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New looks for old books: Why classics are getting makeovers

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If familiar titles at the bookstore seem to be drawing the eye of your inner art lover more than usual lately, it’s not your imagination. Publishers are having a creative field day reissuing classic books with stunningly beautiful new covers—and lovely insides, too, in the case of Puffin’s whimsical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Rifle Paper Co.’s Anna Bond. “It’s like a decoration and a book,” says Puffin publisher Eileen Kreit, noting that Alice fits right in at trendy stores like Anthropologie.

While the coffee-table-size Alice, commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the fairy tale’s publication, has grown larger, Picador has gone in the opposite direction, releasing a quartet of miniaturized editions of the house’s most beloved books, like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Inspired by the size and feel of Moleskine notebooks, creative director Henry Sene Yee is pleased with the results—and so are others: “I can’t even get my hands on a set!” he says.

But why all this effort to make over books that already exist? “Someone asked me, ‘Why do we have to redesign Jane Austen again and again?'” Yee says. “And I’m like, ‘You know the people who bought the first edition in the 1800s? They’re gone. They’re not buying another copy.’ Every generation is a new generation that has not read Shakespeare.” Modern covers, he says, can appeal to new readers in ways that a dated jacket can’t—even if the text inside is just as relevant as it was a century (or centuries) ago.

“It calls attention to books that might otherwise feel a bit dusty,” explains Charlotte Strick, a former art director at Farrar, Straus and Giroux who spearheaded a reissue of Flannery O’Connor’s catalog earlier this year. “By the publishers’ investing in new covers, it lets everybody know that these are important books, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.” But instead of completely discounting O’Connor’s original book jackets, Strick took her inspiration directly from Milton Glaser’s iconic 1967 jacket for Wise Blood (an inky face wearing sunglasses), paying homage to the original while freshening it up for a new audience.

Another potential upside to these extra-attractive editions? A reason to forgo an e-book in favor of a physical copy. “They’re like candy,” says Yee of the Picador set. “They’re so inviting, they look easy to read, and they feel great in your hand,” he says. “It’s the cuteness factor.”

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