If it's wrong to judge a book by its cover, then it must be downright sinful to covet covers alone. If so, you may be in for some major penance if you haven't yet been introduced to Melville House's Art of the Novella series. The series reprints more than a dozen classic novellas in a trim format with simple, gorgeous covers. Their design is minimal -- just the title and the author's name are set against a field of solid, eye-popping Pantone color.
The series includes shorter works from some very famous names -- everyone from Maupassant and Dostoevsky to Twain and Turgenev. (The roster is a bit light on female authors, who are represented by Edith Wharton and George Eliot.) Each one of the crayon-colored titles is a satisfying marriage of storytelling and eye-candy. The covers recall the playful, modern designs that were splashed across those old Penguin and Pelican paperbacks. And like those old paperbacks, they are inviting -- much like the novella format itself.
Melville House created the series to celebrate the novella form, one of those genres that has ended up "in between" by unhappy historical accident. But if you've ever been daunted by the page counts of Moby Dick or The Portrait of a Lady, these smart editions of Bartleby the Scrivener and The Lesson of the Master could be a lower-commitment introduction.
Melville House itself is an independent press and a bookshop based in Brooklyn. It was founded by the poet and sculptor Valerie Merians and the writer Dennis Loy Johnson (who ran the venerable and now defunct lit blog MobyLives). Their eclectic output runs the gamut: articles of impeachment for Bush, a gorgeous cookbook, Jacques Derrida's final interview, and envelope-pushing fiction from Tao Lin. While not new news, the Art of the Novella series has been expanding at a steady trickle since it was launched in 2004.
The best thing about these novellas is that you have commanding reason to buy them, even though they're reasonably priced at just $9 a pop. Thing is, you can find nearly all of these public domain stories for free online -- but you'd get them as chunky pdfs or sprawling text files. If you had a Kindle, you could get a copy of many of them for as little as 99 cents. But in a sense, the Art of the Novella series is sort of an anti-Kindle. What these singular, distinctive titles celebrate is book-ness. They're slim enough to be portable but showy enough to be conspicuously consumed -- tiny little objects that demand to be loved for the commodities they are.