August 2004

Sharon Adarlo


Judging a Book By Its Cover

It’s rather inevitable that I should trot out that old shop-worn phrase gracing the top, but in this case, it’s apt and very fitting. This new feature will deal with the aesthetic and at times questionable qualities of book covers and may even delve a bit into how they are put together and the actual design of their guts and entrails. Most of all, it will be fun. Book covers prick the senses. Like old, hoary Roman seers, we can divine the fleeting notion of a book with a quick glance if the designer was skilled enough and the publisher willing to see through an aesthetic vision. And there are desperate calculations behind all of this. Why did the publisher put a naked girl on the cover? Why does this cover stink? Judging a book by its cover, a cliché that is frowned upon in polite society, is a rollicking way of answering these questions and then some.

In this first juncture, I will be reviewing a handful of new releases, but in the future, there will be examinations of book covers from different genres and subjects such as science fiction, romance, poetry, chick lit, dick lit, authors of all stripes, and the famous and the infamous. Enjoy.

(Seems that the blog, Mastication is Normal, has already appropriated the above title. Blame lack of imagination on my part.)

My Life by Bill Clinton
Published June 22, 2004
Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson
Jacket photographs courtesy of the Clinton Presidential Materials Project
ISBN: 0375414576

This book landed the stores with all the grace of a twenty-ton elephant crashing into a bidet. It’s a doorstopper of a book. It’s big and large and sprawling in its focus and physical heft as noted by other critics, but it’s too bad the cover is a sad and tepid affair. Carol Devine Carson, a seasoned professional at Knopf, designed the cover, but we shouldn’t blame the poor woman who’s obviously pressed for time. It was not a secret that Bill Clinton was feverishly working on the book and trying to wrap it up well before the Democratic National Convention. It was a hurried affair. So we can just imagine what happened in the Knopf offices when the book was finally placed on Carson’s hopper. Carson has designed many fine and excellent covers through out her fruitful career at Knopf, but we can guess that this particular cover is not a personal favorite.

Quite honestly, on first glance, the book cover looks like it was a two minute QuarkXpress rush job. The front and back images were provided by the author himself and nothing more should be said about them except that they are dull and pedestrian. The front picture of Bill Clinton looks like a hastily taken photograph and rather cheap-looking too -- emphasized by the fact that he appears to be wearing one of those generic fleece jackets you can buy at the Gap. The placement of the title and name has no “anchor” to it. They are placed there, on that particular spot, because, where else could she put it? Money and time, or lack-there-of of the latter set the parameters of the design, and instead of bookmaking, we have a sausage-making factory churning out something pedestrian. “There’s not a grain of salt in that big dish to stir the appetite,” as Catullus once said, but this has not deterred the reading public who snatched it up like toilet paper before an impending hurricane. Goes to show that the pull of Bill Clinton’s charisma is just as strong as when he was the leader of the free world. But shouldn’t we expect a beautiful, crafted, and magisterial book cover for a former president -- albeit a president with a scandal-filled term? Instead we get magisterial on the cheap. But don’t blame Carson. It sucks to be rushed.


Symptomatic by Danzy Senna
Riverhead Books
Published May 6, 2004
Jacket design by Scott Idleman/Blink
ISBN: 1573222755




Blindness by Jose Saramago
Harcourt Inc.
Published September 1, 1998
Jacket design by Claudine Guerguerian
ISBN: 0151002517

Symptomatic is painted in a garish, traffic-orange, seizure-inducing color and tricked out with the title repeatedly superimposed on one another in a state of artful agitation. I suppose it hints at the edgy content inside, but instead I want to slip off the cover, put it away somewhere dark and hard to reach, and rest my eyeballs. Must it be orange? And a frightful orange at that. My retinae feel assaulted. And as for the title design, it is vaguely innovative in a knock-off-David-Carson kind of way, but instead I can’t help but think that it hews far too closely to Claudine Guerguerian’s design for Jose Saramago’s book, Blindness. And the design for Symptomatic suffers in every comparison.

Blindness’s design is a quiet jewel and quite beautiful. See - the cover is so simple. The words are skillfully rendered into a delicate web of varying weight and shade. Guerguerian also used a spray tool to make a blackish vapor in the background to hint at a kind of perspective or depth to the cover, and then we have the white blocky type emerging like a revelation. And the cover is an icy iPod-esque white, unlike the too-bright orange of Symptomatic. I was so touched by the Blindness cover when the book came out that I bought the volume for its dust jacket alone.

I am also wondering if the Symptomatic designer was directly inspired by the Blindness cover or was it simply serendipity, but the new book cover is just a maniacal shade of orange that all so-called layout innovations are rendered mute.


Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes
Hyperion Miramax Books
Published April 7, 2004
Jacket design by who knows?
ISBN: 1401351964

Do you know the designer of this book jacket? I don’t know. Can someone please tell me? It doesn’t say anywhere on the jacket or even inside. It’s a huge mystery. Did that certain someone forget to put in his or her name? Or maybe they didn’t want to have their name attached to it. But why? The mind boggles. As for the dust jacket, a mish mash of public domain clip art and pictures, the baroque and gold filigree tracing around the title and the author’s name, it reminds me of one of those Vienneta dessert cakes that Breyers made. Oh, you know -- they had all this fancy scrolling and were the edible equivalent of Georgian crown molding. The book design is much like that. It seems light. Inconsequential. It’s a frothy piece of meringue or a sudsy pink bubble. Basically, it means to convey that you know what you are getting into with this book, and that’s okay. The book cover is nothing more than a high-class, Sex and the City-inspired version of that board game called Life. We have pastel-colored arrows. We have teeny tiny pictures of ritzy consumer items. We have a prize, a big hulking rock. It’s a tongue in cheek kind of deal, but it suffers from a lack of focus. Nothing catches the eye. Eyeballs just kind of wander around trying to get a hold of something, but nothing stands out distinctly, not even that gold filigree, which is the best part of the cover. And then we have the spine. The Miramax Book label, an utterly shameless pilfering of Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature red square, stands out like a red and angry pimple. It’s so out of place with the rest of the book jacket. If only Miramax would fix that. Other publishers change their logo and type according to the contextual flavor of every book; why can’t they?


Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
Published April 20, 2004
Jacket design by Gabriele Wilson
ISBN: 1400041775

The photo on Amazon does not do it justice. As an object of art, it is precious in a quiet and sinister way and quite gorgeous. And it’s from Knopf as well, just like Bill Clinton’s autobiography, and of course the art crew over there is up to the task of designing something beautiful if given enough time to read the book and render a cover befitting the contents. Despite my snarky flogging of the Bill Clinton book cover, Knopf has turned in wonderful covers (including covers by Carson), but there are times when expediency and money trump up a designer’s hand. This isn’t one of them.

At first, I didn’t like the touch of the book. The dust jacket has a rough tooth to it, but it really fits in with the overall theme of the cover. The cover looks like paper that has been soaked in Black China tea for ages, or perhaps it barely escaped a fire -- there’s this beautiful smokiness that adds depth to it. There’s a kind of antiqued texture to it that cannot be captured in a picture, and there are these subtle prints of wallpaper flowers flecked here and there, and some limned in delicate etchings of gold. The type is displayed simply and effectively. All in all, what a jewel and a more than worthy cover for an excellent book.