You know the work. But you might not know who made it.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, book designer Janet Halverson created covers for an array of authors and titles: Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur,” Leonard Gardner’s “Fat City” and Susan Sontag’s “The Benefactor,” among them.
And it’s her work in the 1960s and 1970s that might be the most indelible – especially her iconic cover design for Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays.”
“The world is filled with so much noise,” says Michael Russem, a book designer and owner of Katherine Small Gallery, which is located north of Boston. “So when you see something that is clear and quiet, it pops out. And I think that’s what a lot of Janet’s covers do.”
So who is Janet Halverson? That’s something of a mystery. Not much is known about her aside from her work, says Russem, who, full disclosure, is a friend. So after years of trying to learn more about Halverson, he put together an exhibit, Janet Halverson: An Introduction, at the gallery to show off her book covers.
“She was a book designer. She mostly worked on covers in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘90s. She was the art director at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. She worked on all sorts of notable books and notable authors. So she was trusted to do really important books,” says Russem, who adds that she ran in the same circles as celebrated graphic designers Milton Glaser and Paul Rand.
Still, Russem says he repeatedly came up empty when trying to learn more.
“There’s nothing about her anywhere. There are all sorts of magazine articles about these other guys, but nothing about her,” he says. “Graphic designers … all recognize her work and recognize it as being good. But she just went unnoticed, which is true of all the women of her generation. There are no magazine articles about any of them.”
“This is something I’ve been working on for years,” he says. “I wanted to tell a story for myself, and then I knew that people were interested so I wanted to share that story with others.”
Finally, Russem figured, rather than wait any longer, he’d gather what he had and put it up for all to see.
“I wanted to share that story with others because she’s someone that designers have questions about, but we don’t have any answers,” he says. “I don’t know what she thought about anything, and I think that’s a disappointment for me.”
The surprising thing is, Russem believes Halverson may still be alive and living in New Jersey, though his efforts to make contact haven’t paid off.
“I believe she just turned 98 on Monday [Jan. 29]. I don’t know what she’s doing presently,” says Russem.
It’s too soon to say whether the exhibition, which closes on Feb. 17, will stir up fresh interest, but Russem says another website has already picked up his images and writing about her.
“That’s what publishing is: It’s about sharing and getting information out into the world,” he says. “So it’s not my information. It’s for everyone. And I think that is happening, whether or not anything productive comes of it.”
Russem, who designs exhibition catalogs and university press books, has a quiet sense of humor that runs through everything from the store’s outdoor sandwich board messages and Instagram posts to his beautifully printed “A Complete Checklist & Map of Brick & Mortar Typography & Graphic Design Bookshops in & Around Boston,” which is as comprehensive as it is concise. (There is only one.)
Even Katherine Small Gallery’s seemingly staid name isn’t exactly what it seems.
“Katherine was my dog,” he says, “and this place is small.”
But Russem is serious about using the space to introduce people to good design.
“It’s a bookstore and gallery dedicated to graphic design, and the shows here are meant to encourage affordable collecting,” he says. “You can come here and not feel guilty about not buying anything in the shows.”
If that sounds like a questionable business plan, that’s by design.
“I’m a book designer, and I have a graphic design bookstore. I make all my money designing books,” he says. “And I lose it all selling books.”
For more information about the exhibit and catalogue, visit the website.
The bookstore that looms large in Manjula Martin’s mind
Manjula Martin coauthored the award-winning “Fruit Trees for Every Garden” with her father, Orin Martin, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Cut and more. Formerly the managing editor of Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, she’s worked in both the nonprofit and publishing sectors. She lives in West Sonoma County and is the author of “The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural Memoir.” She spoke with Michael Schaub and took the Book Pages Q&A.
Q. What are you reading now?
I just started “The Parisian,” a novel by Isabella Hammad. So far it’s gorgeous.
Q. How do you decide what to read next?
Honestly, it’s often whichever one of my holds the local library decides to give me next! Or, I’m guided by the mood of whatever writing project I’m working on—usually over the course of a project I’ll accumulate a small stack of books that are aspirational peers to mine, or books that are instructive in style, topic, or temperament.
Q. Is there a book you’re nervous to read?
I’m usually afraid of reading contemporary novels that are very widely lauded as “the best ever,” because they’re often not.
Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?
I love the cover design and typesetting for poet and essayist Mary Ruefle’s books, which are all published by Wave Books. A particular favorite is “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” which is just a bold type treatment on a white background, with the type pushing against the boundaries of the cover space. It’s so simple, but summons such curiosity in me as a reader.
Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?
Currently on my coffee table: “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination” by Jess Row, “Enter Ghost” by Isabella Hammad, “Our Wives Under the Sea” by Julia Armfield, and “Ordinary Notes” by Christina Sharpe. Fellow 2024 releases that I’m looking forward to reading are “Feeding Ghosts,” a haunting graphic memoir by artist Tessa Hulls, and Lauren Markham’s “A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging.”
Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?
Both my parents are avid readers and lovers of literature. But probably what most shaped my reading life was a place — the used bookstore where I worked in high school (shoutout to Logos Books & Records, in Santa Cruz). It’s no longer around, but it still looms large in my mind as a place where I was encouraged to form my own identity as a reader.
Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?
I first read “Moby-Dick” in high school, in an Honors English class. The teacher had us read only one chapter a week (the chapters are short), and in class we dissected at length any and every hint of “symbolism.” We were also assigned to skip all the “whaling bits”—the interstitial chapters about whale anatomy, the whaling industry, and other far-out marine fictions. I hated every moment of the experience, and demoted myself from Honors English after that semester. I didn’t revisit “Moby-Dick” until I was in my thirties, at which point I realized I love it. It’s a truly excellent novel written in smart, funny, audaciously modern English. This is why I am a fan of re-reading books at different times in one’s life. Things change!
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Next on ‘Bookish’
The next installment is Feb. 16, at 5 p.m., as hosts Sandra Tsing Loh and Samantha Dunn talk about upcoming books. Sign up for free now.
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El Monte book event
The Libros Monte Launch Party at C.A.S.A. Zamora is next week, Feb. 10, from noon to 3 p.m. The event will feature readings from El Monte authors including Carribean Fragoza, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Mirlanda Robles, Sesshu Foster and Steve Valenzuela.
As well, attendees will get an introduction to the Libros Monte Lending Library and the opportunity to sign up for a free library card.
Location: Zamora Park, 3820 Penmar Ave., El Monte
For more information, go to South El Monte Arts Posse Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/semartsposse
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Thanks, as always, for reading.