The Book Meme: Day 19

Day 19 - Favorite book cover

I don't judge books by their covers, generally, but I'm sure as hell judging those covers. A cover can draw you in, or push you away, or just hold the pages together, but there are certainly some I've found satisfying or even exciting, and some that have left me completely cold.

One of my favorite covers is this one, the Avon Books paperback edition of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. The actual image isn't especially important to me, though the colors are attractive, and it does a nice enough job of showing the book's mixture of fantasy and SF elements, I suppose. No, what I love is what surrounds that little inset image: the bold lettering and the high-contrast white-on-black. It simply doesn't look like anything else on the shelf:

Cover Zelazny.jpg
Occasionally the cover is enough to make me want to buy the book just to be able to look at it. I have not always been the most enlightened consumer in these instances, especially not when I was an impressionable teenager, but sometimes the books turn out to be pretty good anyway, as in the case of Beyond Rejection, Justin Leiber's tale of body-snatching, gender, and identity. But yeah, honesty compels me to admit that I bought it largely because of the barenaked lady on the cover:

Cover Leiber.jpgSometimes the cover catches my eye and lures me into looking over the blurbs and cover copy, which may lead to opening the book and opting to make a purchase. That happened in the Woodberry Forest School student store some years back, and boy am I glad; without that initial visual grabber--the lighting, the striking "crown of thorns" reference, the placement of the text as a blindfold--I never would have read Ralph Wiley's Dark Witness, and without Wiley, I wouldn't have found Ta-Nehisi Coates so compelling, and yeah, I'd be a pretty different person without that:

Cover Wiley.jpgOn occasion, I have had to be dragged to the book kicking and screaming because the cover is so bad. I heard about the wonderful prose and mind-boggling SF/fantasy concepts arising in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, but whenever I was in the late, lamented Second Foundation bookstore, looking at The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book in the series, I kept confronting this image and just being completely turned off. What the hell is all that fanciful Roger Dean-style metalwork? What the hell is that Bozo-haired skull doing there? And why does the lining of Severian's cloak make him look so much like a bondage clown?

Cover Wolfe.jpgMy advice: find another edition. Or if you can't, keep your eyes closed until you've turned to the first page.

Obviously, then, a cover can belie a book's contents. At other times, however, you can't really appreciate a cover, even a good one, until after you've read the book and seen how perfectly it fits. I'm a huge fan of Philp Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, particularly the first two volumes, but I didn't know that (obviously) when I picked up the first book, The Golden Compass. At the time the cover seemed perfectly nice, but not meaningful; after reading it, though,I couldn't imagine a better summary of the aesthetic than Eric Rohmann's cover image. 

Cover Pullman.jpg
Since then, of course, the books have come out in numerous other editions whose covers bear no similarity to Rohmann's, but now they just look wrong to me. Lyra, Pan, Iorek, and a deep blue Arctic sky: that's the spare, cold imagery the book deserves.

I must also give a shout-out to the only book I own specifically because of its cover: my trade paperback edition of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I bought the hardback and loved it--how am I not going to enjoy a novel based on Siegel & Shuster's creation of Superman?--but the cover didn't move me all that much. It's functional, but nothing special:

Cover Chabon HB.jpgBut then I saw the trade paperback edition and fell in love. This was a book I had to own. I was't going to throw away my hardback, but to this day it sits beside its softback companion. Why? Just look:

Cover Chabon PB.jpgNot only do you get that arresting image of the Empire State Building, you get that classic Golden Age-style lettering for the title, and the deliberate distressing of the "cover's" corners, all intended to make it look like a well-thumbed comic book. The back cover is laid out like a page of comics advertising, and the spine--this is the bit where it becomes genius--looks like a pile of old funnybooks. You can see the staples. It's just gorgeous, and utterly perfect for a book centered around the world of comics. Brilliant.

That said, my two favorite covers come from very different places. One is a recent work, one very old. One has a beautiful and arresting visual that immediately links you to the story; the other has a much more oblique image, one that does not say anything direct about the book, but instead creates a mood that enhances the reading experience. 

What I love about this cover for Lev Grossman's The Magicians is that it seems at first to ignore the novel's contents entirely. This is, after all, a fantasy about college students learning to be wizards; it's a darker take on Harry Potter with sex and drugs and booze. But look at the cover:

Cover Grossman.jpgNot a wand or a dragon or a Quidditch player in sight. All we get are trees, seemingly ordinary trees, standing in the rain in a flooded meadow. It's a beautiful, puzzling, and somewhat melancholy image that specifically denies any easy connection to the story. "You must figure this story out for yourself," it seems to say. "You won't have it handed to you on the cover." It's a deft bit of psychology, both attractive and a bit unsettling--a perfect cover for this story of an attractive but unsettling situation in an attractive but unsettling world.

But then there's this: the oldest narrative in English gets a fantastic new translation into modern parlance by a Nobel winner--and one who gives Tolkien his props as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature in the introduction, at that--and the cover art is breathtaking. Simple, stark, completely fitting, but unlike any other cover you've seen. It's poetry in an image. It's Seamus Heaney's Beowulf:

Cover Heaney.jpg
It's not as sophisticated or oblique as the cover for The Magicians; it's just bold and powerful, as subtle as a flying mallet, and absolutely breathtaking. And yeah, the bold white type against the black background doesn't hurt. In short, I could argue that The Magicians has a better cover, but Beowulf has my favorite.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 25, 2018 10:28 AM.

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