Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Never Judge A Book by Its Cover?

I always judge a book by its cover.

I don’t see it as a fault on my part; rather, I prefer to blame the publishing houses that commission and then authorise the designs. It is rare that I enter a bookshop with a list of books to buy, and ever rarer that I stick to the list when I do have one. I take enormous pleasure in slowly wandering among the shelves, pulling off books with attractive covers and promising titles (or more recently, books whose authors look as though they might be European), sitting and flicking through them, and trying to decide which of the books I have selected will be coming home with me. There is nothing more distressing than a beautiful book with promising reviews on the back, which then turns out to be unworthy of attention. Only slightly less upsetting is the sensational book with the unappealing cover.

It is impossible for me to define exactly what makes a book cover good in my eyes. Of course, I know what I don’t like, which includes shiny covers, very bright colours, overly curly fonts and depressing titles. I also loathe the fact that every other contemporary book is declared by the critics to be ‘a modern classic!’ or a ‘masterpiece!’. Whenever I read those words on the back of a book, my heart sinks. I suspect, for me, the secret of a good book cover involves the use of a painting as illustration on the front, an outstanding quotation pulled from somewhere inside the book, and the simplest design possible.

One of my favourite book covers belongs to my copy of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. There is a detail of a Caravaggio on the front cover, and at the top, the title of the book and the author’s name underneath it are printed in embossed gold capital letters. In the bottom right hand corner, the first line of the book is printed in white italics (“On they went, singing ‘Eternal Memory’, and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing…”). The spine of the book is plain black, with the title and author’s name in white, and on the back cover is a black and white photograph of Pasternak. Below his chin, the briefest synopsis is printed across his jacket, in five neat white lines. It is understated, elegant, and the beautiful sentence on the front of the book makes it irresistible.

For the next year however, I'm having to abandon my whimsical dismissals of works as a result of an unsatisfactory cover. My local library simply doesn't possess a large enough range of Estonian authors for me to be so picky.


litlove said...

It's true that the pleasure of reading is increased by a lovely cover. When teaching my students we often compare the covers of classic texts that have been re-issued many times, like Sartre's La Nausee or Zola's Germinal, to see which of the images we like the best. What with second hand, borrowed and recently bought editions we usually have quite a variety.

Danielle said...

I hate to admit I often judge a book by its cover! Actually it is usually what will make me initially pick up the book and in some cases I will buy something I might not have otherwise. Terrible I am sure. And I am often disappointed when something I want to read has an ugly cover--shallow I know! Also I think UK covers are very often more attractive than American ones! How's that for being picky!!

The Traveller said...

I'm glad it isn't just me who's so fussy over books! I sometime also refuse to buy books if I don't like the type, or something - for example, the other day I found a volume of Neruda's poetry I wanted, but I couldn't stand to read it in the font and layout it was presented in. I'm also fussy about paper colour and quality...really, it is a miracle I have as many books as I do!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

There are two types of trips that I make to bookstores and to libraries. 1. The times when I am armed with a specific list that I MUST NOT DEVIATE from. 2. The times when I have time to wander and let books catch my eye.