Monthly Archives: November 2017

November 24, 2017

3. Orwell: Animal Farm


CD3, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 128 pp.

This remarkable book has been described in many ways — as a masterpiece… a fairy story… a brilliant satire… a frightening view of the future. A devastating attack on the pig-headed, gluttonous and avaricious rulers in an imaginary totalitarian state, it illuminates the range of human experience from love to hate, from comedy to tragedy. “A wise, compassionate and illuminating fable for our time… The steadiness and lucidity of Orwell’s wit are reminiscent of Anatole France and even of Swift.” — NEW YORK TIMES

With an Introduction by C.M. Woodhouse

Yeah! A classic that you can read in two hours! In and out!

This is a brilliant conception, cleanly executed. But it’s not half as timeless as people want to believe. The fabulist trappings seem to imply that a universal truth is being illustrated, but really it’s just a big political cartoon: the pigs could be wearing block-letter captions that say “Marx,” “Trotsky,” “Stalin.” So now that Stalin is long dead, what’s really the message for a modern reader? Does the book make the case that such pigs will always arise? Or just that one did, in that instance? We find in it what we want to find. One so wants it to be about the inevitable decay of revolution into tyranny… despite the fact that the way it’s constructed, it’s not about inevitabilities; it’s about personalities.

And even that only superficially. Why is Napoleon the Stalin-pig such a thoroughgoing tyrant? Why all the self-serving lies, the paranoia? What drives him? And what could have been done about it? The book doesn’t go there. Orwell’s intentions are more political than philosophical; he’s too furious about the state of affairs to really investigate the questions of porcine nature that ought to drive the thing. His purpose is just to call something out. “Hey, pay attention, everybody: this can happen, and in fact has happened.” Bigger claims aren’t made because it’s not at all clear that he would have wanted to make them. Everyone remembers that the book is anti-Stalinist but I think people tend to forget that it’s also more or less pro-socialist — as Orwell was. The whole thing hinges on a fundamentally Marxist metaphor, after all: that the working classes are to the bourgeoisie as farm animals are to farmers. Once you’ve nodded at that you’re already pinko.

I was very much with it, thrilling to the slow creep of tragedy, right up until the moment when Napoleon/Stalin emerged from the shadows, seized power and violently drove out Snowball/Trotsky. Suddenly the tragedy was no longer inevitable or cautionary: there was a shameless villain on the scene, on whom all future degradations could be blamed. I wanted to see ideals get eroded from within; I wanted to be shown that revolutions are psychologically insufficient, that the injustices of the social order cannot simply be opposed and conquered, because they continue to live deep inside the minds and expectations of the people. Instead I just got to see what happens when a bad guy takes over. I already knew what happens.

Not to say it wasn’t scary reading, at this particular historical moment. Oh, it’s scary, all right. I know I’m pretty resolutely anti-political on this blog, but let it not be thought that I’m so oblivious as to be able to read Animal Farm now without certain stuff coming to mind. People have been talking about 1984 seeming eerie and prescient and apropos, but this book seems to me even closer to what we’re watching on the news. The ruling monsters aren’t a massive techno-conspiracy; they’re sloppy and stupid and paranoid and shortsighted, a bunch of pigs driven by the pettiest vanities, playing with things they don’t understand, covering their asses in only the most absurd, infantile ways. And it seems to be working out for them.

I read this as a kid because the premise appealed so strongly. As did the tone of unrelenting deadpan. Charlotte’s Web as Lord of the Flies — of course I wanted to read that. But I remember the actual experience being frustrating. The book starts and ends as it should, I felt, but the stuff in between left me cold. Now I see that it’s because I didn’t know Russian history. I would have been incredibly dismayed to learn that it was a prerequisite. I guess I still find it disappointing. Couldn’t he have aimed higher and wider?

The book I imagined, the one I was hoping for — the one I think most people forcibly extract from this one and remember this one to be — is a better book. That book doesn’t quite exist. I can’t imagine that American public schools would be nearly so quick to assign this if they really thought it through and recognized it for what it is: a tract by and for Western socialists. But of course since it only takes two hours to read, it’s not too hard to hold on to the imaginary book you want it to be, as the real one zips by. Before you know it you’re alone with your imagined book again, undisturbed by Mr. Orwell. He mostly plays along, after all.


