Second Round: A Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
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A Flower for Algernon was originally a short story that was later developed into a novel by Daniel Keyes. It is a fantasy novel that was early winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. However, this is not the dystopian, intergalactic, doom/gloom/boom sci-fi fantasy novel that is all too common nowadays. It has a human element that is thought-provoking and still has current relevance.
The protagonist is a young man, 32 years old, named Charlie Gordon with an IQ of 68. He works at a menial factory job at a bakery. He is recommended for and agrees to a surgical brain operation to increase his intelligence after this technique has been successfully applied to a mouse named Algernon. His IQ triples to 185 and his new-found intelligence results in conflict with his family and co-workers as he realizes he has been ridiculed and marginalized. Unfortunately, the surgical technique is not durable and he becomes frustrated and depressed as his IQ declines and he develops dementia.
Note that the original novella differs significantly from the expanded novel and although the themes are similar I found the novella superior. The themes of treatment of and attitudes toward the disabled and mentally challenged are as current today as they were when this was written over sixty year ago. It is a thought-provoking science fiction/fantasy novella that lends itself to creative illustrations. Amazingly, although this is an important novel(la) that is a forerunner of many other sci-fi novels, it has never been issued in a fine or private press edition.
This proposal received 56 yes votes in the first round.
The proposer has been notified of this discussion thread, and may receive help or advice in expanding the proposal.
First, a quick note. The correct title is: Flowers for Algernon.
It has been some time since I read the novel and I intend to reread it this week before commenting on why I believe it is a relevant choice for the 21st century. Those comments will appear over the weekend. However, I do have very specific ideas with regard to book design and illustration and I would like to throw them out here for Consensus Press members to critique, modify or outright reject. I will apologize in advance if some of my ideas seem opinionated but that is what the Consensus is for. Here goes:
TYPE: For a science fiction novel the type must be unfussy, clean and crystal clear (legible). No need to be cutesy-pie here - the type should not draw attention to itself nor should you be aware of it. As Mies van der Rohe famously said: "Less is more." The two typefaces I greatly favor are Bruce Rogers' Centaur type and the Romanée type of Jan van Krimpen. When push came to shove and Bruce Rogers assumed responsibility for designing the Oxford Lectern Bible, his Magnum Opus and the most important work of his long and distinguished career as a book designer, he chose his Centaur type. Similarly, John Grice, one of the finest letterpress printers on the planet, has printed all of Andrew Moorhouse's Fine Press Poetry editions using Centaur Type on Zerkall paper. If it is good enough for John Grice.......... .
Jan van Krimpen was one of the greatest typographers of the twentieth century and his Romaneé type rivals the Doves Press type for its unfussy elegance and austere dignity. It was used in the Joh. Enschede en Zonen/Stichting de Roos edition of the Book of Psalms (1947), one of the books chosen by the Grolier Club for their exhibition and book 'A Century for the Century, 1900-1999'. Examples of both types are labeled and shown below:
BINDING:I have two ideas for the binding, one that is relatively inexpensive and one that is elaborate and more expensive. The inexpensive binding is half black morocco leather with gilt lettering on the spine and paper over boards using a Florentine flower pattern. The Florentine pattern is a curve ball of sorts and it has a delicious irony to it for a science fiction novel. Hollander's has an exceptional range of Florentine bookbinding papers with flowers but a smashing combination with the black morocco leather is a paper with flowers on a black background. There are three such papers on the Hollander website and I have linked all three below:
I especially like the Florentine Print Dandelion because it has a nasty edge to it. It is as much a weed as a flower and it has a foreboding, chilling effect appropriate for the story that will follow.
The more expensive binding is a full black morocco binding similar to Richard Tong's Lyra Books design for his deluxe Lettered Edition of 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' (see link). Again, gilt lettering on the spine. On the front cover, a leather inlay of a small bouquet of white flowers similar to his work on the Lettered Edition of 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' (see link) placed centrally on the front cover......
.....or a central leather inlay of a red rose with small green leaves, identical to Emmylou Harris' famous guitar pick (see links):
PAPER: Since this is a sci-fi-novel with (at times) a clinical feel, I do not want a thick, soft, touchy-feeley paper. Rather, a paper with smooth surface that is slightly cool to the touch - I am thinking specifically of Zerkall. However, the Zerkall paper should be a bright white or, at the very least, brighter than the off-white or creme color papers most often used. The Barbarian Press used a Zerkall Smooth White Wove paper for their recent edition of poetry and photography (NOTE: this will become important later in the discussion of possible illustrations) entitled 'Fifty-Six Ontological Studies' by Jan Zwicky and this is EXACTLY the type of paper I would like. Unfortunately, since Zerkall Papermill has shut down, this paper may no longer be available and a search would have to be made for the next best thing.
