The latest Instagram trend is photos featuring books from a trendy, semi-obscure collection.
Last fall, Jessica Ferri, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, posted a photo to Instagram of her morning tableau: a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, a mug of coffee and a paperback novel she was reading, “Other Men’s Daughters” by Richard Stern.
Earlier this year, she posted another artfully arranged scene: pen and spiral-bound notebook, frothy mug and “The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick.”
Ferri’s reading choices have something in common besides being posed next to breakfast foods: They are New York Review Books Classics.
An offshoot of the literary magazine The New York Review of Books, the NYRB Classics imprint specializes in reissuing volumes that have fallen out of print or been otherwise neglected, such as J.R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip,” a strange 1956 memoir about being a dog owner, and “The Door,” an English translation of a 1987 novel by Hungarian author Magda Szabo.
Unexpectedly, NYRB books, which sell for around $15 apiece, have also become design objects and totems of intellectual status.
Indie bookstores all over the country devote entire shelves to displaying the handsome paperbacks. TV shows and films including “The Gilmore Girls” and “A Bigger Splash” have used them as props. And social media is full of praise, including from actress Kat Dennings, who tweeted, “I love you, @nyrbclassics,” along with a photo of one of the nearly 500 books in the series, “In the Café of Lost Youth” by French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano.
“The NYRB books are really gorgeous and well done,” Ferri says. “They’re begging to be photographed, basically.”
Every title has a colorful spine and back cover, and a matching color-blocked text box, or cartouche, on the center-front. The cover image is often a moody painting or photograph. The distinctive yet uniform design makes the series instantly recognizable, not unlike the old Penguin Classics with their orange-and-black covers.
“Simplicity is what I was thinking about,” says Katy Homans, the graphic designer who created the NYRB Classic look. “And also, I love color.” She is forgiving of those who may not have slogged through the prose before hitting “share.”
“It’s a pretty heady group of books,” Homans says. “If people are interested because they have a red spine, that’s great.”
Stephanie Valdez, an owner of the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn — which groups its large selection of NYRB Classics prominently near the register — likened the NYRB imprint to a cool record label (think Blue Note jazz LPs with their graphic blue dot, or Sub Pop).
“People who know about the series are excited to see so many in one place, or if they’ve never heard of them, they’re drawn to them,” Valdez says.
Like a band T-shirt, the NYRB books signify something about the owner. François-René de Chateaubriand’s “Memoirs from Beyond the Grave,” or “The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Dundy, which is one of Greta Gerwig’s 10 favorite books, are unlikely to be sold in a big chain store. To read the NYRB reissues of such titles suggests an awareness that some things are under the mainstream radar, and worth seeking out.
Edwin Frank, who founded the Classics imprint in 1999, and continues to edit the series along with a colleague, Sara Kramer, says fostering a sense of discovery was a central goal. “We don’t do books that are widely published elsewhere and available at cheap prices,” Frank says.
It’s no surprise that some of the greatest fans of the series are people in the publishing industry and writers like Ferri, or else voracious readers like Hayanna Kim. A so-called bookstagrammer, who posts her latest reads to social media, Kim has discovered Eve Babitz and other lesser-known writers through the series, but has learned her favorites aren’t for everyone.
“When I recommend books like Renata Adler, some people don’t get it,” she says. “But that’s the point.”