Tuesday 10 July 2007

Judging Books By Covers

I've always found the adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' rather strange. In its metaphorical sense, all well and good, but surely, in the realm of books, it isn't sound advice? A huge amount of money and expertise is spent in making sure the covers to books are pertinent and, what is more, attractive to the buyer. When wandering around a bookshop, I'm never going to pick up an unknown author without the aid of the cover artwork - whether I buy or not is another matter, but my initial guide has to be the exterior.

Most of the books I own are old hardbacks, which are now bereft of their dustjackets. Apparently it was once commonplace to discard these upon purchase, or soon after. So when an attractive cover comes along, I'm even more appreciative. When I find a beautiful one, I just love looking at it, like any other piece of artwork. So I hope you don't think it shallow of me that I've perused my bookshelves for my favourite covers. We can even make this into a little vote - do comment and say which is your favourite. The main picture, since I chose an odd number of books, is Kate Chopin's collection of short stories, Portraits, and the one I like best.

1. Monday or Tuesday - Virginia Woolf - the sublime Hesperus at their best.
2. The Summer Book - Tove Jansson - you all know that I love this book! The cover just invites you to dive in.

3. Faster! Faster! - EM Delafield 4. Mr. Pim Passes By - AA Milne - these two are some of the few old hardbacks I have which are still cloaked in dustjackets, and rather beautiful ones. They don't have the vivid colours of modern covers, but both lovely pieces of art in themselves.

5. Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen - my collection of Austen novels all come with close-ups of contemporary clothing. A great set, and this one is my favourite
6. William-An Englishman - Cicely Hamilton - I chose this as representative of Persephone Books, since it's their first one. Beautiful, sof
t, dove grey covers.

7. The Matisse Stories - AS Byatt - a book 'about' an artist ought to be beautiful, oughtn't it?
8. Queen Lucia - EF Benson - another series of great arty covers, and this my favourite of the six

9. Emotional Geology - Linda Gillard - an old internet friend, and a book published by Transita press. They do such wonderful covers, especially on their first publications.
10. Five Quarters of the Orange - Joanne Harris - these covers made a publication trend all of their own, quite deservedly.

Is it any coincidence that I've read all these books? And when I haven't read over half the books I own, these covers must be doing something right. Let me know your favourite.


  1. Interesting how many use a symmetric typographical layout. It looks like Jan Tshichold et al have had little lasting influence, at least for novels, which in my view is a great shame. Of the ones you show I like the Kate Chopin "Portraits" the best. Bold, direct graphics, simple and brief lettering; looks good.

    Peter the flautist

  2. Hi Simon!

    So glad Google alerts have found me your blog.

    That lovely photo on the cover for EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY which was taken on Rannoch Moor. I pass that view every time I travel between Skye (home) and Glasgow.

    I've a 3rd novel, STAR GAZING coming out next year with Piatkus - I've moved on from Transita. I haven't seen cover roughs yet but I doubt I'll ever get another cover that I love as much as EG's.

    Good luck with your blog and finals.

    Btw my favourite cover in your selection was the gorgeous Jane Austen. Which edition is that?

  3. Me again. I thought you might be interested (well, horrified actually) to read this quote from the depressingly informative journal of the Society of Authors, The Author. In an article by Danuta Kean (who has dished so much dirt on the publishing business she must surely have a contract out on her by now) she quotes a marketing & sales director who says "If Asda says they would order 100,000 copies with a different jacket, you change it. As simple as that."

    Tesco has the same clout of course. A friend of mine was delighted with her proposed cover but Tesco didn't like it and requested something pinker and more pastel. They got it.

    Read and weep...

  4. Simon - I, too, have that EM Delafield book complete with cover. As you know I am a cover freak,especially with the old Virago books and I admit that a bookjacket attracts me. I am now going to be a copycat and do the same thing.. I am sure you won't mind!

  5. A nicely designed dust jacket/cover will always make me at least pick up the book. I'm not sure I could choose just one--I really like the UK versions of Joanne Harris's books, and love Linda Gillard's book design. The Summer Book makes me want to go there (need to pull mine out and read it), and I love the fabric detail on the Jane Austen....like Elaine, I also love those old Viragos. I've always thought it would be a fun job to be able to design book jackets!

  6. They are all lovely in their own way. But my vote is for the Woolf. Hesperus does such a beautiful job with their covers. They have a calming effect on me.

  7. Love those old hardbacks. I have a particular fondness for old children's books. I have several 1930's and 40's Mary Poppins books, which I love for the bright colors and drawings on the dust jackets.

    Why not judge a book by its cover (as long as we don't overlook its contents, of course)? Material bibliography is an interesting field in its own right. Books are also fascinating physical objects, especially the really old ones with their original bindings. I once broke the cover (accidentally!) off of a book printed in 1583 while working on a digitization project for graduate school. That still haunts me! You can see some of these rare books here: http://www.lib.virginia.edu/rmds/collections/gordon/index.html

  8. Oops, the address got chopped off. Here it is. But they're all in French. Sorry! Still pretty, though. Great engravings.

  9. I love Hesperus and The Summer Books covers. I think it's the colour that grabs me. I have, in the past, bought a book purely because I liked the cover, always a mistake, of course!! Must learn to be more discerning.

    i do love the old Penguin covers, though they have been rather oversold recently.

    Simon, our e-mails seem to be on a go-slow. Hope you got tonight's....from your proud winner.

  10. Hmm I love The Summer Book, Emotional Geology and the Persephone covers, but the one that was new to me and which makes me want to go and find a copy of the book was Mr Pim passes by. (But then that could be because, like Kelly I have a real fondness for old children's books, particularly from the 1930s to 50s.

  11. Mr Pim Passes By is my favorite. I must go search to see what the book is about. Second is the Delafield. This isn't a Provincial Lady book, is it? Both these covers somehow make my heart ache, but in a good way. Amazing the power of covers. I did a little entry on my blog a while back about book covers (and the lack, thereof). http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2007/02/you-cant-judge-book-by-its-cover.html

    You have a lovely blog.

  12. Hi Nan,
    Mr. Pim Passes By is a great novel! It's actually a novelisation by Milne of a play he wrote earlier - a play which was one of the most successful non-Pooh things he wrote. A man visits wanders into home where people are getting married, finding lost husbands and so forth... very exciting stuff.

  13. Oh, and the Delafield isn't a Provincial Lady book - but is still rather good! Not particularly comedic, though

  14. I'm a fan of, variously, Penguin Modern Classics (silver and white stripe across the cover: clear and elegant), the old Bloomsbury Classics (dinky little hardbacks, beautiful weight and idiosyncratic but tasteful 'painted' designs), and currently Pushkin Press's little squarish paperbacks. Of course you can judge a book by its cover! Books should have outsides just as interesting as their insides.


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