Silence in the room. Three supposed women, looking like the fourteen year old girls they were when they met, loll on sofas in T-Shirts and bare feet, half-dried hair scraped back from unmade-up and freckling faces. Holiday heat, holiday lethargy, holiday novels in hand. Silence in the room.Well, sort of.
“You’re squeaking again” she says quietly, looking at me over her Atwood with half-pitying, half-incredulous irritation. She’s right. I am. I move my hands from where they cradle my book and use them to spread the pages open from the inside. Silence. A minute passes. My hands creep round. Creep. Creep.
It’s embarrassing. I know that my habit of caressing book covers drives my friends mad. I know it makes me look like some kind of bizarre miser, a story-stroking Silas Marner, thumbing my fictional hoard with possessive glee; or a linguistic Lady Macbeth, erasing the ache of real life with a rub, rub, rub on the dustjacket borders of fantasy lands. But occupying my hands wonderfully stills my mind. From an early age, the siren shine of laminated library books wove a hypnotic spell; the sticky raindrop drum of fingers on plastic somehow seemed to pin my brain to the words with a calming contrapuntal beat. At school, I wrapped my exercise books in the most sensuous stuff I could find – flock wallpaper, sticky-back plastic, bin liners, silk – they looked screamingly camp, but fiddling as I revised made their dry academic innards stick in my brain.
The problem is that tactile covers, except for the odd holiday read, invariably clothe the worst books. Their embossed letters, cardboard fretwork, slick patent and cool smooth matte are like the furs and leathers of a trophy Russian blonde: winking, cooing textures designed to mask the vacuity within. So nowadays I tend to seek out covers that look beautiful but feel dull. Unoriginally, Penguin most consistently hit the mark, maintaining the high aesthetic standards set by their iconic classics with projects such as the My Penguin customisable covers and ongoing artist collaborations. Shepard Fairey’s retro apocalyptica proved perfect for Animal Farm and 1984.
And then just as I was learning to subdue my tactile yearnings with visual treats, they commission Bill Amberg to create six of the most perfect front covers I’ve ever seen; front covers whose simple, butter-soft chocolate calfskin is as sensuous and as classy as the novels it clothes. They’re both truly timeless and zeitgeistily S/S 09; if you’re going to look like an insane paperback paedophile, at least you can now look like a damn stylish one, with your Amberg edition of Dorian Grey matching your hide Maje harem pants.
A book should feel as good as its words feel in your mouth. With Amazon’s pond-hopping Kindle 2 and the peerless Project Gutenberg threatening to steal their hegemony, it’s a good time for novels to be investing in a bit of cover couture.