Sunday, May 3, 2009

How else can you judge a book?

There’s no doubting that all intelligent book buyers care first and foremost about the cover.
I own over 500 books, and not one of them did I buy without considering the cover. No matter how good the writing, if the cover is bad, I’ll wait. I waited about 10 years before buying The Grapes of Wrath purely because I didn’t like the cover.

scan0010Yes it is dopey, but it can’t be denied – and the publishers know it is true as well because they spend so much effort on trying to get the cover right. Just ask Louis de Bernieres how important a good cover is.
So distinctive is the cover of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Australian artist Jeff Fisher that at the end of the film Notting Hill you can see from just a quick glimpse that it is the book Hugh Grant’s character is reading while sitting on a park bench with Julia Roberts. Apparently Fisher gets lots of requests for signed prints of the cover, and even de Bernieres acknowledged the cover “played a major part in speeding up the rate of my success”. Fisher got paid 600 Livre for it, the design company got the awards (and de Berniers the royalties).

My wife likes the book more than I do, but there’s no denying it’s a cracker of a cover.

Sometimes novels are put out in an array of covers to try and capture a certain section of the market; and it must work because I know there are some covers I ignore, and others I find irresistible.

Consider Jane Austen’s Emma. Here’s three different covers:

This one on the left screams “made for women who don’t like classics but who like chick-lit”. It came out as part of a series of generic covers of Austen’s novels; done no doubt in the hope that people will almost view them as sequels (in much the same way that say the second book by the author of The Devil Wears Prada has a similar style cover although the books have nothing in common but the author). I could never buy this book – mostly out of snobby condescension of the people to whom this cover is marketed.

The one on the right is the latest one to be done in the Penguin Classics series. You have to seriously wonder who was the blind git who chose this cover. If this is meant to be Emma Woodhouse, then I’m sorry, she doesn’t fit my picture of her.

This woman looks distinctly unappealing – why would anyone cross the room to talk to her? If I’m going to devote my time reading a novel for a month or so, I want to like the main character; and this woman is not someone I want to get to know. Yes Emma is an incredible snob; but this woman to me lacks any spark or joy that I love so much about Emma.

Here’s my copy.

It’s the previous edition of the Penguin Classics line.

It depicts a detail from some anonymous English artist’s painting “Picnicking at Devil’s Dyke, Newmarket”.

I don’t know about Devil’s Dyke, to me this scene depicts the pivotal Box Hill picnic from the novel.

It is a cover that feels like it has been chosen by someone who has actually read Austen, and knows her line about writing that “Three of four families in a country village is the very thing to work on”.
scan0003Here we see the three or four families, on which she worked so fine a brush. I shall never buy another version.

Sometimes if a new edition comes out with a cover I like, I feel odd pangs while in the book store as I wish to buy it. The latest Penguin Classics version of Anna Karenina is a case in point. Here’s my current version on the right. It’s a good enough cover. The woman does look rather Anna Karenina like.

9780140449174HBut here is the latest version:

I want this copy! It makes my old copy look, well, old. The new one is vibrant, hints at the personality and the beauty of Anna.

I am trying to convince myself that I need this new version because it is also a new translation done by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear.
The old copy doesn’t hold any sentimental value either, so all I have to do is convince myself I need a new copy of a book I already own (shouldn’t be too hard…).
Sometimes a cover doesn’t live up to what it suggests. Take the cover of Sue Woolfe’s Leaning Towards Infinity:

I have to admit I bought this novel basically because there was a photograph of a naked woman on the cover.

The blurb on the back about a housewife who happens to be a mathematical genius also intrigued me. The cover suggested something sensual and erotic – it’s a photograph from the 1920s, and the sepia tone seemed a nice contrast to the more harsh black and white covers around at the time (see The River Ophelia below).

But, I have to say I absolutely hated this novel. Hated it to the point of wishing the novel ill-health.

It seems like a book written for women who hate men. The prose was dull and lacking any poetic sense; the narrative structure, pointlessly contrived. It was a lesson for me that the cover cannot overcome the words inside. I sold it at a university second book sale that I used to be involved in running, and I felt guilty that I had allowed someone to buy it for a gold coin donation.

That said, it is a great cover.
Another cover, that is much better than the novel inside is Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia. Written in the mid-1990s and was marketed as one of the “dirty realism” novels of the time. I was thisclose to buying it due to the great cover – a lovely matte finish that was popular at the time. But the blurb about it being a raw confronting tale of modern romance put me off.

A few years later I met a woman who had read the novel. I asked her if it was any good. She said the cover was better. But then maybe I should have bought it – to buy a second hand copy of it now on Amazon will set you back US$29.

Other interesting covers are ones that I wish I owned, but sadly, by the time I got around to buying the book a new edition had came out.

scan0004On this score is an early version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:
The calligraphy and the look of a faded manuscript perfectly captures the sense and meaning of the novel. It doesn’t even matter that the whole left side of the cover contains quotes from reviewers.

It sure beats the heck out of the copy that I have – one of the generic Eco covers that came out in the 1990s (on the right). And while I don’t mind that cover (I did buy the book after all), I have a friend in South Australia who I see every Christmas time who has a copy of the older version on his bookshelf.

And every year a tiny part of me thinks about stealing the copy!
I keep looking for it in second hand stores, but have never come across a copy with this cover in good condition.

But enough of this prelude; here are my favourite covers from my bookshelf (in no particular order).