Suddenly, early in the spring, an alarming thing was discovered. Snowball was secretly frequenting the farm by night! The animals were so disturbed that they could hardly sleep in their stalls. Every night, it was said, he came creeping in under cover of darkness and performed all kinds of mischief. He stole the corn, he upset the milk-pails, he broke the eggs, he trampled the seedbeds, he gnawed the bark off the fruit trees. Whenever anything went wrong it became usual to attribute it to Snowball. If a window was broken or a drain was blocked up, someone was certain to say that Snowball had come in the night and done it, and when the key of the store-shed was lost, the whole farm was convinced that Snowball had thrown it down the well. Curiously enough, they went on believing this even after the mislaid key was found under a sack of meal. The cows declared unanimously that Snowball crept into their stalls and milked them in their sleep. The rats, which had been troublesome that winter, were also said to be in league with Snowball.

Napoleon decreed that there should be a full investigation into Snowball’s activities. With his dogs in attendance he set out and made a careful tour of inspection of the farm buildings, the other animals following at a respectful distance. At every few steps Napoleon stopped and snuffed the ground for traces of Snowball’s footsteps, which, he said, he could detect by the smell. He snuffed in every corner, in the barn, in the cow-shed, in the henhouses, in the vegetable garden, and found traces of Snowball almost everywhere. He would put his snout to the ground, give several deep sniffs, and exclaim in a terrible voice, “Snowball! He has been here! I can smell him distinctly!” and at the word “Snowball” all the dogs let out blood-curdling growls and showed their side teeth.

The animals were thoroughly frightened. It seemed to them as though Snowball were some kind of invisible influence, pervading the air about them and menacing them with all kinds of dangers.


Progression of the Signet edition. Note that this section is particularly long because this baby, along with 1984, was Signet’s bread and butter for decades. The book isn’t in the public domain, and the Signet edition is more or less the preferred edition, certainly for schools. Selling this thing in quantity was undoubtedly a vital part of the New American Library business model. Hence the careful attention to its pricing over the years, evidenced by these many many incrementally inflated new editions:

CP121, 60¢, 1962.
CT304, 75¢, 1965.

First a couple more prices still with the cover design as above.

003 B
CQ605, 95¢, 1972.
CY749, $1.25, 1974.
CW1028, $1.50, 1977.
CE1469, $1.75, 1980.
CJ1679, $1.95, 1982?

The same design with minor adjustments for the new branding.

003 C
CJ1801, $1.95, 1982?

In the early 80s all the covers get overhauls; this is one of the only instances where the new cover retains the illustration from the old cover. Good call! That illustration is iconic and, I think, pretty much unimprovable. And the new stencil type is inspired. This is what a tasteful update looks like.

003 D
CJ1801, $1.95, 1983?
CE1900, $2.25, 1983?
CE2087, $2.50, 1986?
CE2156, $2.95, 1988?
CE2230, $3.50, 1989?
CE2466, $4.95, 1990?
CE2536, price unknown. 1991?

Then soon afterward the series branding is redone, so the design is rejiggered into this version. This lasts most of the 80s and 90s and is probably the most abundant at used bookstores. The copy I read was a CE2156 that looked like this. I approve. This was and remains an excellent book cover, and it well deserves its ubiquity. (The fence looks better with wider boards, don’t you think?)

003 E1
2634, $5.95, 1996.

Uh-oh, it’s the 90s, mom, and as usual that’s bad news for book covers. The venerable 1959 illustration is being given a none-too-subtle hint that it’s kind of starting to feel “in the way,” if you know what I mean, no offense, and maybe might want to think about looking into one of those nice retirement homes, just a thought. But isn’t it so great that it’s still with us. Yes. Lifetime achievement awards all around.

Meanwhile it’s time to spice things up with a new piece of prefatory material (added to the old), this time by Russell Baker. It’s well done, though it dates itself by asserting as fact that the extreme pessimism of 40s-era literary prognostications about totalitarianism, like 1984, turned out to be “ludicrously wrong” — which he attributes to the authors having far overestimated the efficiency and intelligence of the regimes. How very 1996 of him! I mean, I’d still like to agree with “wrong,” but in this future year 2017, “ludicrously” is starting to sound a little overly brash. We’re still waiting and seeing, I think.

003 E2
2634, $6.95, ~2000?

50th Anniversary has come and gone.

