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.
Books have an aesthetic value beyond what is written inside them (as I have discussed before), but sometimes this idea is taken beyond the notion of eye candy on shelves. One example: at an outfit called Rebound Designs, they are taking books, gutting them, and turning them into handbags. But fear not, purists. From the site’s FAQ: Don’t you feel bad cutting up all those books?Not really. Most of these books were damaged or being thrown away to begin with, I don’t cut up valuable books or books in fantastic condition. I take great care to find books that are already falling apart or are unwanted, like out of date textbooks. via Boing Boing
Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.
I love the U.S. version here. The line drawing is exquisite and it draws the reader up to the tightrope walker and into the book. In fact, the design is a wonderful visual representation of McCann’s book, which revolves around the story of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk but is not really about it. I don’t understand the U.K. design at all. McCann’s book is soulful and serious; the U.K. cover says “silly and strange.”
The American cover wins again here. The cartoonish, half cut-off head draws you in, while the U.K. version feels more like a movie poster. Although, the illusion of movement in the U.K. design is nice and something you don’t often see on the cover of a work of literary fiction.
This time I prefer the U.K. cover. There’s something weirdly sleepy about the U.S. cover. I love the red title script on the U.K. cover.
These are both very nice for totally different reasons. The American design is bold, intriguing and eye-catching. The U.K. cover is intricate.
This is really a case study in the “exotic,” no? I’m not sure I like either of these much at all.
The American version doesn’t do much for me – a little too coy. I love the U.K. version here. I like the idea that you might paint your book cover on the side of a barn.
These are both nice and bold, but for different reasons. The U.K. cover gets the nod, though, for the string, for the wavy, watery stencil, and for those horses; for all of it, really.
If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the American cover is ridiculous. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is close to perfect.
I don’t love either of these, but the U.S. cover is better. The U.K. cover looks like a made-for-TV movie, and this book has very little in common with a made-for-TV movie
The U.S. cover is muddled and confusing. I love the U.K. cover. There’s something intoxicating about all those things hanging off the vines.
One might think that physical books are on the verge of extinction, given all the consternation over ebooks of late. There’s a faction in this debate that predicts that physical books will become something of a rarity as the ebook market matures and the technologies involved become ubiquitous.
In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data. These devices, one imagines, might seem incredibly blunt to our future selves, unitaskers in world where our gadgets and machines can do all.
And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty. Even if books eventually become the province of collectors and the peculiar few who fetishize them as objects, there will be attractive qualities to them. They are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike.
Even now, books revel in their oldness. Rough-cut, or deckle-edge pages are popular flourishes on many editions. And beneath dust jackets are canvas covered boards, often with embossed lettering and archaic-looking monograms.
The deckle edge dates back to a time when you used to need a knife to read a book. Those rough edges simulate the look of pages that have been sliced open by the reader. The printing happened on large sheets of paper which were then folded into rectangles the size of the finished pages and bound. The reader then sliced open the folds.*
Paper knives, variants of letter openers, were used for this purpose. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which speaks directly to the reader and describes the reader’s experience reading the novel, makes extensive reference to these literary knives:
This volume’s pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter.
Opening a book can already feel like opening a gift. Armed with a knife and freeing the pages and the story hidden beneath the folds, it becomes something more, “a penetration of its secrets” and an act of discovery, shot through with a suggestion of violence and danger or of the painful gestation of the words themselves.
This act of cutting open pages to read a book has been lost (one imagines the paper knife arrangement wouldn’t go over well with the TSA), and right now, all over the world, people are reading their books on screens and the idea of even opening a cover and turning pages may one day seem odd as well.
This idea of the book as an anachronism may explain the persistence of the deckle edge, which is now created not by the reader with a knife but by leaving one edge of the page untrimmed during the printing and binding process.
Peggy Samedi, an associate production manager, told me that at Knopf where she works the deckle edge is part of the publisher’s “house style” along with certain other flourishes and fonts. It is typically used for more literary-oriented books and they see it as “something that harkens back to an older way.” It rises from the idea, she says, that “not everything has to be smooth and slick.”
Nonetheless, the production department at Knopf regularly fields calls from readers who complain about the ragged edges, assuming they are a mistake.
If you look closely at a deckle edge, even if you are looking at two copies of the same book, you’ll see slight variations in the edges. And from title to title and publisher to publisher, the quality and pattern of the edges varies more extensively, from a tight saw-tooth, when looking from the top of the book down the edge of the pages, to a more free-form ragged look. The deckle edge varies, not because it is made by hand, but because the machinery for making books varies slightly from factory to factory.
Perhaps this deckle edge is a way for publishers to prepare for the inevitable. As ebooks and ereaders contrive to make the reading process as simple as pushing a button, physical books will regress to older and older forms, so as to appeal more to the antiquated among us who still prefer them to their digital doppelgangers. Deckle-edges will prevail, uncut pages will re-emerge, embossing will become more elaborate.
In time it will be said, to own a book is to be a purist, and these are the books that purists will prefer.
*A reader wrote in with a correction/clarification to the above:
“There are two kinds of rough edges one can find in older books.
The deckle edge is an artifact of papermaking, in which the paper fiber seeps under the “deckle” (the wooden frame placed on top of a screen used to drain the slurry of fiber and water). Even before machine-made paper, the deckle edge was sometimes trimmed, sometimes not. From what I can tell, there wasn’t a sensibility about it before the advent of machine-made paper.
The separate issue of “unopened” (not “uncut”) pages has to do with the folding of a printed sheet, the signature, into the final book. Printers could, and often did, trim the edges and remove either the folded part of the signature there as well as the deckle edge. Or not. I’ve talked with book historians, and I can’t find a reason why some books had unopened pages and others not.
In any case, it results in two kinds of rough edges. The deckle edge as a result of the artifact of papermaking; and the unopened edge after being cut with a knife, which results from a decision made during binding. You can see the difference in examining a book, as the deckle edge is feathered and soft, while a knife-cut edge is rough and can be jagged. (It also depends on the “grain,” or the predominant direction in which the fibers are oriented, which affects how paper curls or stays straight, too. Books are usually printed with the grain perpendicular to the spine, so the pages don’t curl inward, but that results in a very jagged edge when the pages are cut.)”
[Image credit: Horia Varlan]