Mindless and irresistible as chain letters or online surveys, most internet challenges are like Michael Corleone’s mob in “The Godfather: Part III.” You imagine you’ve given them the slip and they suck you back in. As a rule, I avoid these seductive time traps. Yet there I was recently, scrolling through Instagram for the 10th time that day, when I stumbled on the Seven Day Book Cover Challenge and was instantly hooked.
Actually, that’s a misstatement. This innocuous game, which asks users to post a photo of a book cover on a social media platform every day for a week, requires an invitation; it is a challenge, after all. Since no one had actually tagged me, I figured I’d ask.
The person I approached was the fashion illustrator and stylist Bill Mullen, whose droll feed — equal parts memoir, style commentary and grim account of a renovation from hell conducted by an upstairs neighbor he refers to as Minnie Castavet — has become digital catnip for those of us hooked on a growing trend for using Instagram to write long.
Some Literary Show-and-Tell
Mullen himself had been challenged by @thebookmarc, the bookselling branch of the designer Marc Jacobs’s empire, and his daily book posts skewed irresistibly toward oddball obscurities.
Day 1 found him posting a crumbling, yellowed paperback copy of “The Velvet Underground,” a 1963 investigation into “aberrant behavior” among consenting adults, an image he accessorized with an assortment of sex toys that looked like they would hurt. Day 2 featured an unknown (to me) fan-bio-cum-takedown of Blondie by the great and lamented rock critic Lester Bangs, with a cover featuring a youthful Debbie Harry.
There followed on Day 3 a vintage Charles Addams book of cartoons and, next, a copy of the 1965 “Hollywood Babylon,” Kenneth Anger’s lascivious (and factually dubious) account of the inhabitants of Tinseltown and their sordid antics.
And so it went, through titles devoted to the occult (a core interest of Mullen’s; he frequently cites Laurie Cabot, Official Witch of Salem, Mass., when recommending a color of the day) and, separately, Robert Mapplethorpe. It ended — with neither comment nor review, as the challenge mandates — on Day 7 with an original slipcased copy of Jacqueline Susann’s deathless 1966 “Valley of the Dolls.”
As with so much else on Instagram, Mullen’s choices were offbeat and campy and also autobiographical, as literary show-and-tell tends to be. His apparent fascination with stuff once culturally marginal and now squarely in the mainstream seemed deliciously synchronous with my own. Because the terms of the challenge (which has been around for some time in various iterations, alternately devoted to books as sources of knowledge or else as pretty objects) stipulated that each post stand alone, there was minimal pressure to flaunt one’s erudition.
It Made Sense at the Time
This, too, had its appeal. Once, in a long ago interview, the filmmaker Joel Schumacher remarked that — while he would not want them all simultaneously to walk into one room — he did not regret anyone he’s ever slept with. This, essentially, is how I feel about my books. Each, in its own way, made sense at the time. Most are still around, though I don’t think about them all that much.
The titles I chose were not so much intended to frame my intellectual landscape as to provide a frisson or engender a laugh. I posted what I liked and what came readily to hand. With each volume laid out on a rug in my apartment I did my best with an iPhone to prevent my shadow from falling across, say, a rare copy of “My Face for the World to See,” the autobiography of the Warhol superstar Candy Darling and a book whose cover — the pink vinyl of a schoolgirl’s diary, replete with gilded lock — obviates any need to bother with the text.
Next I posted “Ceylon,” a 1950 book of gauzy homoerotic black-and-white photographs by Lionel Wendt, a pianist and polymath Pablo Neruda deemed the pivotal figure in the evolution of national identity in postcolonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. I was delighted to discover that book, having forgotten I owned it, and bemused afterward to learn that it now sells online for $1,800. After that came Dennis Cooper’s too little appreciated 1984 novella “Safe,” a book whose black-and-white cover photograph of an orgasmic man seemed prophetic in its resemblance to that on Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 best-selling novel, “A Little Life.”
These were followed by a Pocket Series chapbook of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1986 “Roman Poems,” and an austere catalog from a 2001 exhibition mounted by the Institute for Contemporary Arts at the University of Pennsylvania and devoted to the visionary fashion designer (and gay liberation hero) Rudi Gernreich — he of the topless monokini and the thong.
‘A Very Welcome Rabbit Hole’
“I never even knew that book existed,” Jennifer Baker, executive vice president of Bookmarc, said of the Gernreich volume, with its dark title, “Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion.”
In a sense it was Baker’s “fall down a very welcome rabbit hole” that set in motion my involvement in the challenge, since it was she who challenged Bill Mullen after having been challenged by the hairstylist Jimmy Paul, who had in turn been challenged by the makeup artist Dick Page.
“I got out all the books I had in closets,” Baker said by telephone from her Los Angeles office. “I got the boxes out and found myself surrounded by books and thinking about all the feelings I have around books, that visceral connection to them, and not listening to Rachel Maddow for a change.”
Like her, I took a deep and almost physical pleasure in the discoveries the book-a-day challenge produced. I knew in advance from his recondite Instagram account that a friend I challenged, the filmmaker Amos Poe, would produce surprises. He did not disappoint.
Starting the week somberly with the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” a volume that, as it happened, had provided inspiration for the 1984 Style Council song “Ghosts of Dachau,” Poe then leavened his offerings on Day 2 with a pulp fiction comic of the 1940s.
Lillian Ross’s breezy “Portrait of Hemingway” and a paperback Signet copy of Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” came next. Unlike myself, Poe was lavish in sharing the challenge, and although his invitation to play was taken up with relish by the historian and critic Luc Sante and the biographer Robert Becker, some he tapped demurred. Apparently not everyone thrills to the harmless voyeurism of peering into other people’s back pages, as Baker of Bookmarc pointed out.
“The hardest part, quite frankly, was challenging seven different people and finding that only a few lived up to it,” she said. “Fashion people followed the rules more than the book people,” she added, which makes sense given that fashion is a largely conformist undertaking while literature depends for its existence on unruly types.
The Thrill of Possession
Still, the book cover challenge was both “lighthearted and inspiring,” Baker said, in part because it evoked the thrill of possession she experienced upon unwrapping a special-ordered copy of Jean Stein’s 1982 “Edie: An American Girl” one long-ago Nantucket summer and also because — as with so much else on social media — the stakes of playing along were negligible.
“We’re all adults here,” said Baker, who made wonderful, quirky choices in her postings of Joseph Szabo’s 2003 photo essay “Teenage” (published by the magical and now dormant Greybull Press); David Bailey’s 1964 “Rock and Roll Heroes”; Nan Goldin’s 1993 “The Other Side”; and also a first-edition copy of Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays,” with its cover illustration of a tequila sunrise Los Angeles skyline and a rattler coiled in silhouette.
“I didn’t originally read that particular cover. The cover I read was a stinky, smelly, yellowing 1970s paperback with a tacky illustration of Mariah smoking a cigarette,” Baker said, referring to the novel’s protagonist, Mariah Wyeth, that emblem of mid-20th-century acedia. “I discovered the original edition way later, and just giving it a revisit for the challenge completely brought back that excitement that wells up in your chest when you hold a favorite book.”
Follow Guy Trebay on Instagram: @guytrebay.
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