I’ve always thought that British book covers, generally speaking, are nicer looking than their American counterparts, with the latter seeking to target a demographic rather than to dazzle the eye. With this in mind, the following is an incredibly unscientific experiment in aesthetics. I’ve taken as a sample the Tournament of Books contenders whose American and British editions differ. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert commentary is welcomed in the comments.
The cover of this past week's New Yorker, "Shelf of Life" by Adrian Tomine, could be a visual entry in our "Books as Objects" column. An avid reader of the magazine (NOT our fearless editor and self-professed NYer junkie, Max) examined the cover art and observed that it carried a "cynical" message. It's a panel cartoon depicting the progress of a young writer, her agent and enthusiastic publisher, the production of the book itself on an assembly line, its display in a store, a young man reading it on a park bench, then discarding it in a cardboard box, as you often do see - books in cardboard boxes sitting at the curb, waiting to be picked up by a lucky passerby and thus passed from one open mind to another - in places like Brownstone Park Slope. Except in the cartoon, the passerby is a scruffy man in an old army coat who takes the book, and, in the final frame, is shown tossing it into an oil drum fire, he and another man making warmth on what appears to be a dark, snowy night. Is this a cynical take on the commodification of art? A morality play? Or dark comedy, book burning for the general good? Or perhaps it's just harsh reality: for some, a book's best use is as fuel for a fire that will help them through a cold night when they have nowhere to go. I did notice that there appeared to be other potential tinder in that cardboard box, including the box itself. Maybe our homeless vet did read our young author's work and found it worthy of the burnbarrel. Whatever the message, and I think the cover is open to a wide range of overlapping interpretations, it certainly says one thing with emphasis: books are objects to be consumed, one way or another.
If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you'll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner's novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner's work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.Maybe it's the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving's masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects - a nurse's uniform, a motorcycle - that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving's books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving's covers. For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big "V" on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut's novels. Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami's fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.
If you've ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you've probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don't know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as "entertainment products" here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I've placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the "John Irving brand," while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith's books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you'll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.
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I've really been enjoying Scott Esposito's blog Conversational Reading lately. Recently he's put up a couple of posts that speak to how our love for books goes beyond just the words themselves. But before I get to his posts I had a few thoughts about this as well. One of the reasons the we love books as objects, I think, is because they are all so different from one another in appearance. Whenever a new book comes out, part of the anticipation comes from wanting to see what the book will look like. One of my typical diversions when I worked at the bookstore was to read the "briefly noted" reviews in the New Yorker and then go find the books reviewed, just to see what they looked like. On other occasions my fellow booksellers and I would stand in front of the fiction display table and discuss which book looked the best, rather than which book would be the best to read. Mrs. Millions, who occasionally makes books, got me into the habit of peeking under the dustjackets of hardcover books to see what they look like underneath, and ever since I have been fascinated by the little details -- usually stylized monograms -- in the canvas hardcovers that most folks never see. There is a reason why we display our books on open shelves. They are a treat for the eye. Which brings me back to Conversational Reading, where Scott posted some images from the amazing experiment at Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco where they rearranged all their books by color. (here's some more photos). We also treat our books differently than we treat other objects. After a while each book carries with it two stories, the one printed on its pages and the one about the journey the book has taken before it gets to you sometimes through many hands and emblazoned with many jottings and markings. In another post Esposito writes about marking books up as he reads them. He mentions that second hand bookstores often turn these marked up books away, but I, for one, happen to love finding the mysterious notes of a book's former owners.On a related note, in keeping with the stories as fetish objects theme, I came upon an interesting project via Pia Z. Ehrhardt's blog today. It's called The World's Smallest Magazine. You send them a book of stamps, and they send you a postcard with a 250 word story on it every month.