Sunday, September 7, 2008

By The Cover

Sometimes a book cover can sell me the book, or just as easily put me off one for good. For instance:recently I was feeling a little ambivalent about wether to read Marisa Pessl's Special Topics In Calamity Physics, but the beautiful pastel roses on the cover finally endeared it to me. Similarly, I put of reading What I loved for a few extra weeks just because the cover was so inelegant.
Now this may strike you as a rather shallow approach to the sacred act of reading, but my recent reading material is the perfect example:

The cover captures the mood of the book perfectly, beautifully, without restricting the reader's imagination. It's dreamy, but there's a slight feel of terror to it. It is the perfect introduction to Rhys' novel.

A book is an object like any other. If you are at all an aesthetic, you look for beauty in the objects you have around. It is in our nature to have taste, likes and dislikes, and to reflect them onto the objects we acquire, regardless of their use, or purpose.

Obviously I would not recommend buying a book just because it has a beautiful cover, but the cover can also, to some extent, imply something about the content. For instance, a cover in any shade of pink, or any other pastel, with a silhouette of a woman on it (or a martini glass, or a handbag, or heck, a poodle), is usually a marker of a genre of literature, I am not too enamored with. Not to be a snob, or anything (like one could be a snob after saying they read Special Topics).

Similarly, there are markers that indicate, not only the obvious genre, but the literary, and even emotional characteristics of a book. Sombre black-and-white images, often of a building, or a desolate landscape, or some detail, like an arm, or a stairway (whatever suits the content better), denote a serious-man-book, your Auster, your Updike.

You've got the black-and-white-picture-of-the-author-on-the-cover-variety, for those pesky dead greats, to remind you that you ought to read them just to keep up with the canon.

For the young, hip first novelists, there's the quirky, stylized lettering, maybe with lurid, contrasting colors, or more silhouettes. Your Safran-Foers, your Ferrises, get these.

And, last but, not least, there's the photograph of a decapitated, or otherwise torso-ed young woman, which universally stands for emotionally compelling writing, loved by serious girls (the imagery is necessary to ward off the unsuspecting male folk). The latter style extends to anyone from Ali Smith, to Alice Hoffman, and even Siri Hustvedt (and apparently Tolstoy!). Lauren Groff had fun things to say about this.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. A beautiful book is a joy to behold. And while that old simile we all know, may be partially right, isn't beauty, along with emotion and enlightenment, the very essence of literature?


  1. This was a really interesting post. I'm EXACTLY the same way about book covers! I've never actually thought it through like this though, so nicely put :)

    The first two covers here are both really lovely and would appeal to me as well. Funny you mentioned it because, Everything is Illuminated was one that I read completely despite the cover. I never would have chosen that book based soley on the cover.

    The latest to catch my eye while browsing in the bookstore was this. Have you read it by chance? I didn't purchase it but I keep thinking about it and I see that cover in my mind. It makes me want to follow those hippie children right into the book! I'll probably get it to read on our camping trip :)

    Hope you're doing well Miss Milla! Hugses!

  2. I'm on the same page (heh-heh). Sometimes I have to force myself to read a book with a cover I dislike and am embarrassed to be seen with them! I especially get upset when the covers don't match the story within. Personally my favorites though are plain bound books with austere lettering.

  3. Of course you've read it, I should have known! Awesome, I'll go get it tomorrow, thanks for verifying my hunch on that one... I guess you CAN judge some books by there covers :)

  4. Ha! Great post. I often judge books by their covers as well, and I don't think that's a bad thing - after all, someone put a lot of thought into constructing a cover that reflects the book.

    Actually, that's one thing I was really disappointed in with the first book I had published - they used one of my illustrations for the cover, but they put the title in Curlz (annoying Word font!). And changed the title, but that's a whole other story.

  5. i love my habit of picking up a book BECAUSE of it's cover. excellent post, thank you.

  6. I really liked this.

    I always think that "you can't judge a book by its cover" is a stupid life's absolutely not true (in the literal sense). You absolutely can judge a book by its cover.

    I always think it's hilarious how any classic novel will automatically have an 19th Century portrait on the cover.