We used to be bemused by the Booker, until we realised that the prize had nothing to do with the merits of fiction and everything to do with giving us something to argue about that didn’t involve referees or politicians. So in a spirit of gratitude we went to check out The Booker 40 at the V&A – lured by the irresistible combination of elegantly designed books, and the hope of a sneaky peek into the mad, bad underworld of the prize.
Most of what’s on show in this small exhibition comes from the archives of literary agent Peter Straus, whose obsession with the Booker books extends to collecting the winners, losers and letters exchanged in the process. There are a few books worth risking eyestrain to read the author’s scribbly annotations. The overall effect, though, is as if the contents of any good second-hand bookstore had been put out on display. However much we might love classic covers of Iris Murdoch titles with their peculiar 1970s typography (and we do), there’s nothing especially exciting about seeing them lined up behind glass, unbrowsable. A smattering of posters and promotional material, which might have shown us a glimpse of the glamour machine behind the outfit, are pretty bland examples of design.
But skip over the boring bits and go straight to the good stuff – the hand-bound artisan books (a selection of those presented to each shortlisted author since 1991) are astonishing in their detail. In the hands of bookbinder Faith Shannon, Anne Enright’s The Gathering takes on the sleety, sandy feel of the story and appears to be sculpted out of stone. Angela James contributes two lovely books, The God of Small Things bound with layers of painted leather, and a deliciously tactile case for Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith complete with white gloves. If reading the books isn’t enough, these designer bindings might be the next best way to experience a little of the Booker glamour.
By Rebecca Pohancenik
Image courtesy of Matt From London