Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Confessions of a Book Junkie

Posted inCreative Voices

I once spoke with a veteran publisher who lamented the effects of the digital age, and he confessed that he felt graphic designers alone were responsible for keeping the illustrated book alive. Although I believe the appeal of the printed book is broader than our tribe, I can see the truth in this because publishing lavish visual books is a costly venture. In 1999, I published my first book The Virtuoso in a run of 20,000 copies. Today, publishers will commit to only a tiny fraction of that print run to reduce financial risk.

However, most designers pay top dollar for impressive libraries full of thick volumes about visual culture for their content and creativity. Designers also covet the opportunity to design books because, unlike general branding, websites, or consumer package, it results in the kind of tangible, permanent object that carries extra value in an increasingly virtual world.

Designers and Books founder and publisher Steve Kroter says, “graphic designers are passionate about books because their profession is about designing on demand. For someone facing that pressure, what better place than books to turn to for inspiration.”

I’m addicted to books, and estimate that my current collection weighs about as much as a Ford F150 pickup truck. I confess that I have only read a fraction of these, given that most are large-format illustrated books where I focus on picture captions and essays. I collect both fiction and non-fiction books, and never pass up anything by David Sedaris.

I start each new book with a ritual. First, I make a small color copy of the cover, then I cut it out and use it as my bookmark. When I finish reading, I paste this cutout into my journal and write a synopsis of key impressions and highlights from the book that I want to remember and share with others. That way, when I return to my notes years later, I can enjoy the book all over again.

In 2018, I read the German forester Peter Wohllenben’s astonishing bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees. In this breakthrough, he presents revelatory scientific research about how trees communicate, nurture their young, defend their neighbors, and purify our world during impressively long lives. The book had an unexpectedly profound effect on me, intellectually and spiritually. Wohllenben’s writing brought trees from the background of my life to the foreground and deepened my appreciation for what I consider one of the most generous organisms on our planet. I wrote ten pages of notes about the vital lessons this book offers humanity.

David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking is a valuable guide for any creative person involved in commercial or fine art. It is full of anecdotes and references about the challenges of self-doubt, failure, creative stagnation, and envy that confront all artists. Both writers are practicing artists who are able to offer their experienced perspective on how to overcome these challenges with self-examination, determination, diligent practice, and the sheer joy of discovery. I also have the audiobook, which I listen to while painting.

I generally favor non-fiction books over fiction, but I’ve recently begun to alternate between the two a bit more. The main difference is that when I read a novel, I always have a pencil ready. As the author introduces characters, I draw impressionistic portraits of them on the book’s pages. When I finish the book, I glue my “bookmark” in my journal and redraw these characters as I reflect on the story.

Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel All the Light We Cannot See is sheer literary brilliance. It’s like two books in one, with alternating chapters that tell the life stories of a blind French girl and a German soldier growing up during WWII. Doerr subtly, artfully evokes a transportive, compelling dreamscape featuring a devoted, rebellious family using model towns and radio broadcasts as a tool to resist brutish Nazis. This epic novel is being adapted into a Netflix film, and I’m eager to compare my caricatures to the final cast of film stars.

Some works of fiction leave me empty, but nevertheless end up in my journal. I found Haruki Murakami’s celebrated 1Q84 to be a predictable formula of sensational sex and violence with tortured plot twists. Add an alternate reality with two moons, “little people,” a love affair, and a sinister religious cult, and you have an exhausting narrative that reads suspiciously like a screenplay baiting a movie deal. The book didn’t work for me at all, so I only included a sketch of the story’s protagonist, Aomame, a high-paid female assassin. However, I want to acknowledge that the cover design by Chip Kidd is brilliant. It’s the reason I bought this book.

Regretfully, I’ve designed too few book jackets in my career, so occasionally I’ll explore an alternate cover design of a favorite book just for fun. I sketched a range of ideas after reading Philip Roth’s last novel Nemesis, a bittersweet tale of growing up in polio-ravaged Newark, NJ in the summer of 1944. In the end, I could not top the strength of Milton Glaser’s cover depicting blazing sunshine.

I rarely include entries about illustrated books or art catalogs in my journals. I find these books to be more experiential, and enjoy them as I would walking through an exhibition. I’ve included a lineup of books that I savor in the banner photo of this article. It’s a small sample, but a great place to start.

Next month: Drawing as a Superpower

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of two books, including Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and a TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm, 50,000feet.