The Happy Reader has attracted a vast and loyal following since it first flew through letterboxes and landed on newsstands in the winter of 2014. Each issue of the quarterly has two halves: an in-depth interview and an in-depth look at one piece of classic literature. The first issue featured actor Dan Stevens and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and the magazine has since seen cover stars including Kim Gordon, Grimes and Alan Cumming.
The publication grew out of conversation between Penguin Books, Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers about how their way of making magazines could be applied to classic literature. To mark the launch of its sixth issue, with Ethan Hawke and Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling, we spoke to The Happy Reader’s editor Seb Emina about the process of making the magazine to read.
The Happy Reader really lends itself to becoming dog-eared. Was getting away from print as an object “to be seen and not read” an important consideration?
Seb Emina: Yes, print can easily become a fetish, like the hipster romance novels in a cafe that no one looks at, but everyone loves to consider. We really wanted The Happy Reader to be interacted with, and that’s an instance where print just is better. It gets battered, you can read it whilst walking, fold it over, hold it in one hand like a book and have your coffee in the other – you don’t feel like you can’t use it. That’s something that Jop van Bennekom and Helios Capdevila were thinking about [when developing the design concept].
It was also designed to work on a subscription basis, so you already know that the audience will receive the magazine in an envelope and read it. You don’t have to worry so much about how it’s going to battle it out with other magazines. But as it’s turned out, we sell loads over the counter, and because Jop and Helios made such a beautiful product it’s displayed really well.
The design shifts slightly with each issue, with elements of the layout changing position and shape. What’s the thinking behind this?
SE: We want it to be a living thing, rather than just having a template that we keep dropping content into. The cover is always slightly different, the contents have moved to the front in this issue having always been on the back page, and the endpapers always change and often have a subtle link to the book of the season. Penguin’s designer Matt Young, who designs every issue, is brilliant at shaking things up in a way that still always leaves it feeling like it’s recognisably The Happy Reader.
One constant is that every issue is 64 pages. That’s a very important constraint – for example the interview has to end at at the very centre, at the staple, because the magazine effectively has two covers, one for the interview and one for the book. All of the small changes are much-debated every time and hopefully at least five vigilant people will notice them and appreciate them, but even if they don’t, that’s OK, we know.
The design also ties in to where The Happy Reader sits between the literary and magazine – having thumb-space on each page and the notes that combine key points with witty sideways glances.
SE: The side notes can seem like they’ve been dashed off but sometimes we spend four hours writing two sentences. I never want us to just go onto Wikipedia and paraphrase what we find there, I always want something that takes work to research.
For example, in the winter issue, there’s one note I wrote that’s attached to a comment in the Grimes interview about the unbelievable vocabulary Joanna Newsom uses in lyrics. Starting at 11pm, I looked through all of her song lyrics, and I finished around 3am. All to create a miniature list of odd words she uses like ‘asterisms’ and ‘burro’. Was it worth it? Who knows.
When putting something into context, you never really know how far it needs to go until it’s there, or it’s gone too far.
SE: Yes, I always feel like there’s an intangible way that you can tell when there were loads of options that weren’t used. I’ve had painful moments where I’ve had to kill whole articles, even when it’s a good piece as sometimes the balance of the issue just won’t allow it. And working with Jop and Gert, they’re real perfectionists. They’ll keep sending back your headline until it passes muster. It’s nice to be held to a standard.
“Having had this kind of binge-reading relationship with online content for 15 years, we’re starting to think “Hang on, we only have finite time and there is infinite content’.”
People know that if something is in the magazine it is worth reading, that’s a great thing about print in many ways, there is a limitation to space. Having had this kind of binge-reading relationship with online content for 15 years, we’re starting to think “Hang on, we only have finite time and there is infinite content”.
You used to run The London Review of Breakfasts – a blog devoted to the most important meal of the day – and there is a similarity between that and The Happy Reader in that they are both framed by a loose but definitive theme.
SE: Yes, with both the breakfast blog and any given book of the season in The Happy Reader, I suppose it’s about looking at something really closely and then connecting it to a load of other stuff. So a book about people living in a remote part of Sweden can give rise to an article about the resurgence of wolves in Scandinavia, or a piece about why there are two bands that have taken a novel as their name.
How do you decide on the Book of the Season for each issue (which occupies the second half of the magazine, with a selection of writing on and around the book in question)?
SE: It’s based on a lot of different factors. Partly, it’s looking at books we’ve already had and asking how we can make the next one different. We also always want to have a vague link to the calendar season. So for the winter 2015 issue it was Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, a book about shopping, which is exactly we are always pressured to do in winter. It was a mischievous way of doing a kind of Christmas special.
The book for this season is Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling. The link to spring isn’t so literal but the sections of the book that talk about that season are really beautiful. When you live in a wintry country, spring’s arrival is far more dramatic. We wanted to emphasise that – the folktale-ish-ness of it all.
In a way, the whole concept of the magazine is the endless rich well of beautiful ideas and images contained in classic literature, as refracted through the prism of Jop and Gert’s magazine aesthetic.
It introduces so many interesting themes, each essay feels so much about that essay rather than being chapters of one thing.
SE: I always think about two types of reader, one who has and one who hasn’t read the book of the season, and I try to play both sides. You can read, I don’t know, The Book of Tea section and just enjoy lots of cool writing about international tea culture, but if you’ve read the book you’ll get these little winks as well.
There’s a piece about a florist and it doesn’t say why it’s there, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know there is a beautiful chapter about flowers… it’s almost like a puzzle. I think of it as: If a book were to be guest editor of a style magazine, what would it commission? What would it want in the magazine? And that’s what we try and come up with.
“If a book were to be guest editor of a style magazine, what would it commission? That’s what we try and come up with.”
So the florist in The Book of Tea might read the piece about the florist in The Happy Reader.
SE: Yes, exactly. It’s like you’re pushing the book through this strange magazine machine and an issue of The Happy Reader pops out the other side.
In Issue Four with Alan Cumming on the cover, we chose The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, an early sci-fi novel in which a volcano erupts in the South Pacific, killing everyone on the planet except for one man. It’s a very weird book and our section on it is accordingly apocalyptic. But there is one brief moment where he’s living in a palace of gold, just because he can, and every night he takes a bath in a lake of wine. So we sent this wine writer from Paris to go and have the closest thing that exists to a wine bath, which is this spa in France offering a treatment called ‘vinotherapy’, where you bathe in red vine extract.
I think the confidence to stick with a subject really adds to The Happy Reader. It encourages a commitment that isn’t often asked of you by a magazine.
SE: People underestimate their attention spans, especially with something like a Q&A – they really keep your interest, and even when you’ve only been talking for an hour, you have so many words. We wanted to say, “Look, we’ve got this time with a really significant cultural figure. Someone who we all recognise, so let’s make the most of it”.
When two people sit down and talk for a while there can be an amazing meeting of ideas and personalities, and you can feel them at best becoming friends. And as a subject matter, what could be more intimate than reading? And yet, what could be more inviting for someone to talk about. It’s not like we’re asking people to tell us about the breakdown of their relationship or to speak positively and briefly about their latest project, it’s much more real. Once you have someone on board, through the prism of reading and books you can talk about just about anything.