Novel by Design: Ernst Reichl’s Take on Joyce’s Ulysses

Novel by Design: Ernst Reichl’s Take on Joyce’s Ulysses
1934 cover of Ulysses designed by Ernst Reichl
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

A revered book design most people will never see, Reichl’s best-known work leaves us wondering why and when a book design stands the test of time. And what, in the grand scheme of things, does this even mean? 

A novel like Ulysses evades sensical explanation. It is, in and of itself, without sense. Pair it with Finnegan’s Wake and you have a cocktail for literary bamboozlement worth centuries of study. Hence the countless number of literary scholars dedicated to James Joyce in all his shades of modernist genius. 

It seems you cannot talk about 20th century literature without at least mentioning Ulysses, which, more often than not, means a great deal of pretending you know anything about it beyond how bizarre and comedic it is. Even today, the mystique around this novel is alive and well — casual readers still want to understand it, to glean something from it. Joyce specialists have managed to do both of these things and much more, but for the majority of us, this hefty stream-of-consciousness volume usually functions as an inscrutable shelf accessory. 

That said, there is more to Ulysses than its narrative content. Symbolically speaking, it represents a definitive shift in the Western literary tradition. Published on the heels of World War I, it skewed toward total absurdity at a time when the world was beginning to feel legitimately absurd. Literary critic Edmund Wilson noted that Ulysses attempts to render "as precisely and as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our participation in life is like — or rather, what it seems to us like as from moment to moment [that] we live,” while Marxist writer Karl Radek called it a “heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema camera through a microscope.” Even Joyce reportedly said that people make the mistake of trying to read it like an ordinary novel: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” He wasn’t wrong.

If Ulysses isn’t like other novels, but actually its own breed of novel entirely, how should one go about displaying it or interacting with it, let alone designing a book cover for it?

In the case of Ernst Reichl’s famous 1935 Ulysses cover, the book’s stylistic novelty wasn’t the only situational consideration: Ulysses had been banned in the United States since its official European publication in 1922 due to its “obscene” and “pornographic” content. This literary phenomenon had — prior to its Random House 1934 publication — in theory been off limits to American audiences. Publishers wanted to respond to American readers’ demand for the book, as well as to Joyce’s desire for an American copyright and authorized correct text. Random House signed a contract with Joyce in 1932 and the ban was officially rescinded in 1933. 

Between Joyce’s signing the publishing contract and the ban’s official removal, Ernst Reichl was tasked with designing and typesetting the book in anticipation of production. Presumably, he was well aware of the novel’s reputation for both stylistic and thematic shock value, as well as the fact that readers would approach the text with its established reputation in mind. This conversation, in turn, must have had an effect, even subliminal, on Reichl’s approach to the edition’s design. Approaching the project holistically, Reichl created an iconic visual aesthetic for a modern work with a modern audience, establishing himself as a “whole-book designer” who considered not only a book’s cover and formatting but all its visual elements as avenues for vivifying and amplifying an author’s intent. Over the course of a decades-long career, he would apply this philosophy to more than 2,000 books, working with authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Gertrude Stein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Marshall McLuhan. His Ulysses design, however, remains his best-known work. 

A formal analysis of the design would highlight its assumed Mondrian influence, as well its use of Weiss initials on a two-page title spread next to an enlarged, slightly modified capital “u.” Body typography is Baskerville. The hard cover features two lowercase “j’s,” for Joyce’s initials — nestled snug into each other in an almost sinister way, like snakes.

Image courtesy of Martha Scotford of NC State University.

But the concern here isn’t so much what the design looks like, but rather: what is its effect? For an American audience eager to inhale a previously censored work, how might this particular design have influenced or heightened that experience? 

More than anything, Reichl’s innovative and unconventional design mirrors Ulysses’ unconventional innovations as a text. Composed of three books and 18 constituent “episodes,” the novel is only approachable in chunks. Reichl’s design underscores the work’s piecey nature with imposing, large initial openers for each separate book, all of which emphasize these marked shifts: big breaths of fresh air in a dense, stream-of-consciousness narrative. Meanwhile, the size of the design’s enlarged first-letter initials — as juxtaposed with the smaller initials that follow — parallel the colossal nature of Joyce’s magnum opus. This is, after all, what the reading masses had been waiting for, and the expectations surrounding the situation justified — if any justification was needed — a larger-than-life, typographic bang. The two sly and snakey lowercase “j’s” announce Joyce as someone unafraid to push society’s buttons, under the surreptitious guise of high literature. 

That said, for all the craziness of Ulysses, Reichl’s design honors its bigness without spiraling out of control — allowing the work to speak for itself, albeit accented by the visual and physical experience it creates for readers. Joyce’s unprecedented stream of metaphors, symbols, ambiguities, and allusions finds a fitting home in this similarly unprecedented design, which serves to enhance the text rather than overpower it. If anything, it’s a mostly experimental teaser for a monumentally experimental work. A well-proportioned appetizer, delicious as the main — but different. 

