Monday 7 September 2009

On beautiful book covers

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. By I think that's a very overrated sentiment. When I'm choosing a novel, for example, I always base my choice on two things: the cover, and the first page. In the publishing industry, a lot of care goes into producing covers that will attract the right kind of reader; that's why most crime thrillers, or historical fictions, or literary fictions, look recognisably similar. The cover design has its own genre. (The same is true with films. In the first instance, I always base my choice on the DVD cover.)

When it comes to covers, books published in other languages are of course a different story – that obstinately democratic white cardboard of the French, or the austere and humourless cloth of the Germans – but at the moment I'm talking only about English-language publishers.

Generally speaking, theology book covers tend to be nice and tasteful, if a little predictable. The diversity is certainly less pronounced than in philosophy. In the latter discipline, you have everything from the most spare, elegant simplicity (e.g. Kierkegaard's writings) to the most outrageously loud graffiti-art (e.g. the Continuum series). A while back, Evan pointed out a nice gallery of the various international editions of Harry Frankfurt's book, On Bullshit. It's an extremely fascinating series of images, depicting very different styles of cover design.

Getting back to theology, though: Eric has linked to this book, which I'd have to say is one of the most striking theology covers I've seen: a veritable feast for the eyes. The designer's website has images of their other book covers, including a stunning poetry series, a gorgeous milk cover, a sexy retro James Bond series, a Peter Carey series designed with tissue-paper, and – my favourite – a sumptuous Jules Verne series. It's not often you see covers like this – covers that are really works of art in their own right. (If I was a theology publisher, I'd be getting on to these guys: if you don't think covers make much of a difference, just look at the previous cover of The Story of God, and you'll know why you never heard of that book till now.)

There's also a nice Book Design Review blog, which features loads of cool book covers (including an annual shortlist of the year's best covers). One of the gems I discovered on that blog is the following book about Kafka – a cover that makes me twitch my antennae and grin from ear to ear:

Of course, for many years the Folio Society has been producing seductively lovely covers: they're so good that my wife and I have occasionally been lured into buying them, even though God knows we can't afford them. (Did we really need that full set of Jane Austen novels? Were the old paperbacks really so demeaning? Who knows, next time I have £175 burning a hole in my pocket I might even get their fabulous Moby-Dick edition.)

Finally, no post about book covers would be complete without mention of the South American publisher, Los Libros de Homero – they have a beautiful website, and their book covers are quite breathtaking. (I know the fellow who founded this publisher, and he's a true bibliophile, not a mere businessman: this makes all the difference.)

Oh, and I'm also very glad that Penguin Australia recently launched a new series of Popular Penguins, with those classy old retro covers. This is what paperbacks are all about. Plus, for the price of a single Folio Society volume, you could fill your entire house with groovy orange Penguins. Think about it.

Anyways, just to prove that not all cover designers are people of intelligence, sensitivity and creative genius, here's one of the worst covers you'll ever see – brace yourself...


roger flyer said...

Hi Ben-Do you know where can I buy the Garbage Truck book?
-Tom Waits

Ben Myers said...

Dear Mr Waits, I found a review of the book, with purchasing details, here. (Apparently the main characters' names are Homer and Wilbur.) If the book inspires a song (or a whole album), I hope you'll give me a cut of the royalties.

Anonymous said...

That Story of God cover has those distressingly artificially squeezed characters. I sometimes see such things in Bibles too.

General rule of thumb: don’t do mathematically what someone else hasn’t done by drawing a new character set. Don’t do it, publishers. Just don’t. My eyes will bleed.

Adrian said...

I've always been fond of the vintage classic covers for dostoevsky:
The Idiot
Crime and Punishment
The Brothers Karamazov

Anonymous said...

Of course the same thing should also be said about the page design of web-pages,especially of the pictures or graphic image(s) at the top of the page.

This is particularly applicable to those that presume to be about religion and Spirituality.
True Religion being a celebration of The Beautiful.

Most of them are mediocre, and a good percentage are plain old ugly, awful or horrible.

Steve Wright said...

My copy of The Story of God has the old cover. I must say I always thought it was a lot prettier than the covers of other books by Nazarene and Wesleyan theologians.

Robert said...

Wow, the covers of Los Libros de Homero aren't their only selling point. That is an awesomely designed website. I reloaded it five times just to watch how it falls together...

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, in terms of aesthetics, it's one of my favourite websites. Another one of my favourites is the Hell Pizza website. You can even pick up the little devils and throw them around the screen: a great way to pass the time while you're waiting for your pizza.

Terry Wright said...

My home is already filled with groovy orange Penguins. And bored purple mallards. And lucubrating turquoise gnus.

Keith said...

after the original church dogmatics all theology book covers are senseless

Pablo said...

I really like the Milk one.

Danny said...

I just joined the folio society and i'm an undergadtuate student living off centrelink. I'd rather have a nice copy of kafka than food any day.

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