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
As a general rule I hate movie tie-in covers. Rarely are they any good and if the movie is rather sub-standard, then you want to do all you can to avoid any connection (did anyone ever buy the movie tie-in cover of Bonfire of the Vanities?)

But this one is different. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy is indelibly linked with the book. And the photo of Nicholson perfectly captures the character. The orange background somehow works as well – and the colour scheme is almost unique to this book.

This was the version of the book that I first read in Year 12, and when I wanted to buy the novel a few years later I made sure I got this version.

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars
You know this is a good cover, because every edition of the novel, besides the film tie-in, has used this photo. This was the first version. I came across it in a small bookstore in Melbourne one cold wintery night in June 1996. My wife and I had flown down to Melbourne for a holiday from Cairns where we lived at the time. Good bookstores were (and still are) pretty thin on the ground up north, and so we spent many an hour perusing the book stores in the Victorian capital.

A friend of mine from Canada had written to me (this was before email) recommending the book. When I saw the cover in that small bookstore, with the rain pelting down outside, I felt its matte finish and I knew this was a book for me. And it was – a wonderful novel.

The photograph by Stuart Simons captures the narrative’s mood precisely. And looking at the cover now, I realise I haven’t read the book for well over a decade, and I think it may be time to dive back into the mists of the Washington coast.

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation
I picked this copy up in 1996 as well, and is one of the great faber and faber covers that features the black box in the top left corner. They no longer do covers this way, but for a long time there you could tell that faber was the publisher just by looking at the cover.

This novel is an amazing trip – hauntingly poetic; almost hypnotising. The cover of thorns set against the red background is actually a film tie-in, though you wouldn’t know it (aside from the diagonal slash down the bottom).

It’s a book where any depiction of a face would be immediately too limiting, too stereotypical, or too fake. You can’t put a picture of Jesus Christ on the cover of a novel and expect to be taken seriously. This picture focuses on the crucifixion and the last temptation that would occur there. The tangle of thorns goes well with the tangled narrative and visions within.

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
Penguin Classics used to have great covers. As a rule I hate their new look – with the black band across the bottom, and the image/ painting occupying the top two-thirds. When I started reading literature, the Penguin Classics were in this form on the right – the image took up the whole front and the black box was at the top. I am nostalgic for it still, and mostly because (as with Emma above) they haven’t improved on the previous version.

When I saw this copy with the detail of Repin’s painting of “Procession in the Province of Kursk” I wanted to buy it without caring what the book was about.

I had vaguely heard of Gogol, but it was the cover that sold me. And good thing to, because this is a great work. Perhaps with Byron’s Don Juan, the great unfinished work of literature.

Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
A brilliant example of how a photograph can capture a narrative perfectly. I have no idea if the young lad in this photograph by Derek Spiers is Irish or was taken at the time in which the novel is set. But it is impossible not to think that it is.

This kid is Paddy Clarke – testament of which is that they have kept using it for subsequent editions.

It reminds me for some reason of the Boy and War U2 covers, and perhaps that is why it had such an Irish feel to me.\

But the delight conveyed in the photograph disguises the absolute heartache inside.

A great cover – whoever picked the photograph deserves a cut of the royalties.

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Another example of a great photograph. This time however it doesn’t aim to depict a character, more the feel of the novel. I don’t even know if it does it; but it conveys something – that sense that there is a world that we in the west don’t know about. Here’s a young Indian child balancing on the end of a pole that is in turn being held up by someone’s thumb.

Why is this happening? What is the child reaching for? Can we understand? It’s beguiling and yet also troubling – much like the novel.
A great cover – and one of the few that is mostly white.

The book though is another matter – pure brilliance, but easily the most suicide inducing narrative I’ve ever read. The characters are absolutely trashed by events and circumstances, and it ends on a note of pure despair. I read this one Christmas holidays. It didn’t quite fit in with the spirit of the season.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brother Karamazov
Another great Penguin Classics cover that has not been improved with the new. In fact the detail of the painting by Repin (that man again) of “The Rejected Confession”, is now being used by the cheap “Wordsworth Classics” edition of the novel.

But the main reason I love this cover is the little white spot you see to the right of the priest’s head. That spot is a bread crumb that has been stuck underneath Contact since 1994.

At the time my wife used to cover my books with contact (she is a school teacher after all). This particular book was a very precious purchase of mine at the time, and so when she covered the book and then noticed the crumb she was somewhat concerned about my reaction. I cannot actually recall what I said, but I believe I may have expressed some questions about her ability to do a simple remedial task (a remedial task it should be said that has long been beyond me). She no longer covers my books – quite rightly reasoning if I want them done, I can bloody well do it myself.

And so when I look at this cover, it is that crumb that brings a smile, as I recall how anal I used to get (and admittedly still am a bit) about books, and how understanding my wife is of my obsessions. I wouldn’t trade this copy for anything; the painting induced me to buy it, but the crumb makes it a treasured item of my life.

And that’s why covers are important. The novels I buy become part of my life, so I always make sure I’ll want to look at them for many years to come.


Anonymous said...


The effort you put in and the thoughts are brilliant! Keep blogging on, I really enjoyed this.

xx Anna

Unknown said...

Grog, found my way here from A Pair of Ragged Claws. A very nice post. I think we must share tastes in book covers as I've bought a few that I recognise here. Your coveted edition of The Name of the Rose may still be doing the rounds of Corindas's second hand stores
down on Oxley Road, Brisbane. I disagree about Christ on the cover though - I prefer the older Penguin cover of The Idiot to this one.

Greg Jericho said...

Cheers, Anna, TomKidd.