A Book AND Its Cover

What makes you pick up a new release from the tables at the front of Barnes & Noble? You might recognize the title, or the author, or it might just be the cover. Some books cry out to be investigated further. A good cover design captures the feel of the novel and the browser’s eye with equal facility. Years later, just seeing the leafy jungle cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude brings back the whole story.

The New York Times has published its annual “15 best” compilation of covers (slide show). I’d need to know more about some of the books to know whether the covers really nailed it, but I must say the amazingly simple cover for the reissue of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying certainly does. It’s fearless and would certainly have failed a censor’s scrutiny, if there were such a post as Defender of Dust Jacket Decorum.

The ability to capture the essence of a book is very different from the generic approaches typically used in genre fiction. The shootouts, dark alleys, and steamy sex on these covers, although possibly eye-catching, could pretty much be used on any number of Western, mystery, and romance novels. (A quick and clever blog post on the latter can be found here.)

In the Times compilation, see whether you like the covers for F – Poems by Franz Wright and Middle C by William H. Gass as much as I did. I’m tired of the chalkboard writing style of The Art of Sleeping Alone, first noticed last year on The Fault in Our Stars. If you look at the B&N tables just from a design perspective, you can spot trends and copycats. Book jacket design, like everything else designy, has fashions and fads. Amazon’s blurb for Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design, calls the parade of covers for the publisher’s various book lines, which began marching forth in 1935, to be “a constantly evolving part of Anglo-American culture and design history.” Another intriguing book on the topic is Alan Powers’s Front Cover. Powers also has assembled a collection of children’s book covers and their many influential illustrators.

Book covers are designed to appeal to specific readers, which creates an interesting gender dilemma. Check that B&N table and ask yourself, is this a book for men or women or both? Women writers are concerned their books receive the “pretty” treatment, which means men are very unlikely to read them. More on this issue here—and be sure to check out this post’s coverflip slides, which show how covers of popular books might have been presented had the authors been the other gender. Eye-opening.

Notable covers on books I read this year included the one for Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. The blue version (top), which I have (or had, since I seem to have made the mistake of lending it out), suggests the massing and subtle movement of butterflies in the trees, the phenomenon that leveraged the story’s action. I much prefer it to the more literal treatment given the Kindle edition (middle) or, least imaginative of all, the UK edition (bottom).

Another gem was the cover for Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which gives a pretty darn accurate assessment of how that particular meal went. A linen tablecloth can do only so much.

My take on both these books can be found in the Reading . . . section of this website, with The Dinner in the audio list.