An Examination of Book Covers

I originally published this on a long defunct personal site on May 5, 2010.  Here it is, rescued and unrevised.

I judge a lot of books by their covers. A good cover can make a book stick out among the hundreds of titles that are glazed over upon any visit to a book store. An example of this is the cover for Roberto Bolano’s 2666, the design was talked about widely and sort of turned the book into an accessory rather than a piece of literature.

Penguin Books has known the importance of design for a long time. The publishing house is responsible for some of the most enthralling cover design in the history of mass market publishing. Some of my favorite Penguin covers come from their line of Penguin Classics. The format of the design is a black bottom third of the cover with the title and author paired with a piece of art in the top two thirds. This has proved to be an extremely flexible and successful format. There are many people who buy the Penguin Classics edition of a book even when a cheaper version is available. The World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto is famous for carrying the complete Penguin Classics catalogue of over 1,300 titles. One of my favorite title/artwork pairings is Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil with Wenzel Hablik’s The Path of Genius. While not a literal application, the painting’s gradient from dark perilous imagery on the bottom to bright idyllic crystal-like architecture on the top illustrates the philosopher’s path to enlightenment, or in Nietzsche’s case: from man to “super man”. Penguin paired Nietzsche and Hablik again for the cover of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and for Ecce Homo an Egon Schiele self-portrait was used. Ecce Homo is a wily autobiography and one of Nietsche’s final writings, pairing the title with Schiele’s decrepit and grotesque self-imagery instantly solidifies in the reader’s mind both Nietzsche’s struggle with philosophy and eventual descent into madness.

Still, Penguin isn’t always on target with its covers. The cover for D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover has got to be one of the most heavy handed and crude in the 1,300 title catalogue. A better painting to use would have been Interacting Figures by George Condo or The Mistress and the Servant by Felix Valloton. The former intuitively brings to mind the novel’s themes of mind/body disparity and social conflict, and even hints at more meaningful subtexts like: can you tell where someone lies in the class system when their clothes are off? The latter painting is by a contemporary of Lawrence’s and is intrinsically linked to the social climate that the book was written in, also evoking themes of class and sexuality, albeit, less abstractly than Condo’s piece.

Another miss, though not nearly as bad, is the use of a de Kooning painting for the cover of Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories. The cover is definitely reaching for that higher meaning that Penguin is known for, but falls short in a few ways. While de Kooning’s Two Figures communicates the confusion and discombobulation evident in Barthelme’s distinctive style, it lacks the serrated wit and feeling of grim cynicism that Barthelme so keenly captured. A more appropriate piece for Barthelme’s 60 Stories would have been Francis Bacon’s Painting (1946).

In some cases a well designed cover can lift a title from genre-specific obscurity to the realm of widely read literature. A good way to reintroduce an obscure genre, author or title to a new audience is to revamp the collection entirely. There are many cases where books have been pigeonholed into a genre and dismissed by a wider audience, or not even marketed widely based upon expectations of the genre. The work of H.P. Lovecraft, once dismissed as a pulp, is now enjoying a rebirth of sorts. The fact that Penguin released three collections of his under its Classics banner has served a large part in rebranding his horror fiction to a wider audience. An author I would like to see “rebranded” is Arthur C. Clarke. His stories have in many ways, like Lovecraft’s, transcended the science fiction genre and entered the sphere of cultural ubiquity. An artist that would match Clarke’s stories well is Wayne Coyne. Otherwise famous for being in the band The Flaming Lips, he is an accomplished artist whose sci fi style mixes paint drips and splotches with more precise figures and scenery.

Buying a book solely based on a judgement of its cover has introduced me to authors like Jorge Louis Borges and Graham Greene. Borges is now one of my favorite authors and I may never have enjoyed him if his covers were not so striking. It would be nice to see Penguin widen its gate a little to let more genre authors in, while at the same time not stamping a work with the “classic” label simply because it is old and English professors seem to think it’s important.