What a book-design proletarian finds most appealing in book covers – and why she wants to change
I am guilty of a sin so shameful, children are taught early on never to commit it. If accountable for this sin, punishment is administered in the form of a shattered reputation: you become infamous for your superficial, unreflective and shallow perspective.
Yet I am not that person. Inexplicably, I am guilty of this sin.
I judge a book by its cover.
I’ve known this about myself for about 10 years now – an entire decade – and I’ve simply come to accept it as irreversible fact. I’ll amble into a bookstore and snub the titles whose covers don’t appeal to me, taking note only of those that do. Even books that come highly recommended by friends, family or The New York Times I categorically reject should their covers not speak to me.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news? I want to change. I crave self-reform! And if I dig deep enough, I believe I can unearth the reasons for this nasty habit and subsequently squash it.
Leafing through my bookshelf, I come across several books whose covers have one thing in common: they’re basic. Plain. Simple. Straightforward. The type doesn’t take risks; the images don’t venture far outside the essence of the book’s central storyline. The symbolism is hackneyed and the reader doesn’t need to reach too far to grasp the book’s idiosyncrasies.
Don’t get me wrong – these books are on my bookshelf because I enjoy them. Many I’ve read time and time again, paying tribute to the language, mental imagery, story and voice – all of which are so compelling. But while perusing their covers with my bad habit in mind, I realize that what drew me to them in the first place is that their cover designs are a bit…safe.
Take Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, for example. The title is apt. Her stories paint detailed vignettes of somewhat cliché but ultimately relatable interpersonal complexities: infidelity, resignation, heartache, blind devotion, unyielding adoration.
The book’s cover background is black with the title words colored soft tones of yellow, purple, peach, light blue and red. At the bottom is Munro’s name in white, larger in point size and in presence than the title words. Everything is typeset in a slightly decorative, all-caps serif.
On one hand, it could be said that the type serves as the image. The color combination is beautiful and soothing, and it suits the book’s subject matter well – perhaps symbolizing the varying shades of love and relationships.
On the other hand, the phrase “lacking in visual stimulation” comes to mind. No honest-to-goodness pictures? Really?
Moving on down bookshelf row, another favorite, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, also has a fairly simple cover: a sea-foam green background with an upside-down sienna-colored bowl enveloping the cover’s lower half. In the foreground stands a young Japanese woman in a white, calf-length dress, and black shoes and socks. Her silky hair falls into a short bob, and she wears a slightly quizzical smile. Her hands are clasped behind her back, clutching a bouquet of flowers, and we know this because the back cover is the back view of the same image.
The black type on the cover is a bit playful. The “k” extends halfway down the page, while the other letters are much smaller. The “h” is italicized, giving the title a punch of personality.
The young Japanese woman on the cover is Kitchen’s narrator and protagonist. An orphan raised by her now-deceased grandmother, she’s taken in by her friend and his mother, who is actually his cross-dressing father. What unfolds is the essence of the makeshift family the three of them form, the ultimate takeaway being that with love, even people with wildly different backgrounds can survive hardship together.
Though Kitchen’s cover is more visually exciting than that of Munro’s short story collection, it nevertheless also strikes me as overly basic. The upside-down bowl is a reminder of how deeply connected the main character is to her grandmother’s kitchen and to food, which she finds to be a source of deep comfort (and which also serves as a primary theme throughout the book). The fact that the girl dons a white dress and holds a bouquet of flowers suggests her innocence, hope and childlike fragility.
Although the cover touches on all of the fundamental aspects of the book, there is so much more to this beautiful, engaging and accessible story than what it suggests. It’s a bit of a shame that much of what makes the book so special seems to have been left behind, forgotten.
So, to recap: two covers of books that I love, under the microscope, seem a bit humdrum. Not uninspiring, necessarily, but certainly uncomplicated.
Then my eyes rest upon a book that took me by surprise: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. My boyfriend recommended it, and when I had three months of maternity leave to kill, I gave it a shot. I remember standing in the bookstore when he handed it to me. I turned the book over between my hands, flipped through some pages, shrugged and walked to the register. I can’t say I liked the cover; can’t say I didn’t like it.
The book consumed me; I did not consume it. I became almost magnetically drawn to the narrator and protagonist – a passive, unemployed, humble if not insecure man whose cat runs away. In his subsequent search for the animal, a bizarre and haunting string of events occur that leave him with the somber realization that life is much more complex than he was ever willing to acknowledge.
Throughout his journey, the man is confronted with a bird he calls the wind-up bird, which serves as the sole constant being in his otherwise ever-changing world.
Chronicle’s cover does not strike me as simple, the way I typically like my covers. A bird hangs upside down on a thin metal bar, its feet tightly clutched around it. In the middle of the bird’s body is a big hole, perfectly round, that offers a fleeting glimpse of blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The black type – thin, all caps and widely kerned – is set against a gray, asymmetric geometric shape. Several elements cooperate to achieve the cover’s message, a message that works to convey a deep, multi-faceted sense of the book.
So, what’s the lesson?
For me, the lesson is that perhaps the “safe” approach to covers isn’t so safe after all. Readers need to be challenged, intrigued and engaged when they set eyes on a cover. The purpose of the cover is not to be so elementary that it can’t help but attract the masses. Rather, its function is to speak to creativity, to boast the artistic marriage among image, type and content, and to make readers think.
If Murakami’s Chronicle is any indication (and I think that it is), I’d be well served to reach outside my comfort zone when it comes to covers. What fails to allure me at first might later become a prized possession.
And then, at long last, I will no longer commit a sin of this magnitude. My reputation will be restored.