Judge a book by its cover?
31st May 2011 - Adam Howard
I feel bad for Alice Munro. Her short stories, are the best in the world - elegant, subtle, and deeply human, she can say more in one sentence than some writers say in entire novels. The covers, though....well, I'm sure they appeal to some, but to me they vary between being rather dull, as with her 2000 collection The Love of a Good Woman, to being decidedly chick-lit-ish, as with the cover of her astonishing 2006 collection Runaway .
It's no-one's fault, really. As Munro writes almost exclusively about women, it makes sense for publishers to attempt to appeal to that market, and I can imagine a designer struggling to come up with an image that reflected the depth and richness whilst still appealing to a larger audience. And if it does appeal to a larger audience because of it, then great. My trouble with it is that it doesn't do what good book design is supposed to do: reflect the content inside. To me, a boring cover looks boring.
Because the old adage that you can't judge a book by its cover seems to me to apply to everything but books. A good book cover will tell you in one image exactly what a book is like, hinting at plot whilst loudly proclaiming tone and mood. Take for example the recent cover of Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel Falling Man. The image indicates its subject matter in a way that is instantly recognisable and suitably shocking, whilst perfectly reflecting the cold, detached tone of DeLillo's prose. Brian Cronin's illustrations for John Wyndham's novels perfectly capture the downbeat, nonplussed mood of Wyndham's particular brand of apocalyptic science fiction. It's a fine art, but when it's done right it fits the right book to the right reader powerfully.
When Penguin first started publishing classics in paperback, they deliberately rejected the garish illustrations of the time, instead opting for a utilitarian orange-and-white for fiction, green-and-white for crime, and so on, before competition meant that they started using illustrations and, eventually, contemporary book design emerged. I don't think the sole purpose of book covers is to sell books, though. It's a tendency of mine, and many others, to treat books as objects and to hold them dear to my heart, not only for their content but as things, so when the purse-strings will allow it I'll always be willing to spend a few extra pounds on a nicer cover. I'd much rather splash out for the lovely Penguin Deluxe edition of Moby Dick than a cheaper, less lovely edition, I often find myself browsing books that usually wouldn't appeal to me at all simply by the virtue of their covers, like Dan Abnett's Warhammer tie-in novels, and I know people who collect old illustrated Pelican books because their covers are so distinctive.
The reason so many of us are mourning the death of printed books isn't just stick-in-the-mud resistance to change, it's because with it, book design will in part, die. I don't think I'll be able to treasure data files in the same way.