but failing) to fashion an appropriately silly pun about ‘Woof Hall’. ‘Bring up the Bodies’ also has some tantalisingly doggy references just beyond the reach of my Sunday brain. Or maybe that’s just because we have Beatrice the bloodhound who, with regularity, both buries and then brings up the bodies.

  7. There is nothing quite like useless beauty, is there?

    I was very excited to read that you have a crush on Stephen Fry’s brain. I thought it might be weird that I had one — it is comforting to know that there are two of us. Perhaps we should start a club?

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