The New Russian Book: A Graphic Cultural History, by Birgitte Beck Pristed

What’s in a book cover? Grace Lees-Maffei examines a history of graphic design in Russian fiction

July 13, 2017
Source: Courtesy Palgrave Macmillan

This intriguing analysis of “the obtrusive but largely ignored problem of the visual representation of fiction in contemporary Russian book design” is a contribution to Palgrave’s series New Directions in Book History, as well as to the fields of literary studies, visual studies, graphic design history and Eastern European studies. Pristed’s exemplary interdisciplinary approach aims to explain the oxymoronic status of Russian book covers as both eye-catching and overlooked.

The first part presents what Pristed awkwardly terms a “graphical cultural history of fiction publishing in Russia”. This traces a shift from “a literature-centred Soviet book culture to a post-Soviet cultural industry”, in which the book is both “commodity of unregulated capitalism” and “symbolic object of the collective cultural heritage”. For the first hundred pages, Pristed discusses books largely in general terms, but in chapter five we turn to Anton Chekhov and are shown our first book cover.

Part two offers a formalised analysis of ways of representing “classic”, “popular” and “contemporary” literary works. The first is exemplified by a Chekhov short story, the second by James Hadley Chase’s The World in My Pocket (1958) and the last by Victor Pelevin’s Generation “P” (1999). These chapters are impressive for the way they treat the writers’ changing reputations alongside the representation of these works through book design. The final part of The New Russian Book addresses the “production side” of book design through the work of three generationally, educationally and economically diverse practitioners: Arkadii Troianker, Andrei Bondarenko and Aleksandr Utkin.

The book is based on Pristed’s 2014 PhD from the University of Mainz. Notwithstanding its clear contribution and engaging writing (with very few slips of idiomatic expression), it retains aspects of the doctoral thesis. The introduction works through some basic functions for the book cover as facade or window between the world of the book and the world of the reader, positions the study in relation to a number of fields and methods, and carefully plots the study’s originality. The text is heavily referenced and offers a wealth of detail; and each part adopts a different approach, in the manner of a researcher exploring new methods.

Pristed is punctilious in making connections – between academic fields; between Soviet and post-Soviet books; between design as a book-selling tool in capitalist contexts and the Soviet view of books as a mere means of information dissemination; between geo-cultural regions; between highbrow and lowbrow literary culture; between graphic design and illustration; between hardback and paperback, etc. Yet more might have been done to develop an engaging and persuasive narrative to make the research compelling and more globally relevant.

The New Russian Book provides a table showing paperback and hardback publication from 1927 to 2003 and makes much of the relationship between the paperback revolution in the West and a hardback revolution in the USSR, but more could have been done to explain why this matters. That is not to detract from Pristed’s excellent, innovative, contribution.

Grace Lees-Maffei is professor of design history at the University of Hertfordshire.

The New Russian Book: A Graphic Cultural History
By Birgitte Beck Pristed
Palgrave Macmillan, 345pp, £74.50
ISBN 9783319507071
Published 20 July 2017

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