Book Covers

A secular age

Over the weekend, I found a used, hardbound copy of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age for twenty percent of its retail price. Needless to say I was pleased. I did encounter an interesting anomaly, though. The dust jacket is designed to cover the bottom three quarters of the book leaving the top, on which Charles Taylor’s name is embossed, uncovered on the front and spine. Needless to say, it further piqued my curiosity about a book that has long been on my “want” list.

It has been said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which is quite true. I’ve read truly important books with prosaic covers and dull or unsubstantial books with attractive ones. But one thing can be said about book cover design–it is meant to get the reader to pick up the book and at least consider buying it (or read an online preview). I think one of the delights of a physical bookstore is the visual delight we gain just browsing the covers of books.

My wife and I are fans of the British comedy, As Time Goes By. The leading male character, Lionel Hardcastle, is an aspiring author who manages to get his memoir, My Life in Kenya, published. He is alarmed when he becomes the subject of a photo shoot for the cover dressed in khakis and bush hat with a rifle in arm and a scantily clad woman clinging to his leg. His publisher, Alistair, tells him that all this has one object–to visually say “pick me up and buy me.”

That worked like a charm for me as an young teenager picking up copies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Yes, you guessed it–Bond in some exotic setting surrounded with buxom women in bikinis. At least it worked until my dad found my stash of Bond paperbacks and tossed them.

My first edition of Lord of the Rings was the Ballantine Books paperbacks published in the 1970’s with artwork that formed a triptych. I’d heard from my friends that this was an incredible adventure fantasy, and the cover art suggested the same thing.

lotr

I am a fan of the work of David McCullough, and one of the things I have found is that the cover art on his books always represents what I will find within the pages, something I think should be a criterion. Here is his cover for The Greater Journey, about Americans who lived in Paris during the nineteenth century.

the-greater-journey

Last fall, while recovering from foot surgery, I re-read Anna Karenina in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It is a great translation of this sprawling Tolstoy work centered around Anna’s illicit love affair. While I didn’t buy the book because of the cover (I had heard great things about the translation–really!), the cover leaves no doubt about the sexual undercurrent of the book, without being distasteful.

anna-karenina

Over the years I’ve admired the cover art on a number of books published by InterVarsity Press (I will acknowledge that I work for the parent organization with which this publisher is associated). I do know that this reflects an intentional effort as expressed in their statement of values where they state “Aiming for thoughtful integration of the whole person and placing emphasis on the dignity of people and relationships, IVP practices beauty and stewardship in our work.”

One of their books that caught my attention over forty years ago, not only for its astute cultural analysis, but also for the graphic design of its cover was The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, which included a work of contemporary art against a white background with the title and author in a very clean font. Here it is:

Dust of Death

That tradition of aesthetically striking design combined with content has been carried on down to the present. Here is the cover of a publication I recently reviewedOur Deepest Desires:

Our Deepest Desires

I realize this is quite subjective and others may choose different, and surely better examples, but the covers of books, much like LP album covers, are a part of the reading experience. We encounter books primarily through our eyes (although touch and even smell are also part of it with physical books, and sound with audiobooks). I have to confess that some books I’ve kept not only because of content, but for how they appear on my shelves.

I’ve just scratched the surface and would love to hear about and see book covers that you love, and the role book covers play in your own reading experience.

3 thoughts on “Book Covers

  1. FYI:
    “Criteria” is the plural form of “criterion.”

    I do admire your posts on books, bookstores, reading and Youngstown.

  2. Yes, Bob, this is subjective, but those who design the covers understand that. I could never understand those who buy books, and immediately throw the covers in the trash. I find that horrifying! Even when they fall apart I use the flaps, spine, front and back as book markers. Your perceptions about some of the examples you cite such as Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Guiness’ “The Dust of Death” resonated with me. Those in the industry who strive for meaningful and artistic covers – as opposed to the norm of those that appeal to mankind’s baser instincts – are to be commended.

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