Sex in the City, The Hogarth Press, and Jhumpa Lahiri

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You might wonder what these three names have in common.  For MAPP, quite a lot. It was widely reported last fall that Sarah Jessica Parker, former star of the HBO hit Sex in the City, and now widely known by her initials SJP, has been commissioned an editorial director of an eponymous series within the Hogarth imprint. Random House resurrected The Hogarth Press imprint in 2012 in homage to the Woolfs’ publishing house.  The SJP brand merges with the Woolfs’ not (only) because of Virginia Woolf’s fashion sense, but for each woman’s obsession with reading.  SJP told the NYT: “I have always loved to read for the same reason I love to act […] which is that other people’s stories are more interesting to me than my own.”  Thinking back through her mothers, both literary and biological, SJP credits her own mother, a retired nursery school teacher, with her love of reading, so her affiliation with Hogarth is in part, the interviewer writes, “an ode to her mother.”  Other Woolfian connections abound: the Hogarth imprint, and not just SJP’s brand therein, is partnering with libraries to get more books into more hands.  Woolf, with her deep commitment to the democratizing goals of public libraries, would likely have approved  (and celebrated, perhaps, with a new pair of shoes).  As editor and bibliophile, SJP lauds the materiality of the book object – the papery smell that can’t be “bottled” – alongside the anonymity of the found manuscript.  SJP’s interviewer writes, “A literary manuscript, [SJP] says, should come with a blank white cover — no title, no name — like a vial of perfume for a blind test, without a whiff of identity.”   

And here, in the materiality of the blank cover, is the segue to Jhumpa Lahiri.  Lahiri has recently published with Vintage Books a slim but delightful pocketbook called The Clothing of Books.  It’s her own translation from a lecture she wrote and delivered in Italian about her emotionally complex relationship to the book covers that adorn her publications but over which she has no creative input.  It’s about mediation and identity (not unlike translation itself).  It contains beautiful renderings of her own conflicted fashion sense as a young Asian American teenager and how thinking about her book covers carries echoes of those times.  She also references Vanessa Bell’s collaboration on Woolf’s HP book covers, and expresses a sisterly longing: “I would like it if, even once, a cover for one of my books were designed by someone who knew me well, who deeply knew my work, for whom it really mattered.”    Nakedness and blankness stands, consonant with SJP’s remarks, for mystery and solitude, and perhaps a longing Woolf also felt at times to be an anonymous artist, not an ‘author’: “I miss the silence, the mystery of the naked book: solitary, without support.  It allows one to read in freedom, without previews or introductions.  I believe that a naked book, too, can stand on its own feet.”   Unshod, then, but truly open.