I’ve always had a thing for attractive book covers. You have these beautiful fonts and stunning pictures or graphics and the two are artfully combined with loving compositional skill to exude a sense of brilliant purposefulness.
It started when I was a child—all those Warlord and Commando war comics which encapsulated the essence of the entire comic in one gloriously action-packed image presented in electrifying candy-colour. They were visual crack—utterly mesmerising—magically combining the sweeping action vistas, frozen in a split moment, with closely observed details. The Ladybird series of books were another childhood window into a fascinating world of superbly immersive illustrations—a licence to imagine. The covers brilliantly captured the emotional essence of the subject, the energy and thrill. I remember books on military jets, space rockets, sailing ships, and many more. Each illustration was a starting point for the reader to enter into their own story. It was an optimistic world where science was our friend and mankind was confidently building a Modernist utopia.
After comic books came the glitzy 1980s magazines like The Face, 12-inch remix singles, and album covers: New Order, Joy Division, and The Fall—and finally book covers. The covers of paperbacks have always fascinated me—even before I could read. Paperback covers have gone from cheesy illustrated images, to evocative photos, to conceptual games more akin to contemporary art. These covers hint at the intangible. How can you capture a brilliant novel with a cheesy gouache illustration? That’s so 1950s adventure thriller. You can’t, so don’t try. This ethos freed up graphic designers to deliver stunning works using the mysterious allure of their conceptual haziness.
While there’s something to be said for a unique one-off look to a book cover, the book series takes the book into the world of a collection, one that any true fan must collect. I used to love the covers of Faber and Faber’s poetry books like Craig Raine’s Rich (1984) with its pastel blue ‘ff’ border design, and a black ink brushwork sketch of Pan. Restrained and utterly classy. The orange Penguin classics that adorned my father’s shelves looked impressively regimented, and yet also understated. Pan’s James Bond paperbacks with their bold typeface and a telling graphics reeked of dramatic glamour. The two volume Complete Collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories has one half of the author’s portrait on both covers—one would be incomplete without the other.
A decent cover is part of the whole experience of consuming a book; it leaves a familiar residual memory once you’ve read it. For me, Norwegian Wood has a specific cover and any other edition feels ersatz. Spy novels like The Ipcress File featured a tableau photograph with items like: a cup of black coffee, a Gauloise stubbed out in a Martini logo ashtray, a passport and a Walther PPK—or some other evocative objects. That’s the magic of what book publishers do; transforming an author’s manuscript into a packaged product. Alchemy—as a piece of text becomes a marketable object, an emotional experience. The book cover is a wonderful space for designers to play games. It flirts and seduces the audience—hinting at something more intellectually satisfying than composition and visual eye-candy. Ideas. Mind expansion.
Book covers are often designed to be enigmatic. Take the cover of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised featuring an attractive young woman without a top, wearing only a pair of cheap and girlish pants. She’s standing, in what we assume is a garden with a Rhododendron bush as the backdrop. The monochrome photo has the casual snapshot aesthetic of a Wolfgang Tillman’s photo for ID. Why? Who? Atomised. WTF?
Sometimes covers get it right… like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which along with the typographical games in the actual text really make it distinctively ‘techy’. Science fiction novels provide a wealth of incredible illustrations of space, alien beings and cosmic phenomenon. Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a hand reaching into the light surrounded by floating blue flowers) alludes to something rooted in the all-too real world that’s also surreal and bizarre. But—it doesn’t always work out. Take Tom Sharpe’s Wilt or Blott on the Landscape, or the covers for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never been enamoured by cartoon illustrations. They scream out: Everyone please like me! I’m accessible, light comedy. At the opposite end, there’re the conceptual covers that ingeniously play with the object of the physical form, or ones that shrug-off pictures entirely. J D Salinger famously didn’t want graphical gimmicks adorning his covers, only text. Text-only covers are remarkably effective. Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You collection of short stories appeared in two versions; a yellow or puce field with black sans-serif text. Minimalist, but eye-catching.
Like it or not, book covers are part of the joy of owning a book, the artwork and the feel of the object in your hand. These are things that ebooks can’t offer. Sadly, while the actual words of too many novels may fade away in time, the memory of their covers can remain as vivid as our first encounter with them.