The old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is probably true enough, but it’s never stopped me from buying a book because it has a really great cover (sometimes without the slightest intention of actually reading the thing). Our new exhibition, Inspiration by Design: Word and Image From the Victoria and Albert Museum puts the look of the book front and centre.

Pulp : a collector’s book of Australian pulp fiction covers compiled by Toni Johnson-Woods

National Library of Australia, 2004

National Library of Australia, 2004

Now of course I don’t condone this type of thing, but Australia has a long and proud history of publishing pulp fiction with the most wonderfully tell-all covers, letting you know exactly what sort of story you are in for. This book from the National Library of Australia is based on the collection amassed by C.G.Bleek; railway signalman, Masonic leader, family man and himself a writer and collector of pulp fiction for over 30 years! Crime, war, romance, science-fiction, westerns, they’re all here, with titles to match their lurid covers; mind you, something like “Death in a Nudist Camp” hardly needs an enticing cover!

Penguin 75 : designers, authors, commentary: a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books edited Paul Buckley

Penguin Books, 2010

Penguin Books, 2010

Is there a private book collection or library anywhere in the world that doesn’t have at least one Penguin paperback lurking on the shelves? This good natured survey by art director Paul Buckley of his 75 favourite cover designs of recent years celebrated the company’s 75th anniversary in 2011, and goes behind the scenes to show just what goes into the making of one of those iconic covers. And for a broader look at the company’s historic output:

Penguin by design : a cover story 1935-2005 by Phil Baines

Allen Lane, 2005

Allen Lane, 2005

You can really chart the changing look of Penguin paperbacks in this terrific survey, as well as the distinctive styles they gave to individual genres. Can any lover of crime fiction fail to recognise those dangerous green covers, or the poetically inclined those fabulously patterned ones? All tailor made to have you reaching for the shelf, and your wallet!

A century of artists books by Riva Castleman

Museum of Modern Art, 1994

Museum of Modern Art, 1994

If your tastes extend to something a bit higher on the artistic scale, artists books might be just the thing. The practice of an artist setting out to create an artwork in the form of a book is a relatively recent phenomenon, initiated by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin in the late 19th century. The practice has flourished since then and this beautiful volume highlights some of the most important works created by some of the most important artists of the 20th century. The State Library has a very fine collection of Australian and overseas artists books.

Australian artists books by Alex Selenitsch

National Gallery of Australia, 2008

National Gallery of Australia, 2008

Drawn from the collection of the National Library of Australia, this survey of homegrown artists books includes some of our finest artists working in the field, including Robert Jacks, Mike Parr, Ian Burn and Bea Maddock.

Pulp confidential : quick & dirty publishing from the 40s & 50s: curated by Peter Doyle

State Library of NSW, 2015

State Library of NSW, 2015

Far be it from me to end on a high note, and I couldn’t resist throwing in one last homage to our baser instincts for less uplifting entertainment. Frank Johnson Publications in Sydney was one of the great publishers of pulp novels, magazines and comic books in the mid 20th century, and fortunately for us the State Library of NSW secured this marvellous collection of papers and artwork from Johnson’s estate a few years after his death in 1960. Seen in their day as little short of pernicious smut by the apparently few people who didn’t buy them, the pulps have now come into their own as exemplars of all that is great (and not so great) in that ever expanding universe known as “popular culture”. This ebook can be viewed from home if you’re one of our Victorian registered members.

Three soldiers with something exotic to read in Egypt during the First World War: from our Picture Collection

Kathleen Gawler Album, c.1914-18

Kathleen Gawler Album, c.1914-18

 

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