003 F1
2634, $7.95, 2004.

Well, they had a nice run, but good old donkey and pig have finally been let go. Because it’s the 21st century and you know what that means: time to take the “classic” out of “Classics.” Now you’re waking up strapped to an operating table after a rough night at Fight Club, you can’t quite remember what happened, and a serial killer is holding a toy in your face. It’s millenial; it’s edgy; it’s raw. It’s Animal Farm, baby.

003 F2
2634, $9.99, recent.

Okay, we made your book a little taller, because that’s the style these days. That’ll be 2 dollars, ma’am.

[The original and correct cover]

November 21, 2017

2. Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


CD2, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 224 pp.

[Compare the above to this. The design is exactly the same, but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s all been redone from scratch! Whatever screw-up necessitated the redo, it seems to have happened early on: the linked image is the only one I can find online of what I guess must be the original version.]

Here is a light-hearted excursion into boyhood, a nostalgic return to the simple, rural Missouri world of Tom Sawyer and his friends Huck Finn, Becky and Aunt Polly. It is a dreamlike world of summertime and hooky, pranks and punishments, villains and desperate adventure, seen through the eyes of a boy who might have been the young Mark Twain himself. There is sheer delight in Tom Sawyer — even at the darkest moments affection and wit permeate its pages. For adults it recreates the vanished dreams of youth. For younger readers it unveils the boundaries of tantalizing horizons to still to come. And for everyone, it reveals the mind and heart of one of America’s greatly loved writers.

With an Afterword by George P. Elliott

Sure sure, Tom Sawyer. But wait… what is that, exactly? It turns out to be a very odd thing: a memoir-fantasy. Apart from Wes Anderson, I’m not sure I can think of any other works in the genre. This is a book where the author’s memories of real life and of make-believe life are treated as equal. Tom and Huck quixotically get it in their heads that they should dig around town for buried treasure, “as boys will”… and then lo and behold they find buried treasure. It’s like the authorial hand of god keeps reaching in to give his younger self every crazy thing he ever dreamed of, curious to see how he’ll react. Autobiography as ant farm.

It’s common in therapy to ask the adult to comfort the child it remembers once having been: time-travel communion for healing long-ago wounds. Mark Twain is stumbling his way around something similar here, on instinct — but he doesn’t seem interested in healing. All wounds remain untouched. There are strange blurry omissions throughout this book and Twain is committed to keeping his gaze averted. (What, for example, happened to Tom’s parents?) His agenda is more like a benediction: I have decided that it is good that it was thus, and so I am bestowing upon my past the greatest gift I can think of, which is for it to be rendered in the register of a kitschy magazine story with wry observations sprinkled throughout. Amen.

Apparently he originally set out to write a kind of bitter Remembrance of Things Past, a “before and after” in which remorseless time would devour all the promise of youth… but then somewhere in the middle of the writing process decided that “before” might just as well stand alone. An absurd creative decision that I think qualifies as an emotional stroke of genius. Clearly all he ever really wanted to do was take a sentimental journey; he just felt the need to rationalize it as part of something angry and adult. Then once it was underway the rationalization fell away as inessential. A lesson there for all of us. Perhaps.

However: the other shoe, which never drops, is still implicit. The whole book has an evasive, unsettled quality; heartfelt reverie shades into pat sentimentalism, which shades into snark, and then back again. Plus occasional spurts of real horror. This is not a carefully composed work with a clear vision; rather it’s fairly direct access to the inner world of a complex personality, working it all out as he goes. It’s an improvisation at every level, a formless bedtime story he’s telling to hypnotize himself. It obviously all has intense personal significance; and that’s a kind of force. But the force isn’t contained or focused.

For these reasons and others, kids shouldn’t be assigned this book. This is one of the books that, in 5th or 6th grade, taught me to read badly. Rereading it now brought back a sense memory from those days: the words on the page felt slippery, refusing to hold my gaze. My eyes would involuntarily drift down the page looking for the meat, eliding entire paragraphs, pages. The memory came back because the sensation arose again: the author isn’t being quite straight with the reader or with himself; I want to get to the part where he really means what he says. The problem of it is that he doesn’t want to get there. He’s got other fish to fry: beautiful dream-fish fished out of the dream-river on a homemade pole, sitting shoeless side by side with his imaginary friends. That’s all well and good but it’s not a story. As with Adolphe, the intentions aren’t actually literary.

