Happy birthday, Patience and Fortitude!

I have never made the pilgrimage to the New York Public Library, but I’ve seen enough movies and looked at enough images to recognize the two iconic lion statues out front. In fact, Fortitude in particular played a large part of my childhood for his opening shot in Ghostbusters. At the time, though, I had no idea they had names, and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that these two iconic statues had names. Meet Patience (on the south side of the entrance) and Fortitude (on the north side of the entrance).

This majestic pair happens to be 109 years old today, and were carved by the Piccirilli Brothers in 1911. The Piccirilli Brothers were paid $5,000 for their contribution to the New York Public Library’s front door, and they carved them out of pink Tennessee Marble. They’ve been cleaned and restored periodically throughout their lives, most recently in 2019.

What I hadn’t known until researching this pair was that Patience and Fortitude are not their original names. Instead, they were named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders of the New York Public Library (John Jacob Astor and James Lenox). Their names were changed in the 1930s by the mayor of New York to Patience and Fortitude, because he felt these were two qualities the residents needed to get through the Great Depression.

So give a thought to this majestic pair of library mascots on this day, the day of their christening, as you open your book to read. They’ve seen over a century(!) of New York history and become an iconic representation of one of the best-known libraries in the United States. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

For some further reading:

New York Public Library: The Library Lions

New York Public Library: The New York Public Library’s Iconic Lions Are Restored, Repaired, and Ready to Roar

Classic New York History: New York Public Library Lions: Patience and Fortitude

Top Cats: The Life and Times of the New York Public Library Lions

I’m here to ruin the magic of book covers.

The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the literary world. Books live and die by how eye-catching and unique their covers are, how well they stick out to consumers browsing bookshelves. Imagine the last time you were in a bookstore, library, or otherwise browsing books. Was it a particular color, a particular style, a particular layout that made you pull that copy off the shelf? I’d like to say that I’m immune to all the gimmicks publishers use to get someone to buy their books, but I’m just as guilty as the next person of being suckered into pulling a book off a shelf solely based on the cover.

I never really stopped to consider what goes into the making of a book cover, and maybe assumed (naively?) that it was like any other art form — each was its own unique snowflake in a blizzard called a bookstore. But then my friends started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (which I also read back in 2017) and one of them pointed out that the cover looked familiar to another book they knew of. Suddenly, the magic of book covers was ruined for me. And now I’m here to ruin it for anyone else who was like me, with literary blinders on.

What I learned from probing a bit deeper into this strange new factoid I had stumbled on is that, much like anything else in the modern world, book covers rely heavily on templates and stock photography. The same small cohort of photographers crop up time and time again in the credits of book cover images, and their photographs are added to stock image packages that many designers pull from. These stock images are then applied again and again, because if it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Like most things in life now, the essence of a book cover has been distilled and watered down by marketing professionals everywhere to include only the basic items necessary to appeal to the most adults possible (curiously, children’s and YA books seem immune to this formulaic approach). Book covers go through trends, where some years the fad is handscript titles with simple handmade illustrations (think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars), other years the single-object-on-white-background is appealing (Malcom Gladwell says hi). When marketers and book designers tap into these trends, they tend to run with them, and run them into the ground. What we’re left with in today’s world of same-ism are a lot of covers that start to become indistinguishable from each other.

My dad had a wall of books when I was growing up, mostly pulp sci-fi from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I remember looking through a lot of those book covers and wondering at how different they all were from each other. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this trend of book cover cloning before, but now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t unsee it. Certainly there’s exceptions to the rule, but the bestsellers all have similar covers. Probably for a reason.

Interesting related links:

Entertainment Weekly: Books with strangely similar covers

Eye on Design: Why do so many book covers look the same? Blame Getty Images

The Atlantic: Book cover clones: Why do so many recent novels look alike?

The New Yorker: The decline and fall of the book cover