The Power of the Cover

At first glance it is the color that forces me to stop. Something about the way they play together—within shapes, images, old photographs. The different hues mash together into an emotion….

…as I read the words. The Bluest Eye, Cat’s Cradle, A Dance with Dragons.

Together the design serves as a teaser for the text that lies between—a teaser for the good, the bad, and the horribly disappointing.

This post is about the power of the Cover, and how sometimes the cover is the difference between reading the summary flap or just walking by without a second glance.

When I was in college I worked at a Barnes and Noble where one of our jobs was to go through the shelves and do face outs to make the shelves look full. This also served as a way to highlight a specific title. Often times when I walked through I tended to be influenced by what had read, or heard about from others,  and those were the books that got that extra attention. But sometimes the cover that I highlighted was one that was beautiful, intriguing, and expressive.  Because our store was a hub of tourist activity (it was in the middle of Merchant’s Square in Colonial Williamsburg) we tended to get a lot more browsers in addition to our regular customers and so making sure that those shelves were especially attractive was important.

Another part of my job involved working at the information desk. On more than one occasion I would have conversation that went like this:

Customer: Hi I’m looking for a particular book.

Me: Sure, can you tell me the title?

Customer: No.

Me: How about the author?

Customer: Nope.


Customer: …but I do know that the book was redish orange, with a circle in the middle. And it was set in Scotland?

More seriously, this is where the power that lies within a cover came up. If it was a piece of popular fiction more often than not one of us would recognize it based on the cover description, and would be able to find the book for the customer.  It provides an element of identification, a marker for those looking to read it. In other cases if we could narrow down the genre just walking through the shelves sometimes produced results.

So let’s take a moment and look at the book cover as an object/a piece of material culture:

Observation: The cover serves a variety of purposes. As mentioned above it is an illustration of what exists with in the book. A symbolic summary of what we will learn, enjoy, and experience. It is also meant to be, perhaps first and foremost, a piece of information. What is this book called, who is its author. You know that when you pull the book off the shelf, the back cover will tell you either more about the title or provide titillating one sentence reviews of the book from similar authors, and newspapers. Thirdly, the cover is a marketing piece. It distinguishes this particular book from that particular book.  Sometimes the cover design distinguishes one publisher from another (my favorite? Vintage Classics).

According to this essay in the Guardian, illustrated book covers, particularly early dust jackets, did not come into vogue until the late 19th century. Until then the covers of books were served as protection or as a space for advertising what other books the publisher was producing rather than the specific title in hand. The article, as do many other sites around the web, also point out the importance of the book cover/dust jacket/book jacket in the mode of identification—something that I described in an earlier blog post “Prelude to the Power of the Cover.

Continued Analysis leads me to acknowledge that even over the years book covers change with time. If one were to trace the evolution of an older title one would find multiple versions of the book depending on who and when it was published. Even today it has become popular practice to publish new reprints of books in tandem with the movie adaptation, and despite liking said adaptation, these covers often invoke a sense of impurity. A sense that is especially frustrating when the movie adaptation is nothing like the words that you have grown to love.

Just for fun, open a new browser window and do a search under Google Images. Type in “Lord of the Rings Book Covers.” to see how many different versions pop up. The version I have (left below) is very different from the version my roommate (right below). I’m sure that somewhere out there are book cover collectors who can identify who the artist and the creator of each edition of their favorite book is by—and the availability of said edition determines worth. I know that when choosing a book to own and when presented with multiple cover options (all other things being equal)–I tend to lean towards the more aesthetically pleasing edition.

Interpreting covers is a larger conversation—and probably demands a lot more research that I have had time to give. However, each edition, each design, says something about the times in which we live (see above commentary on movie covers). And in an age of e-books the purpose of covers has changed—e-ink doesn’t allow for full color imaging, despite making the ability to read text easier on the eye. Additionally the art on the page is probably a reflection of imagination, but also cultural influences in that particular period of time.  More specifically I find myself thinking about how the widespread censorship in Nazi Germany dictated how books were designed and marketed–and what we can learn by looking at these different covers about the messages that the Nazi’s were propagating.

As a piece of every day life, a cover says a lot about what we as a country and as a society are reading. In an age of mass marketing, seeing the cover everywhere only stimulates the brain into wanting to know more, learn more, and experience it first hand.

The Guessing Game

I first started thinking about this blog post almost a year ago when CBS Sunday Morning put together this segment (watch it here). Narrated by Erin Moriarty the piece looks at book covers as an element of our visual landscape—that they are, in fact, pieces of art.  Art  provides a glimpse into how people are feeling about particular events in the outward world–and like the Mona Lisa, a Mark Rothko painting, or Monet’s Water Lilies covers are seared into our minds. So let’s play a little game:

Can you identify this book by its cover?

How about this one?

or this one?

This exercise made me think about the book cover as it moves into its next phase of existence, where (as both the Guardian and the Sunday Morning piece explain) the digital world is using the cover in entirely new ways that shift the function of the book into a new medium (after all you can’t see what someone is reading when they are on a Kindle or a Nook). In fact, when I start reading a book on my Kindle it starts on the first page, automatically bypassing the title/author acknowledgement/index.  In this way the cover is perhaps reduced to playing merely an informational role, without the vivid colors and design elements translating easily into e-ink.  I do acknowledge that on color e-readers you can see covers in much the same way as you see them off screen–but even then its a digitized form, without the texture of the physical copy.

Of course books aren’t completely gone from our physical landscape, and I very much doubt that they will ever be completely eradicated.  I also recognize that not everyone cares as much as I do about the face of a book–and look to word of mouth to find new titles. I do hope, however that we’ll still be able to see a book cover that is as with iconic as the covers for Catch-22, Jurassic Park, and The Great Gatsby.

Personal Inspiration

In preparing this post I thought it would be fun to look at some of my favorites. So here are a few book covers that I love:

Tana French’s book is startlingly creepy–the branches of the tree emblematic of the complexity of the mystery that lies within. This is my favorite cover of Little Dorrit partially because it juxtaposes the door of the Marshalsea with Amy’s form. The way her hand clutches her skirt indicates movement as she passes from her father’s walled prison into the chaos of London. I love this cover of Stardust primarily for its whimsy.

As I mentioned on this blog, a few weeks ago a dear friend passed away. Before she died we had talked about “the power of the cover” and she took the time to send a few of her favorites my way:

I also sent the request out over Twitter, and one of my followers pointed out these two covers. When I asked for an explanation @EttaHRichardson tweeted that the covers are attractive because of “the grandeur that the building maintains” for the first and “it’s the style, a bit Voo-doo & Cartoon but fresh and edgy” for the second.

I guess for me, the power of the cover is in its ability to inspire imagination. That the artwork, the layout, and the text all provides that initial jump into the unknown,  into a world that is filled with tales of heroic acts or dastardly deeds, a world filled with the enigmatic, the charismatic, the magical, and the ordinary, and a world filled with stories, and storytellers.  It is the power of the cover which starts us on this journey, one that begins  long before you even open the book in your hand.

Note: Just a note that for those of you that are in DC that you should visit the National Book Festival down on the National Mall. It will take place September 24-25, 2011.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Google Images,,

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