It is all I was ever told as a book-loving child: don’t judge a book by its cover, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. However, as a now fully grown bookworm, who obviously appreciates what lies between the carefully curated artwork crafted to pull you in and make you pick up the book, I do allow myself to value book covers, to let them intrigue me into trying something new. Or, once I have realised that a book is one of my favourites, I love to go out of my way to find the most beautiful cover, one that speaks to me of the content of the book, one that captures the way I feel about it, or (shock horror) one that I simply find is most aesthetically pleasing on my bookshelf.
Certain book covers are iconic and become part of the magic of the books themselves. For many, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking out of a dark blue sky will conjure up images of a crumpled American dream, while the unblinking logo of Big Brother has entered the public consciousness and is instantly recognisable. Cover design, when done well, can truly add to the impact of a book and how it is received by its reader.
There is a reason I have never taken to reading on my laptop or a Kindle, why people have such strong views on whether you should take the cover of a hardback off before you read it, or if spines should be cracked or left quietly untainted. Reading is a physical activity and the experience that the cover and the make-up of the book adds to it should not be underestimated.
I have always appreciated the beauty of physical books, as a child I used to rearrange my ‘library’ (the one shelf my limited collection took up on my parents’ bookshelf) into colour order, then rearranged it into collections, and then took it all apart again and arranged it by author surnames. As much as I loved to check out the maximum number of books allowed from the library each week, nothing compared to the feeling of holding a book that was mine.
Now, I take pleasure in collecting a set of a certain design. Every time I am in a charity shop, I look for the Coralie Bickford-Smith Penguin English Library versions of my favourite classics. While I love the look of their distinctive striped spines together on my bookshelf, I also think there is something special about purposely seeking a specific book cover that resonates with you and your experience of the novel.
One of my favourite books that I own is a tiny copy of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. This Picador Modern Classics edition, a tiny, glittery hardback design covered in pink pearlised roses, perfectly captures the atmosphere of that ethereal book for me. This practice of seeking out a specific version that speaks to me the most is not simply a vain aesthetic leaning, but part of how I relate to the literature I read and, in some ways, is a method of expressing how I relate to the novel. Has the designer picked out the themes that I found most compelling? Is there a specific motif that resonated with me that a publisher has also decided is intrinsic to the story? Which cover captures the atmosphere of the book as I experienced it?
I think, if you are asking yourself these kinds of questions, and if your appreciation for the literature is there also, then why can’t you judge a book by its cover? I don’t believe an appreciation for covers should be demonised, and in fact it can lead to a greater love for a specific book, causing you to consider why the publishers and the author have chosen to highlight specific elements, why those are important and what it means for how you read the novel. So, perhaps instead the phrase should be: do not judge a book solely by its cover.
Featured image by: Eleanor Strain