Read me! A collection of American book ads

November 23, 2009

Dwight Garner, New York Times book critic, became obsessed with vintage book ads while browsing through back issues of his newspaper’s Book Review.  This month HarperCollins/Ecco published a collection of his findings, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, “plucked from yellowing newspapers, journals and magazines large and small.”

The image-filled book is a page-turner for the curious fascinated by publishers’ methods of marketing what were once first novels and now are classics, spinning controversy, putting author’s photos “to bold use” and generally doing whatever they could to grab attention through the years. 

Garner divides the book by decades between 1900 and 2000 and provides concise introductions to each decade with insights about changing trends for the black-and-white ads.  Some of my favorites are the earliest, when publishers wrote ad copy as if they were old-time street barkers. 

1914 advertisement in "Read Me" by Dwight Garner, published by HarperCollins/Ecco

Read Me is a fun trip down Memory Lane with Garner’s choices leaning toward — but not exclusive to — literary fiction: On the Road, Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, Fahrenheit 451 and The Fountainhead are examples. You can  peek inside the book on the publisher’s website; however, I think Barnes & Noble offers a much better preview. The bookseller showcases more of the ads.

Garner notes in his introduction that this is not a comprehensive survey and some readers may be disappointed not to find their favorite authors, books or ad campaigns.  No disappointment here.  A word of advice, though: Keep a magnifying glass handy for the wee print.

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