Literature on Playing Cards

No. 2, December 1996 - January, 1997

For other issues, related links, the catalog of my entire collection, and other administrative or trivial issues, please jump to the end of the page.

This is not about books. It's about cards about books. While there is a fair body of literature about playing cards, there is a much greater number of decks of cards about literature. From the quaint caricatures of characters from a Dickens novel to a thematic analysis of James Joyce, there are decks of cards to suit every taste and reading level. If it's true to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, a deck of playing cards only barely scratches by as a short story; but as commentary, parody or illustration, they're often sublime, and always at least a pleasure to behold.

As always, I can only focus on cards I myself have, and I have but six decks to present in this issue. But let me assure you that each deck alone could fill the same space, and I still might wonder whether I'm doing them justice. I assure you that, in this format, I am most certainly not. But if I can inspire someone out there to go see the decks for themselves, or even better, inspire someone to make a new one altogether, then I have succeeded in my aim.

For this issue, I have: a pair of really detailed, complex and intricate decks from Presage International of Switzerland, one dealing with Ulysses, by James Joyce, and the other the life and works of Oscar Wilde; a reproduction of a deck of cards of caricatures from the Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens; a deck (from B.P. Grimaud) celebrating the works of Jules Verne; a children's card-house deck based on Alice in Wonderland; and a collection of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. I think that pretty much runs the gamut.

I decided not to include all the various "Authors" decks I have, which serve to list out the major works by famous authors, grouped in various classes. Not that I think these are somehow inferior to the ones focusing on individual authors or works, but I had just too many of them to be able to show any of them well. Perhaps in a future issue I'll bring out all of those. And they are many.

[Oscar Wilde][James Joyce]Let's start from the top, as it were. These two decks made by Presage International are easily among the most complex and carefully thought-out cards in my possession. More than just a simple scattering of images, these are detailed, deliberate decks with many internal parallels and themes, bringing the whole together in an intricate weave of sense and perception, knowledge and intuition. Just the notes included in the decks alone are a great introduction to the subjects of the decks. But the cards themselves bear much analysis. There is much more here than the surface. They were clearly made by people who know and love their subjects.

Presage International is yet another company I know next to nothing about. I have exactly two decks by them, and these are they. But I would guess that these two are part of a larger series of similar decks, each of which I'd love to get my hands on. They are based either in Chiasso, Switzerland, or Monte Carlo, depending on whether you trust Joyce or Wilde more. I suppose I'll just have to write them and ask for a catalog. As with all of the decks shown here, contact information for the publishers, what little of it there may be, is available from the Manufacturer's Page. Go to the bottom of the page and follow the "My Collection" link.

[Jules Verne]Next in line is the Jules Verne commemorative deck, from the B.P. Grimaud company in France. This deck was published for the inauguration of the Jules Verne Museum in his birthplace Nantes, France. It's a pretty deck, with competent if uninspired artwork, and, as with all such decks, if you know Verne's work, you'll be tickled by the deck. Only the face cards (and the Aces) have artwork on them, but the images are not haphazard. Each suit and rank has a particular theme associated with it. The deck and accompanying notes are in English, which leads me to believe that a French edition must exist somewhere.

The B.P. Grimaud Company has been making delightful and beautiful decks for a very long time. Being marooned in the US, I seldom get a chance to buy as many of their decks as I'd like. In all, though, it's probably for the best, since instead I have money for food and housing. Their decks span the whole length of playing cards, from art and literature to customs, costumes and cultures, to the purely prosaic. I have yet to own a deck of theirs I'm anything but delighted with.

[Pickwick Papers]And now for a spate of USGS decks. First among those is a deck of cards based on Charles Dickens' classic, the Pickwick Papers (actually, the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club). The card designs were originally executed as watercolors in 1931 by an artist calling himself "Kyd," quite a character in himself. From there, they passed into a private collection until auctioned off in 1981. They finally saw wide publication in a limited edition of 10,000 in 1982 by the Navarre Society (I have the unlimited USGS printing from 1984). The deck consists entirely of caricatures and character sketches of quite an alarmingly large number of characters from the book.

[Alice in Wonderland]Next is the recently released Alice in Wonderland "House of Cards®" deck. It's an oversized deck, with inch-deep notches cut out of the sides to facilitate card house construction (being a purist, I find them more a hindrance than a help). The deck is sold both alone and with a book, which I, alas, did not get. And in addition to being a standard deck is also a children's matching game. The cards are arranged in sets of three, which together complete a phrase or scene. The illustrations are faithful copies of Sir John Tenniel's famous drawings which accompanied the original work.

[Mother Goose]And finally, no collection of literature can be complete without a book of nursery rhymes. USGS, as part of their huge series of educational playing cards, has a deck with nothing more than a collection of Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes. With artwork by Virginijus Poshkus, who has to his credit an impressive number of decks in this series, this deck is precisely what anyone looking at the box would expect. And, as seems to be a popular option with children's cards, the deck also doubles as a Go-Fish-style matching game.

USGS, as many of you will already know, is a substantial manufacturer and publisher of playing cards and games, based in Stamford, Connecticut, USA. They have quite a broad line of playing cards, not nearly enough of which show up in my collection. They can be contacted at the address buried in the Manufacturer's page, which you can get to under the "My Collection" link below. Or just select this link to go directly to their entry.

The End of the Page

My collection, the list of publishers and manufacturers, and the history of my personal collection of cards can all be found in the "My Collection" page.

I thought about doing the standard Net thing and assembling a list of useful links surrounding playing cards, collecting and such, but no effort I could produce could possibly rival The Bob Lancaster Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards. And so, in deference to his monumental efforts, I provide only a link to him. I hope he doesn't have to pay by the hit...

And people are always asking me where to buy cards. There are plenty of places throughout the net that sell them, from little theme sites that happen to have a deck or two to enormous cards and games superstores. Bob's site lists many of them, but I have to confess - I just like Newt's Playing Cards. And they've got a heck of a selection.

Other Issues:

Issue 9, 10/99 - 12/99: Oh, the Places You'll Go

Issue 8, 11/98 - 12/98: Playing With Cards

Issue 7, 10/97 - 12/97: Sports Cards

Issue 6, 8/97 - 9/97: A Game of War

Issue 5, 6/97 - 7/97: Playing Cards As Art

Issue 4, 4/97 - 5/97: Court Fashions

Issue 3, 2/97 - 3/97: A Fortune in Playing Cards

Issue 2, 12/96 - 1/97: Literature on Playing Cards

Issue 1, 10/96 - 11/96: Handmade Playing Cards

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