In light of this complementary and well-respected duo (i.e., Joyce’s novel and Reichl’s book design), it’s baffling to think that the design was eventually phased out, especially because it’s regularly considered one of the best book designs ever.

For context, 10 years prior to this American edition’s publication, Francis Cugat created the now iconic cover art for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Most American high school graduates would recognize those almond eyes peering from a deep blue backdrop — the riotousness of 1920s New York communicated through a single illustration. Nearly 100 years later and this design isn’t going anywhere — somewhat inexplicably, the same cannot be said for many other 20th century works, even for novels (like Ulysses) that are just as famous. 

There is a great deal of randomness in all of this: art historians ask similar questions about the Mona Lisa — you could argue that any number of Da Vinci’s works are more interesting than the enigmatic lady sitting in a strange field, though anyone’s visit to the Louvre confirms that the masses don’t care. What is deemed as quality, or as worth keeping, is as subjective as taste, time, and everything else that could possibly affect how any aesthetic creation is perceived. Related specifically to book covers, this subjectivity takes on new dimension — how and if a book design is considered fitting for a particular text depends on a number of factors that are impossible to predict. Likewise, a cover could play a significant role in the commercial success of a particular work, just as it could play a very insignificant role. In this way, a written work and its shell play off of each other like throwing a rubber bouncy ball into an empty room, blindfolded. Where does the bouncing begin or end? No one really knows. 

The relationship between book cover and text is a complicated and clichéd one: you can’t judge a book by its cover is as iconic of an adage as to be or not to be; all for one and one for all. Feels sort of stupid to say it aloud sometimes, though this question of whether or not you can judge a book by its cover remains fraught. We judge books by their covers all the time — and by books we mean people, places, things, and actual books. Branding, as an industry, exists for this very reason. No one picks up a grocery store romance novel — genre indicated through cover — thinking they’ve happened upon the next Tolstoy. Also at the grocery store, no one picks up Daddy Tony’s pizza bites thinking they’re low-sodium, Neapolitan hors d’œuvres. Of course, there is always a margin for error here. Never say never. And when it comes to actual books at actual bookstores, this margin for error is considerably larger than it is for say, hair products or pasta sauces. 

If most people can agree that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and that sometimes you cannot, it makes sense to ask why good books are given bad covers, or why bad books are given good covers, or how a bad cover can come to take the place of a good cover and vice versa.

Taking this train of thought a step further, when we walk into a Barnes & Noble, why is it that we don’t see covers like Reichl’s Ulysses? Instead we see a real life Pinterest board: florals and sans serif all caps and color-blocked, Matisse-esque illustrations and all the trappings of modern commercial fiction and nonfiction, somehow everywhere. So much of the same, so casually bombastic. In this bookworm’s space, it’s possible to appreciate the exhortation to examine all things in detail before coming to a conclusion, but it becomes clear — cover to cover to cover — that facilitating superficial judgments is more or less what the industry is all about these days. 

It’s a far cry, maybe, from the subdued and tasteful innovation of Reichl’s designs, but nostalgia for the more deliberate, “whole book,” “good old days” of book design could be a mere product of the imagination. Until Aubrey Beardsley’s controversial illustrations for The Yellow Book literary periodical in the 1890s, book covers only existed for practical purposes. But these illustrations, unprecedented for the time, were created for the express purpose of facilitating judgment. The goal was to mimic scandalous French “yellowed” books so as to pique the interest of curious onlookers. A cool, admired design object now, Reichl’s Ulysses could have felt just as commercial to readers at its publication as so many bestsellers’ covers look to us now. Well designed, different, but still commercial in the eyes of a potential buyer — something created for the sole purpose of convincing people to spend money, and not necessarily to enhance the reader’s experience. Even though Reichl, as we know, did design to enhance the reader’s experience, it’s likely a majority of people did not know this. 

All of this exploration begs the question: In the experience of browsing for a book to read, are we bypassing book covers that will stand the test of time — either in the eyes of the public or in the eyes of the larger design community?

Who out there is designing for the “whole book” in a way that doesn’t put commercial concerns first? When we think about the book browsing experience in these terms, the search becomes a lot more interesting. What works of fiction published today, if any, will people be reading in fifty years time, and what images or typefaces will these stories be associated with? What book designers will have a posthumous exhibition held in honor of their work at Colombia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library? In the digital age, will there be a cover as iconic as Cugat’s for The Great Gatsby, ever again?

It’s difficult to say. But all of these questions invite us to reexamine our own interactions with book design — paperback, hardcover, digital. When we read a book, we can consider our preconceived notions via its design, as well as how all its visual elements affect our holistic reading experience. Perhaps a book design takes on personal aesthetic meaning simply by virtue of its association with a text that resonates, just as — of course — the opposite relationship is also possible. 

If we expect or crave whole-book design, it’s up to us to pay increased attention to how or why this matters.  

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