Choosing Books – Part III: Aesthetics

I feel that, when asked if some books are beautiful, the correct answer sometimes just has to be, “Well…she has a nice personality.”

Some books are ugly. Just straight-up ugly. When thinking of ugly book covers, the first one that always comes to mind is the dumb cover on The Great Gatsby. bfz5ovh9ecolxdr1f3j00fka2.534x800x1.jpg

What is going on here? The midnight blue, I get. The cityscape, nice touch. But you can’t even focus on those nice elements because a noseless lady with weirdly low-set and overly thick eyebrows with a tiny mouth is staring at you. It’s off-putting.

I get why they have the eyes on the cover: it’s the whole thing about the eyes on the billboard, looking down on Gatsby when he drives through with Daisy. But those eyes were spectacled—they very clearly and specifically had to be spectacled. So who’s this on the cover, Daisy? Why is a noseless Daisy on the cover?!

I resisted for years—for years upon years—buying Gatsby because I could not stand the cover. And for some reason, every American edition of Gatsby is this same thing. It doesn’t matter if its brand new or ancient, it’s all the same.GreatGatsby423x630.jpg There’s even one edition that tries to trick you with a white spine, but when you pull it off the shelf, it’s the same old thing, but with the artwork minimized on the cover. What??

And then of course, Rachel goes to England and finds this beautiful edition—yellow, simple, nice use of black and white, the Y is even a champagne glass… the-great-gatsby.jpg

and naturally when I go to England it slips my mind and I come back Gatsbyless and upset. I caved finally—ugh, fine, FINE, I’ll just BUY it, GRRR—and bought the hideous edition. But not without some angst.

Now Emily, on the other hand, disagrees with me completely. She loves the midnight-blue cover. And apparently millions of other Americans do too, because they keep printing it. Maybe I’m alone on this point. But just to prove I’m not—go ahead and Google Image search “worst book covers ever” (preferably not in the presence of malleable children) and scroll down for a bit, and you know what you’ll find…? Boom. Noseless Midnight-Blue Gatsby.

Whoever said not to judge a book by its cover clearly does not understand something.

So we must ask the question, how much does cover art actually matter? Cover art as we know it wasn’t a thing until the twentieth century anyway; before that, books were printed with leather or cloth covers of just one color or had a design imprinted on them. And way back in the day, if book owners were particularly wealthy, they would cover all of their books with the exact same (usually leather) cover, so that their library looked poshly uniform. But we live in an era of film posters and magazines, so photo-strewn book covers are our present reality. And this definitely has some positives and negatives.

Back in the day, you couldn’t really judge a book by its cover because there was nothing remarkable or, on the other hand, commonplace about the covers themselves anyway. And there was no synopsis, or biography of the author, or announcement that it was a New York Times Bestseller, or any of that stuff. The book was read because the book was simply worth reading. That’s all it took.

But what about all those hidden gems I find simply because of the cover? That has to say something, too. 51naG-FeFpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTake one of my all-time favorite books, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I picked this book up in Barnes & Noble because of the cover, and it didn’t disappoint. Something about the typeface, the man glancing over his shoulder, the way the title is displayed, the open book with the image of Barcelona printed on it… It intrigued me and won my attention.

But take a look at this earlier editionshadow-of-the-wind.jpg that I see all the time in used bookstores. I’m not sure I would’ve picked it up if it had been that one. It doesn’t have the same tantalizing zing as the newer one. The typeface is dated, the cover is too simple and doesn’t describe well enough the contents of the book. I don’t see intrigue on this cover the way I see intrigue in the newer one.

And then there’s the most recent edition, which seems shadow.jpgkinda milky and plain and, again, maybe would not have interested me had I seen it sitting on a table in Barnes & Noble. To me, the pale orange with the contemplative wanderer doesn’t quite accurately portray the enrapturing journey to uncover the truth behind a mysterious author-gone-missing. It’s closer to the contents of the book than the red edition, but still quite not up to snuff with the open-book edition.

