Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to post this piece on the Tin House Books blog discussing my ten favorite book covers. I posted a link to that piece here on my own blog, and commenter RF shared so many intriguing thoughts that rather than confine the dialogue to the comments field of that post, I decided it would be best to elaborate in a fresh post. I enjoy when people visit this blog and leave comments, but it’s especially exciting to read something as well written and in-depth as what RF wrote which is precisely why I wanted to expand on it.
Below, RF’s comments will be in bold and preceded by the initials RF while my responses will be in normal type. Before we begin, let me first share the ten covers I chose, in order up to my most favorite. I won’t reproduce my thoughts on each of them here, yet. For that, you’ll have to read the original post on the Tin House Books blog. But to understand RF’s comments and my own responses, I think it’s important to have some background.
All images in this post, unless otherwise noted, are presumably the copyright of either the artist, the publisher, or both.
10. Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, cover by Darrell K. Sweet.
9. Etidorhpa by John Uri Lloyd, cover by unkown.
8. Creepy magazine, issue #28, cover by unknown.
7. Motorman by David Ohle, cover by unknown.
6. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, cover by Ian Miller.
5. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi, cover by unknown.
4. Multiforce by Mat Brinkman, cover by Mat Brinkman.
3. A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, cover by Bob Pepper.
2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, cover by Claus Hoie.
1. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, cover by Mervyn Peake.
RF: This is an interesting exercise; it's made me recognize how rarely I really like a book cover, and how rarely my favorites are the ones which I actually think are beautifully designed. I think most of these are downright ugly.
I truly appreciate RF’s candor, and willingness to call me out on the perceived “ugliness” of many of my choices. I do think it’s important to note that the framework for that Tin House post was my favorite book covers, and not necessarily the most beautiful or beautifully designed. I did think it was fascinating that RF mentioned how rarely her favorites are the ones which are beautiful and that she, like me, sometimes experiences a disconnect between the content of a book and the trade dress.
RF: A lot of them are also grandfathered in from childhood.
Extremely perceptive, this. I have been thinking about this for almost a day now, wondering why it is that what matters to me most in terms of story, narrative, art and so on is the material I experienced as a child or young adult. These days, as a man in his early 40s, I almost never read anything new or contemporary, turning instead to the classics, mythology, and books from the 60s and 70s instead of diving into the dreck that clogs most bookstore shelves these days. Some, I think, would accuse me of having an underdeveloped or even juvenile aesthetic, unaware or unwilling to engage with subtlety and complexity. Bullshit. Honestly, I think a great deal of what passes for modern creative endeavor (or, I guess, post-modern since so much of it seems to be infected with that) is hopelessly and nauseatingly narcissistic and self-involved. I just don’t care about it. I have enough complexity in my own life, I don’t need it thrust upon me by others, whether they are authors or filmmakers or musicians. This may be a very unpopular thing to write, but it’s honest.
RF: There's the first edition of The Great Gatsby, which can still elicit a perfect mood in the right moment. I think there are excellent reasons why this never really detached from the book: it perfectly captures its interior darkness and humidity.
An excellent point, and a fine cover indeed. I do wonder though how much of this connection between the text and the iconic cover is simply due to the force of history and familiarity. Almost everyone who has read the novel has seen this cover, which, as RF mentioned, “never really detached from the book.” Has this become a self-fulfilling kind of thing?
RF: The Ballantine "hippie covers" to Lord of the Rings by Barbara Remington...
RF: ...and the beautiful Tolkien-drawn cover to the first edition of The Hobbit...
RF: ...at the opposite end of the stylistic scale, I guess. Remington's bold, delicate colors and air of abstract heraldry went deep into my reading of the books and sense of their tone.
This pleased me a great deal. I am incredibly fond of Barbara Remington’s “hippie covers,” and even though I first saw Tolkien’s own delicate watercolor covers to the early paperback editions, Remington’s images for me solidified that sense of fantasy and wonder although I think RF’s mention of heraldry is spot-on as well. I almost included Remington’s covers in my own list of ten favorite covers, but they dropped off near the end.
As an aside, many many artists have lent their visions to Tolkien’s great epic and there is an astonishing variety of approaches. One of the artists whose work has always resonated deeply with me is Cor Blok.
His paintings were chosen for both the 2011 and 2012 Tolkien Calendars and seem to have set off a firestorm of controversy, especially in the Amazon reviews section. This troubles me because it seems emblematic of the creeping death that is devouring modern aesthetics. We as American consumers are presented some corporate vision of a property, one which always caters to the lowest common denominator of broad appeal, and that vision is then enshrined as the only acceptable one. Talented artists like Alan Lee...
...and Ted Nasmith...
...have for years provided visual explorations into Tolkien’s world and their work is indeed brilliant, imaginative and magnificent. But Tolkien’s books, like their readers, are a vast mosaic and there is, or should be, room for a wide variety of responses. The venom which greeted these Cor Blok paintings is unexpected and deeply disappointing because what it seems to say is that there is only one way to “see” or “show” something and any vision that does not adhere to, or imitate, that house style is “crap” or “stupid” or “the worst art I have ever seen.”
RF: The Tor adult cover of Ender's Game. It's a wholly generic sci-fi image, but I spent some serious teenage times staring at its icy, ultimately amorphous militarism and many bullshit medallions. It's that amorphousness that keeps me with it.
