I think Indigo and Cornflower would agree that we all judge a book by its cover. I know, where would the axiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” come from if there weren’t some truly fine works of literature lurking beneath hideous or just plain boring bindings? But, everyone does it, so I refuse to feel ashamed by wanting my bookshelves to look nice, however nit-picky it may sound.
I have been guilty of laying a book back on the table at Barnes & Noble because a synopsis clashes with the cover illustrations and have often walked by books with silly, odd, and strange covers. Some covers inspire embarrassment (Romance, I’m looking at you), or deter me from giving the book a chance because the artwork screams a particular genre too loudly. At the other end of the spectrum, I have picked up books in the past with gorgeous, sumptuous covers, only to find that the writing is mediocre.
Like Goldilocks, I’m looking for the cover that is just right. Something that is evocative of the story itself, but aesthetically pleasing. We live in a visual world, with images thrown at us with increasing frequency and speed in our digital environment, which is why I think judging a book by its cover is not always a bad thing. There is a proliferation of literature available in even the tiniest of bookstores and with an increased visual literacy, covers only serve to enhance the reader’s visceral reaction to what is essentially a stack of paper. Will I be able to spot the historical fiction novels in the overly broad “fiction” section at the bookstore? You bet. Will I be able to instinctively skim right over the science fiction books without looking at the signpost on the stacks? Without a doubt. Without pigeonholing genres to a certain type of reader, specific, explicit cover art is a good thing. It allows us to see what kind of book a tome will be without having to read the back cover. I know I do not like hard-core science fiction, so, I avoid books with mechanical artwork or robots (cliché, I know) on the cover.
On the other hand, I have encountered really spectacular cover art that both describes the kind of book it graces and brings interest to new legions of readers. Take, for example, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett.
This book is definitely fantasy, with a main plot involving magicians, as the title suggests, and the fight between evil and good, darkness and light. Yet, it is also historical fiction. Granted, the story takes place in a parallel universe world, that has different rules of physical boundaries and planetary motions, but essentially is a hybrid of Regency and Victorian England. The cover says it all: woman in Empire waist gown, mysterious crystal ball with a view of a stark, unnerving landscape, and rolled up scroll. The woman on the cover suggests the historic period, Regency style society, manners, and culture, while the crystal ball reads fantasy. The scroll lends a reference to some kind of secret missive, making my mind wander to spies, clandestine meetings, and political intrigue.
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent delivers everything the cover promises. What’s more, the cover draws in a varied crowd of people who might not normally read the fantasy genre. The appeal to female readers with a woman in period garb on the cover art along with the foliate overlay on the title draw in readers who might read Romance or historical fiction. After doing a little research, I even found out that Galen Beckett is a female pen name for a male author. The cover reads female, but of three protagonists, two are male and the story appeals to both sexes.
I guess what I mean is that covers can be expressive, are an important part of the marketing process for literature, and after much circumlocution, I come to my point. I enjoy adding books to my library that have pretty covers, artwork that compliments the tone and plot of a book, and dust jackets that provide visual continuity on my shelves. Which is why I was much angered to by the new publication of Agatha Christie’s works.
In my lifelong quest to read every one of Christie’s books, I have bought paperbacks of her books for years. They have always been mass market publications from St. Martin’s (an imprint of Macmillan) Minotaur Mysteries. Observe, the cover for And Then There Were None to the left. This version of Christie’s books fits nicely on my bookshelf with other mass market paperbacks. I own a lot of Christie’s books, all of uniform size, texture, and artistic tone. So, imagine my dismay when I walked into Barnes & Noble, only to discover that my collection would be forever changed! My usual supplier of this mystery maven no longer stocks Minotaur copies, but HarperCollins printings of Christie’s works. While I must admit that the cover art is superior (see right), and the binding easier to read from, the visual and organizational continuity of my personal library has gone to pot! Out of necessity, my books are roughly arranged by genre and then size, but with a trade paperback size, these new Christie books will have to live separate from their comrades. Furthermore, glossy finish paper has been traded for matte, moody, atmospheric artwork swapped for symbolic still-life*, and the sense of order snatched from my life. I know that I am being slightly anal about the uniformity of my book collection, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Has there been any book series or favorite author with changing cover art that really irks you?
* Of course, And Then There Were None
is not a good example here. See Three Act Tragedy
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