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January 25, 2016

A Passing Glance: The Art of Judging Books by Their Covers


In the past, it was much easier, even though they told me not to do it: Walking around a Borders, looking for that latest paperback to grab and read on the plane, and spying a cover that caught my eye. Nowadays, with the closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the explosion of online shopping, it’s much harder: judging a book by its cover.

As an aspiring graphic designer, book covers have always fascinated me. Whether it was the phantasmic oil paintings on the American editions of Harry Potter, painstakingly illustrated by Mary GrandPre, or the simplistic, retro-pulp design of a Chuck Palahniuk existentialist work, the cover was always the first thing that caught my eye, metaphors be damned. As a longtime student of novel art, I’ve looked at thousands of covers over the years, but five stick out, five covers I remember in my mind’s eye every time I go to design a new piece of art. To me, at least, I believe these are the five best book covers of all time.

5. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, J.D. Salinger (1951)
I’ll start off with an all-time classic, listed everywhere from sophomore year summer reading recommendations to evidence in assassination trials. Mysterious imagery floats around the cover, with the carousel horse forming the main focal point. The horse is flying above the backdropped buildings, which we can only assume is Pencey Prep. This cover has been a consistent image associated with Salinger’s magnum opus since its original publication in 1951. I see the horse as representing Caulfield’s desire to “jump” the Pencey Prep school, to make his life more than that of a disillusioned boarding school student. This cover perfectly blends toned-down illustration with a splash of color to bring out the subtext of the novel before the reader even cracks it open.

The artwork for the American edition of Haddon’s introspective piece may look simplistic, but it is masking a much deeper meaning. It’s hard to tell from a static photograph, but the image of the dog is cut out from the cover, giving the reader an immediate entry from the light, playful cover into the “darkness” of the book. Haddon’s novel concerns a teenage boy, Christopher, with high-functioning autism who grapples with his personal condition as he struggles to solve a crime. He lacks the ability to think critically, but he is able to see things that adults may look past. The cover allows us to step into Christopher’s perspective: We are given tunnel vision on the cutout dog, symbolizing the crime, and the simplistic orange splash blocks out everything else.

3. NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)
Dostoevsky was from a school of Russian writers who were buried by snowdrifts, clutching vodka bottles and wondering why they were even alive. His acrid, yet somehow sympathetic, protagonist ponders one question endlessly throughout the dirt-washed narrative: Is it better to be overly self-aware, or not self-aware at all? The cover piece, adapted from MC Escher’s iconic paradoxical Drawing Hands, doesn’t clue us in to the answer, but we do get a sense of foreshadowing, as the majority of the book contains the protagonist’s self-reflection leading him around in circles. This cover, from the second Norton Critical Edition (2000), is a rare case of abstract art perfectly reflecting a nuanced plot.

2. FAHRENHEIT 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)
Perhaps one of the most disturbing covers of all time, Bradbury’s work is illustrated with a dystopian flat sculpture, expertly crafted by Italian artist Joseph Mugnaini. The cover of Bradbury’s classic tale of government overreach and censorship allows the reader to start in media res: We are immediately aware of what is going on. The newspaper man is doused in flame, symbolizing the end of free speech as we know it. The titular temperature at which paper burns has been reached, and we are in for a journey through a nightmarish future.

1. LORD OF THE FLIES, William Golding (1954)
As a ninth grader, I stared into the image of Ralph’s haunting eyes for the first time with no idea what I was getting into. I had no way of knowing I was about to open up my favorite book of all time, a book with a cover so majestically understated, so barbaric and simplistic that it was a work of staggering genius. Ralph, the protagonist, stares at us with matted hair and the eyes of a savage, a boy brought to his knees by the crippling knowledge of man’s true nature. The flies buzzing around the edges of the cover and the imperfect, asymmetrical text help the reader see that in this novel, reality is so devastatingly off-kilter that it cannot possibly be painted in any other way. Instead of a lush tropical landscape or a battle scene or anything else we might expect, we get a human face, staring back at us in a twisted look of horror.