Poor Things

The top of the spine of a first edition copy of Alasdair Gray's novel 'Poor Things'.

With the recent release of the movie adaptation of it, there has been much discussion of late about Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel Poor Things. It’s a book I only got around to reading a few years ago. In August 2020 I ordered a first edition copy with a lightly distressed dust-jacket for less than £5, postage & all. Now one might be hard-pressed to find a similar volume for under £50.

I enjoyed the story, though I wasn’t enamoured with all the aspects of Gray’s evidently hands-on approach to book design. I have to admit I’m just not that fond of his illustrations. The whimsical blurbs on the front dust-jacket flap left me cold, as did the fake reviews on the rear one. While (as far as I know) the typography wasn’t Gray’s own handiwork, I thought it too left something to be desired. One thing I did very much like, on the other hand, was the cover design.

It features boldly stylized thistles in silver on blue cloth, and above them Gray’s oft-repeated motto “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” – words to live by, which for him would have been tied up with his devotion to the cause of Scottish Nationalism. On the acknowledgments page of the book, it states that “The epigraph on the covers is from a poem by Denis Leigh” when the poet’s name was actually Dennis Lee, and the lines he’d written that had inspired Gray were in his poem ‘Civil Elegies’, published in ‘72:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early years of a better civilization.

The cover of a first edition copy of Alasdair Gray's novel 'Poor Things'.