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.
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. 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…
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. Take 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 edition 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 kinda 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.