“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.
The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is so widespread that it’s often used more as metaphor than literal advice. And yet… sometimes you just have to talk about when to (and when not to) judge a literal book by its literal cover. Sometimes the cover art (or lack thereof) makes or breaks your decision about whether a). you’re going to even pick up a book to b). decide if you want to read it. People can say what they will, but there is always going to be a part of us that uses a cover to quickly judge a book and then use that assumption to weed out stuff we don’t really have time to investigate.*
For example, I love the cover for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. The dust jacket is comprised primarily of red, yellow, and blue (primary colors, yo) with just a touch of white and black. The yellow background of the title makes it pop, and the red background surrounding Wonder Woman (framed by black) makes her pop as well. Then there’s the fact that 75% of the cover is simply just freaking Wonder Woman. As a result, the book gives off this super positive vibe of “I’m a well-crafted pop psychology book all about a female superhero. That that, patriarchy!” But then I started reading and couldn’t get past page 50. (#annoying) It doesn’t happen often, but I think that I was more disappointed in Lepore’s work because I was so into the cover. It felt like such a letdown to realize that I the text did not live up to the graphics.
On the flip side, however, is the hardcover version of Before and After by Rosellen Brown. When swap.com was still a book-swaping website, I chose to receive a copy of the novel because I liked the paperback cover (left). The grayscale color scheme makes the black title the first thing at which you look – meaning, it was the first, crucial step in getting me to hover over the image and read the book’s summary. But then I got the book in the mail, and my copy was a hardcover – horribly dated and hideous (right). The font not only shows the book’s age – 23! – but there’s also that purpley matte painting of a hunched-over figure at the rear of a boxy car at the side of the road. The image makes sense once you read the book – and again, I actually enjoyed the story – but I would have never picked up the book to even skim the summary – let alone cracked open the spine and sat down to read it – had the hardcover been my only option.
I understand that I’m partial to bright covers and sans-serif fonts and cringe at human faces over drawn artwork – and I’m working on it. (I swear.) But then sometimes I’ll catch myself relying solely on covers, like when I scroll through the First Reads page every Sunday or when I browse book reviews online; I even find myself doing it while reading book review journals (I order non-fiction for my library) because if I think a cover is ugly and I’m aware of that bias, what are people who aren’t aware of their bias going to think when they see it? (They’re probably not going to want to read it, that’s what).
Maybe I’m just a visual person, and I’ll always be that way so I should just try to accept it and move on. (And pretend all covers consist of a white background with Times New Roman font.) Or maybe I can admire good covers, shudder at bad covers, and then still read the damn summary if the reviews are good, or if I like the book’s read-alikes, or if someone whose opinion I trust recommends it. (Because, if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that sometimes covers lie.)
Anyway, because I like pictures, here are some more examples.
Good cover, good book
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly: This book is so pretty. I like how the vines are creeping into everything, and how the font moves with them, and how the yellow (-ish) vines are complementary to the blue background. (I also like the white; I like the white a lot.)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: Text, text, more text. (Can you sense a theme????) I am superbly partial to this script font (like, really partial) and the graphic (a ring, because marriage) is neither too much or too little.
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham: I love this cover. I love the font. I love the colors. I love the spacing. I love the sizing. (I love everything; give it to me.)
Good cover, bad book
On the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey: The prominent black text on a white background hits all my buttons – and I’m even okay with the overgrown hedge exploding through the words – but this book was whiny and Wilsey came off as shallow and self-absorbed.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: I’m pretty sure I bought this book because of it’s cover, but Whaley’s narrator was boring and his story underwhelming. (I reviewed it here.) Which is really terribly sad because the cover is so, so pretty.
Bad cover, good book
A Separate Peace by John Knowles: This cover looks tired and reminds me of 1950s mass market paperbacks (which – huzzah! – it is). I think I would like a less curly font and no teenaged boy looking depressed at life. (The artistic depiction of a tree is nice, though.)
Still Thinking of You by Adele Parks: These colors are blinding: neon purple with neon blue on top of maraschino cherry red with at least three different fonts. I’m pretty sure I could make something in Paint better than this.
Bad cover, bad book
Beginner’s Greek by James Collins: I was intrigued enough to not only pluck this book off the shelf but then to also purchase it – but it really does nothing for me. (And I didn’t like the novel, either.) The lens flare, the cover models who don’t match what I pictured, that stupid line of text running straight down the middle – just no.
*Something totally worth exploring is the publishing world’s bias to create gendered book covers, and how you may be subconsciously affected to avoid books because they’re written by a female. (Maureen Johnson did an awesome call-out of which you should all be aware.)
Have your own thoughts on book covers? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!