In my opinion, those people that warn us not to judge a book by its cover have got some things right, but they’ve also got some things wrong. The Great Gatsby or The Shadow of the Wind are the same on the inside no matter what the front cover is. Whether I own the ugly blue Gatsby or the mustard yellow one, Gatsby still loves Daisy and Daisy is still a jerk. But I also must say that there’s something to a good cover. It may not be everything, but it serves as a way to invite the reader in, set a tone for the reading of the book, stimulate the imagination during the first few chapters, aid in setting the scene. I’ve kept from buying some books just because of the cover, but I’ve also run straight for the check-out counter for the same reason. There may not be a universal way to judge just what makes a good cover good, but then again, judging a book by its cover may just lead you to some really great books.

Click here to read Part I and Part II of “Choosing Books.” 

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2 thoughts on “Choosing Books – Part III: Aesthetics

  1. Dear Ellie,
    I do not have an English or Literature degree, so forgive any grammar or punctuation errors I make. I randomly saw this as I noticed on Facebook that your birthday just came and went. Happy Birthday! I just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading the 3 parts to your blog about books. It’s funny to see you and I think very similarly yet took two very different routes in school. I love to analyze people through a variety of ways as I have my degree in psychology and thought it interesting you do the same but based on books read or owned by a person. I also love how you analyze from a philosophical perspective what any given mood to read a book could say about where you are in life. It’s essentially a physical manifestation of your spiritual journey, and how God’s hand guides you through it. Anyways, I hope you keep writing these blog posts, I’ll keep reading. Would be interested to see you apply your ideas and critical thinking methods to how your mood or journey might impact how and what you choose to read in the Bible. Have a great week! (I’m sure there are auto-correct errors in this, writing this on my phone at a diner in Encinitas.)

    Joel

    • Joel,

      Wow, thank you for the honor of your message! It’s so wonderful to hear of people reading my work – a blog can often feel like throwing your heart and soul into the wind with the hopes that someone is listening! Thanks for the birthday wishes as well. I had a great day; I went to two bookstores and drank fancy coffee. It was perfect.

      I remember now that you studied Psychology, and how cool it is to see that our two interests manifest themselves so similarly, yet so differently! I’m actually a Communication Studies major, so even the way I analyze the communicative elements in literature is still not wholly from an English-type perspective, but actually more closely from a psychology perspective. So maybe we’re more similar in that regard than you thought!

      You are absolutely right about my “secular” (as in, non-sacred, or non-Scripture) reading being a marker of my spiritual journey. I have often found that I’m not “ready” to read a certain book – whatever that means, yet it’s totally true – or that I’m “more ready” to reread a book I wasn’t quite “ready” for in the past but read anyway. I wonder if it can be equated to different course levels in college: you don’t start with a 400-level class, you start with a 100, and after years of work you ascend the levels until you get there. In that case, God even more so steps into the role of Master Teacher to “educate” us in the knowledge of him.

      I’m fascinated by your question about how my moods or journeys influence the Scripture texts I focus on. My answer is that I actually do the same thing as when I choose non-sacred books, but never intentionally! For the past two years or so I have spent extended periods studying one specific book of Scripture at a time, say one month or more per book – which is a lot longer than I spend with a novel (which I typically burn through in about a week). Even so, once the month is up, I will actually open my Bible and “feel though” which book to read next. If it “feels right” then I’ll do it. Scripture is so unique because even though different topics and elements are focused on in each separate book, the narrative remains constantly on the character and nature of God. So in one sense, it doesn’t really matter which of the 66 books you choose; on the other hand, it matters a great deal. How often have we come across a psalm that speaks directly to our situation, or a promise in the Gospels that never quite clicked till that moment? Like reading secular books, I believe God is providential, and that he will always point us to where we need to be, both in a broad sense and in a very specific sense.

      You’ve certainly got my wheels turning! I’ll think more about this. Your thoughts and responses are welcome! Thank you so much, again, for reaching out! I hope all is well with you, and I look forward to hearing from you!

      Ellie

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