Beautiful Books | Classic Returns

The LJ “Classic Returns” bookshelves have been bursting with a bounty of beauty lately, with Penguin Classics sporting comely covers by British designer and illustrator Coralie Bickford-Smith (check out LJ’s interview with Bickford-Smith here); a look at the work of arts and crafts master William Morris; a very cool annotated puzzle book by Mike Wilks; and a representative title from Phaidon’s new-old line of art books.

some Bickford-Smith Covers/Penguin Classics Books

CR.Coralie.Covers.JungleBksKipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. Penguin Classics. 2015. 448p. notes. ISBN 9780141394626. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781101637722. LIT
Just in time for Kipling’s sesquicentennial (born in Bombay in 1865, the British author died in 1936) comes this reissue of The Jungle Books, which were originally published in installments between 1894–95. The fables feature “man-cub” Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungles of central India, and his interactions with various beasts of the wild. Disney made an animated movie in 1967; a new animated film with Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba voicing is in the works, as is a live-action movie with Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett. With contributions by Kipling experts Kaori Nagai (introduction, notes) and Jan Montefiore (chronology and general preface), this edition also includes “In the Rukh,” a story that was excluded from previous versions.

Nature of ThingsLucretius. The Nature of Things. Penguin Classics. 304p. tr. from Latin by A.E. Stallings. notes. ISBN 9780141396903. $20. PHIL
The publisher bills this as “A new series of beautiful hardcover nonfiction classics, with covers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.” The musings of Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius (99–55 BC) are wrapped in a less lighthearted yet still distinctive Bickford-Smith cover, as befits a book that examines sensation, sex, cosmology, physics and more, rejects the supernatural, extols science, and urges readers to not fear death. Award-winning American classicist/poet Stallings translated the tome (originally in 2007); Oxford classics scholar Richard Jenkyns provides the introduction and “further reading” section (also originally from 2007).

travelsPolo, Marco. The Travels. Penguin Classics. Dec. 2015. 480p. tr. from Italian by Nigel Cliff. notes. ISBN 9780141198774. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780141906577. TRAV
Venetian Marco Polo traveled to China in 1271 and subsequently served Kublai Khan on diplomatic missions in the Far East. His accounts of these trips provided Westerners a glimpse of the then-unknown East, with its regional customs, natural riches, exotic flora and fauna, and many cultures. Noted historical nonfiction author (The Shakespeare Riots; The Last Crusade), critic, and playwright Cliff provides a “sparkling new translation,” the first all-new translation in more than 50 years, of Polo’s classic travelog. On his website, Cliff notes that he “went back to the early Old French, Italian, and Latin texts of Polo’s book,” and for the introduction and notes, “dived deep into the sometimes treacherous waters of medieval Asian history.”

huck finnTwain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin Classics. 2015. 394p. map. notes. ISBN 9780141199573. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781440657580. LIT
Another fantastic Bickford-Smith cover, deep blue with green water reeds and message-in-a-bottle patterns, adorns this reissue of Twain’s sequel to Tom Sawyer, one of the first major American novels to be written in vernacular English. First published in the UK in 1884 (then in the United States in 1885), this reissue features an introduction and notes (first seen in 1966) by Peter Coveney; chronology and further reading list (2003) by literary scholar Richard Maxwell; a map of the path Huck and Jim’s raft takes in the story; an appendix that includes an extra chapter titled “The Raft Passage,” which was included in Twain’s original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn but omitted from the published version and placed instead in chapter three of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.


The Beauty of LifeThe Beauty of Life: William Morris & the Art of Design. Thames & Hudson. 2015. 176p. ed. by Diane Waggoner. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780500284346. pap. $27.50. DEC ARTS
This reprint of a 2003 title looks at the life and work of the famed 19th-century arts and crafts designer and head of his own design firm, Morris & Company. Editor Waggoner (curator of the San Marino, CA–based Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens, which boasts the largest collection of Morris material in North America) joins other design and decorative arts specialists in exploring Morris’s methods, works, designs, and legacy. With 128 illustrations of his creations in various fields, including stained glass, interior decoration, graphics, book publishing, and textile designs.

vangoghUhde, Wilhelm. Van Gogh. Phaidon Classics. 2015. 176p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780714868905. $150. FINE ARTS
Fine arts publisher Phaidon introduces its “Phaidon Classics” imprint, which revives a “beloved selection of artist monographs from the Phaidon archive.” These monographs were originally conceived by Phaidon Press cofounder and art historian, designer, and poet Ludwig Goldschneider in the 1930s and 1940s. The updated reprints feature new cover designs, tinted pages, and colored book-block edges, as well as new introductions by contemporary scholars to complement the original essays. In addition to this monograph on Vincent Van Gogh (1853–90), new editions of titles on Raphael and Rembrandt were rolled out earlier this year. All the reprints include 125 color reproductions. This volume contains the original essay by art critic and dealer Uhde (1874–1947) and a new introduction by Louis van Tiborgh, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Ultimate AlphabetWilks, Mike (text & illus.). The Ultimate Alphabet: Complete Edition. 2 vols. Pomegranate. Sept. 2015. 144p. notes. ISBN 9780764972133. $50. FINE ARTS
The publisher brings a “beloved classic,” first published in 1986, back into print and improves on the original with a two-volume slipcase edition. The earlier title, re-created in Volume 1 here, presents artist and author Wilks’s immensely detailed paintings of each letter of the alphabet, with hundreds of hidden images of objects starting with that letter in the artworks. Volume 2 is a meticulously rendered visual key and numbered list of words for each painting and images in each picture. Wilks’s 1986 book went on to sell 750,000 copies and landed on The New York Times best seller list.

More Classic Returns

dressmakerHam, Rosalie. The Dressmaker. Penguin. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780143129066. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780698194809. F
In the mid-1950s, the reviled, illegitimate daughter of the town crazy woman returns to the small Australian town of Dungatar. Tilly, with her new air of glamour and mystery, sets up her sewing machine in her mother’s house and starts a dressmaking business. She creates lovingly described, bewitching outfits that suit and change each wearer in an almost magical way. She also befriends several of the town’s outcasts, all of whom are portrayed as kind and decent people while the “respectable” people are written as odious, small-town characters hiding their secrets and their cruelties. Her return digs up old troubles and the pull of her clothing stirs up the rigid strata of the townspeople as they sense a more glamorous world in her creations. Tilly’s childhood adversity and possible guilt is hinted at and then revealed as tragedy continues to stalk her and events build to a melodramatic but moving and fitting ending. Ham’s novel was first published in 2000 and is being reissued ahead of a soon-to-be released movie starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. VERDICT A stinging portrait of small-town life in which American readers will see similarities between Australia and here. This title will definitely fascinate readers interested in vintage fashions as well.—Jan Marry, Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA


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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench


  1. Dario says:

    Great article!