DON'T GO RETRO ON ORWELL

~ Posted by Emma Hogan, March 29th 2013

I first read Orwell’s "Down and Out in Paris and London" in a Penguin paperback original from 1963 (above left). The cover was orange and the title was in black, with a grainy stock photo of a wine bottle and crumpled newspaper beneath.

Marked up "3/6" on the front cover, after 40 years the spine was cracked and the yellow pages oozed the sweet smell of aged paper. This only added to the effect. The world Orwell evokes—of Parisian slums and repulsive "spikes" in London where homeless men and women find a bed for a night—was immediately arresting for a 15 year old who had no experience of it.

So I was pleased to see that Penguin has reissued "Down and Out", along with four other Orwell titles. Their new editions take the original designs and put a twist on them. Some are inventive: "Nineteen Eighty-Four" has the title and author’s name blanked out. Others, like the cover for "Down and Out" (above right), are retro. The designers at Penguin have done an attractive job—but even so, it doesn't seem the right one.

The first ever edition of "Down and Out", published by Victor Gollancz in 1933, is a yellow hardback with text on the front cover which stated the case unequivocally:

This is, in our view, an extremely forceful and socially important document.

The picture drawn by the author is completely convincing: and though it is quite terrible (as, of course, it is meant to be) it holds the attention far more closely than do 90% of novels.

Penguin first published the book in 1940. The first cover was in the classic Penguin orange-and-white candy stripes. In 1980, a picture showed a homeless man’s hands in fingerless gloves cradling a polystyrene cup. In the early 90s, there was a black and white photo of a homeless figure leaning over a bin, while a man in a bow-tie looks on with a sneer. In 2001 the title dominated the cover of a hand-coloured photograph of a Parisian street in the early 20th century. A man stands on the cobbles looking into the camera, while a young boy in a flat cap leans against a bicycle laden with sacks.

All these designs, even when they used older stock photographs, tried to place Orwell in their time. The new ones don't. Perhaps the recent retro throwbacks tap into a popular trend for new things being wrapped in old coverings, like a faux-classic Roberts DAB radio. But Orwell's writing seems ill-suited to this. He remains too relevant.

Emma Hogan writes for Intelligent Life and The Economist. Her posts for the Editors' Blog include Frankenstein in the attic and Another Top 40 for Dickens