First, I will begin to stating what I do NOT want. Unlike most 21st century sci-fi with its heavy emphasis on complex, convoluted plots and techno-wizardry, 'Algernon' has a humanistic aspect often missing in this genre, almost a wistful aspect, and the illustrations must reflect this. The jarring, brightly colored, in your face illustrations found in most of the Folio Society sci-fi editions are more appropriate for a Super Hero comic book and are inappropriate here. Several illustrations ideas for the Consensus Press members to consider:
1. Photographs. Flowers for Algernon was made into a highly regarded movie named 'Charly' in 1968 starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom with Cliff Robertson later winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his exceptional performance. Photographs from this film can be used to illustrate key scenes in this short story/novella if copyright and licensing rights permit. The Arion Press did this to great effect in illustrating their edition of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel 'The Leopard' with photographs from Luchino Visconti's lush, visually stunning film version. Additionally, as hinted above, the photographs would work well when tipped-in against the bright Zerkall White Wove paper.
2. Artist illustrations. For those averse to illustrating a private press book with photography, two artists that would make interesting choices to illustrate this work are Angela Barrett and the Balbusso Twins (Anna and Elena). Importantly, both have shown an uncanny ability to adapt their art to a wide variety of literature
Angela Barrett has illustrated Dracula and Anna Karenina for the Folio Society as well as three editions for Phil Abel's Hand and Eye Letterpress. Her dense, evocative, atmospheric drawings from the recent Hand and Eye edition of 'A Far Away Country' have just the right look and feel I would like to see in 'Algernon'. Link to the H & E instagram page with her drawings is given below.
The Balbusso Twins have illustrated numerous books for the Folio Society including Atlas Shrugged, The Handmaid's Tale, Queen of Spades & Other Stories by Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, Pride and Prejudice, etc., and are a favorite with FS collectors. Their colorful illustrations have a distinctive, flat two-dimensional look and the colors are similarly flat and relatively muted. Ironically, this style worked exceptionally well in the FS edition of another landmark sci-fi novel with a humanistic element, 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood. and I believe they would work equally well with 'Flowers for Algernon'.
Angela Barrett ( Hand & Eye /Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde)
The Balbusso Twins (Folio Society/ The Handmaid's Tale)
I found the novella superior.
but it isn't entirely clear to me.
I should have stated that from the start and I will do so immediately after typing this. My preference is for the full novel as it was originally published by Harcourt Brace & Co. in 1966. This is the version nearly everyone is familiar with.
Wholeheartedly agree on your choice of typeface: I put forward Romanée or Van Dijck (another Jan van Krimpen design, I believe) for my proposal for A Canticle for Leibowitz as well.
What are your thoughts on paper?
Of the options you've raised, I'd vote for:
1. Centaur over Romanée
2. Half-leather with the herbarium paper, and preferable not from Ludlow (only because I already have so many of their bindings in my collection or on the way!
3. Novella over the full novel
>10 kermaier: Thoughts on paper and illustrations will follow shortly.
>11 NathanOv: Richard Tong and Ludlow Bookbinders immediately popped into my cranium because of Richard's striking design for the deluxe Lettered edition of 'Dorian Grey', but I am certainly not wed to this idea. The Advisory Board can utilize their collective experience to find an appropriate bookbinder, depending on which style binding they and the Consensus Press members favor.
I'd love to see a half leather binding with the Florentine Print Flowers on Black paper sides. On the other hand, the Florentine Print Dandelion paper is a great allusion to the arc of the story, since it illustrates the full life-cycle of the plant....
Have you considered a full cloth binding with a Florentine print pattern, such as the Allen Press used for their Rappaccini's Daughter?
A cloth floral pattern is a fabulous idea!
Note that the source of the floral patterned cloth is not mentioned in either the prospectus or the colophon in the Allen Press edition of Rappaccini's Daughter. From past experience, it may well have been a Fortuny cloth. Another killer idea for a cloth floral pattern would be one of William Morris' textile designs which are still widely available for interior designers at places such as the Merchandise Mart in Chicago
My living room throw pillows are Strawberry Thief.
"For a science fiction novel the type must be unfussy, clean and crystal clear"
Couldn't agree more. I think for this book I'd pick Romanee over Centaur if I have to choose between the two.
Similarly, I think the binding should match the work, so particularly for the standard version I'd prefer to see something other than half leather, probably no leather at all.
For the deluxe variant full morocco is fine, as there are plenty of people who like their leather, plus I think full leather can suit modern works just fine, whether in austere aesthetics of Schiff's LEC or more elaborate bindings with inlays and various dyeing techniques such as a few examples in the link below. But I'd definitely skip elements such as raised spine hubs in Lyra's example that are decidedly pre-modern.