Really none of this book is a story: it’s a collection of dream-images. Teaching it to kids as though it constitutes a story is bad education. There’s a reason Aesop is about animals and not people: kids need to be clearly cued to distinguish between a tableau and a true event, because they’re going to read everything as event anyway.

Here are the sounds of other fish frying: Ain’t it just darling; ain’t it just so. Ain’t that just the way. Don’t it just go to show. And when you think about it ain’t we all a bit like that.

That’s the crackle of non-story.

Also I consider it to be a point of moral principle that children ought never be encouraged to fantasize about being splendidly childlike. Any reading experience is inevitably a fantasy; a book wherein young boys dream of being pirates and ho ho ho yum yum yum isn’t that just marvelous is a much less wholesome object of investment, for a child, than a book about actual pirates.

(And I’m not going to even attempt to address the many problems with assigning kids to read about Injun Joe — who, in addition to stabbing a man dead right in front of Tom’s eyes, and later dying an incredibly agonizing death of starvation, at one point announces his plans to mutilate the widow Douglas: “You slit her nostrils — you notch her ears like a sow!” Good god! Did I really read that in 5th grade? The answer, probably, is that my eyes drifted past it, always questing for something better, more real.)

Now, of course, I’m an adult and free of the tyranny of being instructed by every book I read. So how are these, as dream-images go? They’re not bad. They have some depth, some draw. I found the reading experience gradually became compelling, as I worked my way through the various disjointed episodes and came to develop an intuition for the weird, unsteady rhythm of the thing, for the man behind the curtain.

“The man behind the curtain” is a pretty good point of reference, actually. Professor Marvel is pulling these strings exactly because he’s afraid that his nostalgia is actually all humbug. Similarly it arrives only at a tentatively hopeful confusion: quintessentially American. “And if you ever go looking for your heart’s desire… something something… um… there’s no place like home. Right? Right?”

At the end, when Tom and Becky lose themselves in a fantastical maze of caves, first wandering deeper and deeper through caverns of undiscovered wonders, and then alone and starving for three days in absolute darkness… I was strangely moved. It was so tonally incongruous that it felt significant: like the dreamer had stumbled on something within himself, an unexpected pocket of fear and loneliness in the dreamlife of nostalgia. Maybe at its heart.

This is a weird and fascinating text. It has real aesthetic value; I got something out of it. It’s also misshapen, overwhelmingly personal, inescapably of its time, and not entirely sympathetic. It ought not to be a childhood classic, but what can you do.

Excerpt. Here’s Mark Twain closely resembling a thing that he will elsewhere mock and parody. But as long as the others are still asleep and can’t see him, his heart will sing, with all the woodland creatures. Like Snow White. I think this passage is sweet, because I can tell he means it and feels it. But would HE be able to tell? I think he’d be far more suspicious of such stuff. The book is an uneasy attempt to reckon with the memory of joy. Here’s some of the joy, expressed as best he could figure out how.

When Tom awoke in the morning, he wondered where he was. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked around. Then he comprehended. It was the cool gray dawn, and there was a delicious sense of repose and peace in the deep pervading calm and silence of the woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound obtruded upon great Nature’s meditation. Beaded dewdrops stood upon the leaves and grasses. A white layer of ashes covered the fire, and a thin blue breath of smoke rose straight into the air. Joe and Huck still slept.

