Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My top 10 favorite book covers of all time

Over at the Tin House Books blog, I've got a short piece that I relished writing. It's about my top 10 favorite book covers of all time, and I was able to discuss each one just a bit. Take a look at the post right here. Also, I'd be fascinated to know what you think. Any covers you love that I missed? Any covers I love that you think are just dreadful?

(And yes, the above cover for Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake definitely made the list.)


  1. Really interesting read (and look). Strange, but the first thing I thought of were the 1960's Cambridge University Press editions of Selected Tales from Chaucer. Each one a vibrant different colour, and all with the same cover image of the host on his horse. Editors Winny, Spearing, or Hussey, or various combnations thereof.
    Almost perfectly designed for creative defacing during double english. Loved them!

  2. 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.

    A lot of them are also grandfathered in from childhood. 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.

    The Ballantine "hippie covers" to Lord of the Rings by Barbara Remington, and the beautiful Tolkien-drawn cover to the first edition of The Hobbit -- 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.

    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.

    (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.

    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:

    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.

    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:

    By the same token, the cover ofFinder #27, which I actually do think is magnificent on its own, and which I keep by my desk with the Solar Brothers:

    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):

    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):

  3. (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 Arcturuscover 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.)

  4. Titus, I just did a search for those and saw them online. I agree, perfect for creative defacing! I'm generally pretty fascinated by the choices publishers make when designing a line of books. You want some kind of visual unity, but each title needs to be distinct. Despite what might seem like a narrow range, the possibilities are actually almost endless.

  5. "I think most of these are downright ugly."

    Well, I certainly admire your candor. Remember though, the concept for this post as it was presented to me was to choose my favorite book covers, not necessarily those which I thought were simply the most beautiful or aesthetically appealing. The "Roadmarks" cover, for example, is a fairly pedestrian painting of a dragon, but when I saw it as a child, it really ignited my sense of wonder so I am certain that my appreciation for it is driven largely by emotional attachments and not much at all by any real kind of aesthetic appreciation.

    I remember those Remington "Lord of the Rings" covers as well. Interestingly enough, I almost included them on the list. Absolutely right though that her vision is almost the polar opposite of Tolkien's. There has been a lot of to-do over the two recent Tolkien calendars which use art by Cor Blok. Well worth a look if you're not familiar with him. I find it disappointing how many people have roundly criticized the work because it is not in keeping with the same yearly regurgitation or Alan Lee or Ted Naismith art they seem to want to have on infinite repeat. There's always room for a different look, I think. And for the record, I am monstrously fond of Cor Blok's art.

    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.

    I was unable to see that possibly fan-made cover you had mentioned. Could you perhaps re-comment with the URL, or even email it? I'd like to see it.

    And now it is time for me to leave, but I will continue these comments later in the evening. I think perhaps I may weave your comment into a longer blog post since you've written so well and so articulately and given me a great deal to think about. More soon...

  6. Matt, I'm sorry I didn't come back to this thread, and see your reply, until today -- I think I've responded to most of it elsewhere, though. It looks like you found the fan Ender fan cover on your own -- as for "most beautiful" and "most effective/favorite" being nonequivalent, I of course absolutely agree, and I hope would've put things better (including a more direct reaction to what you were actually saying in the post) if I hadn't been groping through a half-awake haze.

  7. No worries RF. As you mentioned, all the heavy lifting was done in the other post so I don't think you missed anything at all here. I was just so grateful for your in-depth comments and I really wanted them to have some room to breathe. Plus I'm not sure if everyone that visits reads the comments, and I thought your words were really worth seeing.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.