Friday, May 2, 2008

All in the Family

Though I grew up the daughter of a CPA and a former schoolteacher, in some ways I’ve always considered publishing to be the family business. In 1929, my dad’s uncle, George Macy, founded an amazing venture called the Limited Editions Club, and for 27 years he was an integral part of the storied literary circles of New York. His club issued limited editions of the classics —usually 1,500 copies—with illustrations by the leading visual artists of the day. Among the 300-plus volumes were Main Street, illustrated by Grant Wood; Ulysses, illustrated by Henri Matisse; and Lysistrata, illustrated by Pablo Picasso. Upon the dedication of The George Macy Memorial Collection at Columbia University’s Low Library in 1957, the English book designer Sir Francis Meynell declared, “No one but George Macy could have persuaded both Picasso and Matisse to illustrate books for him.” Today, these $10 books, all signed by the artists, are worth thousands of dollars.

Although Uncle George died in 1956, when I was only two, his presence loomed large in my house. When my parents got married, my dad asked him for books to fill the bookcases in his new home, and Uncle George responded by sending one hundred or so volumes from the Heritage Press, which produced less expensive reprints of Limited Editions Club offerings. These books, with their elegant bindings and their sturdy slipcases, formed the backdrop of my childhood and set the bar high for me as an aspiring writer. I wonder what Uncle George would have thought had he known I would spend 16 years as an editor with Scholastic, the company largely responsible for the proliferation of mass-market paperbacks among the country’s youth. Hopefully, this connoisseur of fine bookmaking didn’t believe you could always tell a book by its cover, or its paper quality.

Uncle George is on my mind today because last week, his daughter Linda came to town after being out of touch with our family for almost 20 years. Over lunch, she shared tales of her mythical dad and his life among the literati, including Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Round Table, who she often found in their living room, and Norman Rockwell, who created the portrait of her father shown here.

Linda’s memories brought me back to the golden age of publishing, when ambitious kids fresh out of college launched brilliant ventures and a company could succeed by making every book a work of art. It seems like such a different world today, but it’s reassuring to know that many of Uncle George’s modern counterparts continue to take pains to produce books whose visual impact goes hand-in-hand with the text. There are still editors who refuse to do a book if they can’t do it right, and that means holding fast to their standards of design and paper quality. I’m lucky to have worked with such editors at National Geographic, but as my colleagues on this blog will tell you, there are others throughout the publishing world. I think Uncle George would have approved.

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