Now, far away in the woods a bird called; another answered; presently the hammering of a woodpecker was heard. Gradually the cool dim gray of the morning whitened, and as gradually sounds multiplied and life manifested itself. The marvel of Nature shaking off sleep and going to work unfolded itself to the musing boy. A little green worm came crawling over a dewy leaf, lifting two-thirds of his body into the air from time to time and “sniffing around,” then proceeding again — for he was measuring, Tom said; and when the worm approached him, of its own accord, he sat as still as a stone, with his hopes rising and falling, by turns, as the creature still came toward him or seemed inclined to go elsewhere; and when at last it considered a painful moment with its curved body in the air and then came decisively down upon Tom’s leg and began a journey over him, his whole heart was glad — for that meant that he was going to have a new suit of clothes — without the shadow of a doubt a gaudy piratical uniform. Now a procession of ants appeared, from nowhere in particular, and went about their labors; one struggled manfully by with a dead spider five times as big as itself in its arms, and lugged it straight up a tree-trunk. A brown spotted lady-bug climbed the dizzy height of a grass blade, and Tom bent down close to it and said, “Lady-bug, lady-bug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children’s alone,” and she took wing and went off to see about it — which did not surprise the boy, for he knew of old that this insect was credulous about conflagrations, and he had practised upon its simplicity more than once. A tumblebug came next, heaving sturdily at its ball, and Tom touched the creature, to see it shut its legs against its body and pretend to be dead. The birds were fairly rioting by this time. A catbird, the Northern mocker, lit in a tree over Tom’s head, and trilled out her imitations of her neighbors in a rapture of enjoyment; then a shrill jay swept down, a flash of blue flame, and stopped on a twig almost within the boy’s reach, cocked his head to one side and eyed the strangers with a consuming curiosity; a gray squirrel and a big fellow of the “fox” kind came skurrying along, sitting up at intervals to inspect and chatter at the boys, for the wild things had probably never seen a human being before and scarcely knew whether to be afraid or not. All Nature was wide awake and stirring, now; long lances of sunlight pierced down through the dense foliage far and near, and a few butterflies came fluttering upon the scene.

The old Signet afterword by George P. Elliott is chatty and shallow. Shallow in a ballsy sort of way; you can imagine him confidently cranking it out in an hour, off the top of his head, without bothering to do any research. Yeah, yeah, Tom Sawyer.

The 1876 first edition of this book was published with hundreds of lovely illustrations by True Williams, of which Mark Twain heartily approved. It’s frankly indefensible that they are not generally retained in reprints. (The Modern Library edition and the University of California edition are the only ones I found that currently offer the illustrations.) No offense to Signet, but this is really how this book ought to look. Since puzzling out the spirit of this performance is such an important part of the reading experience, the packaging matters.

Future of the Signet edition:

002 B
CD2, 50¢, ~1970.
CP747, 60¢, 1974.
CT845, 75¢, 1975.
CQ978, 95¢, 1978.
CY1165, $1.25, 1979.
CW1337, $1.50, 1981.

The original design is tweaked to accommodate the new series branding.

002 C
CW1337, $1.50, 1982?
CE1962, $1.75, 1985.
CE2355, $2.25, 1988.

Somewhere around 1982 the branding is redone again, and this new cover illustration is commissioned. I like it. (Huckleberry Finn got a matching one.)

It’s unsigned and no artist is credited. I tried hard to identify the painter. After a lot of digging, my best guess — ultimately based on the signature on Pudd’nhead Wilson cover from around the same time — is that I guess it’s maybe Robert Lapsley?

Should they be allowed to get away with dropping the word “The” from the title? I’m not sure. The important thing is that they did. They got away with it.

002 D
2653, $4.95, April 1997.

With a New Introduction by Robert Tilton (replacing the Elliott afterword).

Yikes, 1997, that’s a pretty hard drop down! From a lavish original illustration to a white cover with a cramped inset of an over-familiar painting. At least we got the “The” back, now gripped in place with little brackets, to make sure it doesn’t get lost again.

002 E
3093, $4.95, May 2008. Currently out of print.

With a New Afterword by Geoffrey Sanborn (and retaining the Tilton introduction. I read both of these, by the way. The Tilton is a bit stiff, but inoffensive. The Sanborn I thought was actually quite good; definitely the best of the three Signet-commissioned pieces.)

This cover is embarrassing too, for different reasons. First of all the DISTORTION VERY MUCH PLAYFUL TYPOGRAPHY SUCH AS IN STYLE OF CHILDLIKE HUMAN, ALSO PLEASE TO READ AUTHOR’S NAME AT BOTTOM. LOVE, PHOTOSHOP. Second of all “Tom” himself: what exactly is he doing? The answer may surprise you.

You can understand the designer’s excitement at stumbling across the work at of John George Brown. This has GOT to be the spot, right? It’s scamp city! It’s ragamuffin central! Surely, SURELY one of these hundreds of hateful little fuckers can be Tom Sawyer. Just can’t be too poor or too black or too urban or be, um, doing anything in particular. Or be with a goddamn doggie… Hm. Harder than you’d think. Okay, well, fine, this one, if we crop it down, he looks like maybe he’s… I dunno, about to grab a canary or something. He’s about to get up to mischief, right? And “mischief” is one of my keywords! Done. Print.

[The original and correct cover]