My earlier response, which I’ll simply reproduce here, was “Funny that you mentioned Ender's Game. I read that based on a strong recommendation from my wife, and quite enjoyed it, but can recall despising the cover. To me it always seemed utterly soulless and bland and actually interfered with my desire to read the story. Then again, as I have mentioned many times, I am hardly the most subtle of illustrators and for good or ill tend to occasionally favor the freakish, iconoclastic, and deliberately obtuse over the subtle.” It bears mentioning though that I absolutely loved RF’s mention of “many bullshit medallions” on the cover. Seriously.
RF: (While browsing Amazon for the image above, I came across this presumably fan-made cover [unless "Ender's" goes sans apostrophe these days], which I immediately liked better than any real one. It suggests decay on many scales, and sums up a lot of what I still love and hate about Card.
True, a much more visually interesting and thought-provoking cover. I wonder though how successful it might be to a new reader utterly unfamiliar with either Card or Ender’s Game? This, to me, calls to mind some of the more effective and experimental science fiction covers of the 70s, but since the genre was so much smaller back then and there was less money at stake, it seems that publishers were much more willing to take chances on cover designs than they are today.
RF: What else? There are plenty of modern covers that I admire, but I'm still finding myself thinking almost exclusively about ones that made a dent in me young. Like this hideous edition of Steppenwolf...
RF: Which I still own, and which has little to do with the book inside, but somehow does contain its synaesthetic, gender-collapsing fervor in a way that absolutely no later image has. You just can't go classy with Steppenwolf.
Having never read Steppenwolf I can’t comment on how appropriate this cover might be for the book, but I do remember shelving many many copies of this paperback during my years working in a used books store and I was constantly fascinated by it. The entire messy sprawl seemed so overdone, so florid, so voluptuous and cheesily sensual. I was always kind of smitten with it simply because, as RF alludes to, it was the polar opposite of classy. It certainly does make a dent, but whether this dent is good or bad seems to vary by reader.
RF: In the more modern arena, Finder: Dream Sequence by Carla Speed McNeil; again, not a pretty cover by any means, but a perfect image for what's inside...
Again, I have not read any of McNeil’s Finder books although I am told they are excellent. I agree that this cover is gorgeous and has a great deal of visual appeal and interest. RF brings up an interesting point though. Just how important is it that the cover image be a “perfect” match for what is inside? Are we all truly judging books by their covers? I understand how, from a marketing point of view, this is the single greatest factor driving cover design, but do we now look at everything through the shrewd capitalist lens of marketing and sales? I don’t know the answer to this at all, but it is something I think about a great deal.
RF: By the same token, the cover of Finder #27, which I actually do think is magnificent on its own, and which I keep by my desk with the Solar Brothers...
(Note: These Solar Brothers are drawings of my own, some of which RF must own since I have sold most of them.)
Agreed, another beautiful and very suggestive image. Somehow though, and I don’t mean this as a pejorative, it is very comic-book-ish. Which is appropriate, given that it IS a comic book cover.
RF: The early '90s Vintage editions of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, with their complementary cross motifs and the perfect, perfect colors (I guess I've learned in the past fifteen minutes that my book-cover preferences are almost exclusively about color)...
Of course. Color can have an enormous impact on perception and emotion and I, for one, am relieved that your cover preferences are driven in large part by color. I actually have a great deal of respect for that, and for what it says about you as a reader and a thinker.
RF: And, fine, I guess I'll cheat and add another comic, Obata Takeshi's cover for Death Note vol. 1. Another artist who likes cross motifs. Maybe not as thoughtful in their use, but also not as totally unlike Crime and Punishment as one might imagine, though with a totally different genre hat. I like the endless, obsessive detail of Obata's cover art, and its unapologetic bombast, and his frank disinterest in the faces (though elsewhere he is almost too interested in them)...
Hmmmm. Here, I think, our paths may diverge the most. Taken out of context, this is a highly effective cover, visually striking and executed very well. But given the context of its intended audience, the heavily and almost miserably serial-oriented nature of manga (with some titles like One-Piece and Dragon Ball running on for years and years and dozens and dozens of volumes with no real meaning to each storyline other than to set up the next) I think these cross motifs might be too easy a target. To me it’s like painting a crucifixion scene but making Jesus a highly sexualized nude woman with large breasts. Sure, at first it seems provocative and highly-charged but ultimately it is shock value and quite shallow at that. Although I think I should back up and say that yes, manga rarely tries to pass itself off as anything other than cheap disposable entertainment, so my comments above about context should be re-phrased. Provided there is an awareness on the part of the reader that what they are engaging in is just that – cheap disposable entertainment only, and not high art (whatever that might mean) – I can accept shock value and obvious visual cues.
RF: (Oh, Jesus -- I'm sorry that I completely misread your cue and started going off on my own favorites instead. I just got caught up in the meme. The Voyage to Arcturus cover got me thinking about Lord of the Rings, and about the disparity between your cover-preference-orientation and mine, and before I knew it, I was talking.)
No apologies necessary at all. I deeply enjoyed your comments and they provoked a lot of thinking in me. Agreements and disagreements are equally valuable to me, and I hope this isn’t the end of the dialogue at all. Thank you, sincerely, for sharing this, RF.