However, half morocco with guilt stamping doesn't sound like the best fit for a modern work to me. Plus half morocco wouldn't be inexpensive. I'd prefer some other cheaper option, perhaps full cloth, done in a style suitable for a modern work. Just my 2 cents.
But I suspect you’re right — the Allens were partial to Fortuny fabrics.
That is why I provided two different binding options, inexpensive and expensive. I strongly favor a morocco leather spine, whether is is one-quarter or one half leather. This is classy and also practical, making a private press book less susceptible to wear and deterioration over time.
Much prefer the novella here, glad you are okay with that option!
I do feel strongly about having a leather spine for a special private press edition, especially the maiden voyage of the Consensus Press. No compromise there.
If Consensus Press members prefer quarter over half leather for the standard edition, I would still like to see matching black leather tips at the corners of the covers, similar to vellum tips used with quarter vellum bindings. This is a practical consideration because the sharp corners of the boards are the principal site of rubbing and wear to paper over boards and small leather tips prevents this.
As mentioned previously, I am agnostic to novella vs. full novel. The message is the same and the story line is equally compelling. If the novella format greatly simplifies rights issues and keeps cost under reasonable control, all the better.
I read Flowers for Algernon many years ago and did a reread this week to reassess. Some additional thoughts:
Although the novella (Hugo Award) and subsequent novel (Nebula Award) won science fiction's most prestigious awards, calling this a sci-fi work is a misnomer based upon what we now think of as sci-fi in the 21st century. Frankly, it is much more than that and I enjoyed my second reading more than my first. It is an easy, straightforward read and no one will confuse this with a work by Melville or Dostoevsky. However, its themes and emotions are squarely on the mark and what it may lack in complexity it more than compensates for with its insight and accuracy. This book was well ahead of its time and many themes and issues presented are more relevant today than in the 1960's when this work was written.
Although far less extreme and radical than the genetic and societal engineering in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, using science and medicine to alter someone's physical traits, personality or intelligence is, in a sense, a continuation of Huxley's work. At the peak of his intellectual powers (IQ=185) Charlie Gordon's surgery becomes a case of "be careful of what you wish for" and the subsequent revelations, flashbacks into his unpleasant childhood and unforeseen consequences of his newly-found intelligence are deeply troubling. The gap between Charlie's emotional intelligence, sexuality and social skills, which badly lag behind his all-too-rapid intellectual development also becomes problematic.
However, it is the marginalization and outright cruelty toward people with physical and/or mental disabilities (Charlie) throughout this novella that are heart-rending and these problems have only become more acute in the 21st century. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, there has been a steady erosion of these protections as our societal safety net continues to collapse and disabled individuals have a very steep uphill to climb throughout their lives, especially once they reach adulthood. One very recent example of this is contained in a recent NY Times article (see link).
With the modern corporatization of medicine, physician groups and private practices across all specialities have been purchased and swallowed up by large corporations. The traditional values in medical practice have, to a large extent, been replaced with medical management information systems aimed at increasing physician productivity. Doctors and nurses are evaluated more on throughput and less on quality of care, with physicians allotted very narrow time windows to spend with each patient. The physician is now a mobile cost center and the patient is a consumer. As a result, patients with physical and mental disabilities are rarely given the time needed and have now become unwelcome in many corporate medical practices. Similar to Charlie Gordon's post-surgical epiphany that he was resented and never fully accepted by his mother, an inadvertent source of familial stress that ultimately resulted in dissolution of his parent's marriage, individuals with disabilities in the current environment are all too often persona non grata.
Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give to Flowers for Algernon is that much of stayed with me decades after my initial reading and the reread proved more rewarding than the first.
One final thought regarding illustrations - as noted earlier, this was made into an excellent film entitled 'Charly' (1968) with Cliff Robertson winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon. The novel really does not need illustrations but an excellent alternative would be to take a photo of one of the most memorable scenes in the movie and reproduce it with great care (photogravure or polymer gravure) as a frontispiece. The scene I have in mind is Charlie's trophy appearance before a medical convention by his neurosurgeon/psychiatrist as a post-surgical success story. He stands rigidly on stage as he engages in a rapid-fire game of intellectual cat and mouse with the physicians in the scientific conference audience. This would make a splendid and chilling frontispiece. A brief YouTube video clip of this memorable scene is linked below. Begin the video clip at 2':20" (2 minutes and 20 seconds).
I think this proposal is probably in my top three.
If it doesn't need them, then I would support not having any. Simplicity can be beautiful.
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