Judging a Book by Its Cover: Dangerous Books
This is where I point out to you, dear reader, the blank space on the map and
say “Beware. There be dragons here.” And I say this as a warning
to people with a more sensitive nature because this month’s book cover
survey is about “dangerous books” or another way to put it: controversial.
One book that is covered here has been indirectly responsible for millions of
people being killed off. The next batch could be charitably labeled as literary
smut if your taste runs that deep blue. And the last stragglers, recent releases,
have caused many critics to foam at the mouth and for the books’ Amazon
reviews to be littered with words that can curl your hair and make your Aunt
Mildred blush two shades of red. Yes, they are controversial, and quite a few
are considered dangerous, but contemplating how designers approach the content
presents a unique opportunity to examine the socio-political aspects of covers,
their naughty side, and yes, even the silly stuff.
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Translated by James Murphy
Published March 1, 2003
Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Translated by Ralph Manheim
Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Company
Reissued September 15, 1998
Cover design by Steven Cooley
When Mein Kampf was first published, critics, puzzled at Hitler’s disjointed ravings, playfully called the book Mein Kramp instead. The book and the author were dismissed as harmless, silly, and not worthy of notice -- even after the infamous Beer Hall Putsch and the ever-increasing power of the Nazis. And yet, shortly thereafter, as Hitler rose to power, the book became a bestseller as 10 million copies were sold throughout Germany -- its numbers rivaled the ubiquity of the Bible in many households.
The curious thing about the book, after all these years, is that the copyright will expire on December 31, 2015, and that Bavaria owns the copyright to all the editions of Mein Kampf (except for the English and Dutch editions). And regarding another aspect of its tortured legal history, all German publishers are outlawed from printing the book; however, it is perfectly legal to own a copy and to even buy one – except from the German sites for Amazon and Barnes and Noble due to criticism by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1999. Freeware copies are also available on the internet from Neo Nazi sympathizers, which goes to show that the dark charisma of Adolf Hitler’s words still hold sway over a significant number of people.
So how does a designer go about putting together a cover for a work that is so beyond the pale? The designer has to respect the malignant power of Hitler’s words along with the heavy knowledge of history and all those corpses stretching from Auschwitz to Maly Trostenets. It’s unfortunate then that Fredonia Classics should publish a shoddy looking and vaguely affirmative cover of Mein Kampf. The cover’s predominant color of dark camel and the cheap looking font make the book look dated. The picture of Adolf Hitler, dressed jauntily in his uniform and hand assertively placed on his hip, looks like any photo you would find in some respectable parlor room – he’s Uncle Hitler instead of the glowering and power-hungry paterfamilias intent on waging total war. The book also has some Nazi symbols: a head that looks like Athena, stylized eagle wings, swastika, and a torch. The book cover isn’t really making a strong editorial comment and yet it doesn’t condemn the contents in its use of graphic language -- instead we are left with something that is a dumb design with a capital D -- it’s a politically inept treatment. At best, the cover looks harmless -- at worst, it’s noble and Hitler looks almost avuncular. Maybe the designer didn’t mean this, but we are left with nothing opposite otherwise.
The Houghton Mifflin cover is a much better treatment of the book. The book cover is simply black. All we have is the title, author name, and other bits of necessary information breaking up the colorless field. They are placed quietly on the cover, and a quote from the introduction is placed on the back. The design of the cover is rendered without any fanfare, but this critic can’t help but feel that Steven Cooley, the designer, has done a superb job on quietly addressing the baggage attached to the book and putting together something that respects the history and the contents within. Maybe designing the book was akin to taking a whiff of the embers and the brimstones of the deepest and bleakest of hells. It seems like such a huge task. How can you design a book cover for something so vile? Instead, the cover is kind of a non-design. The book is so beyond the pale that you can’t really say anything except with a simple cover, and yet using that particular color for the cover hints at the book’s stained and bloody history -- the cover is so black, the contents so horrifying and then we think and ponder how deep, how dark, how terrible!
Days of Sodom and Other Writings by Marquis De Sade
Reissued November 1, 1987
Cover design by Evelyn Kim
Cover Painting: Gustave Courbet, “Woman with a Parrot.”
Philosophy in the Bedroom, & Other Writings by Marquis De Sade
Reissued October 1, 1990
Cover design by Evelyn Kim
Cover Painting: Gustave Courbet, “La Sommeil.”
It’s fitting that Grove Press, infamously known as the publishing house of many a dirty and naughty book, should reissue Marquis De Sade’s masterpieces in nicely turned out editions. Maybe they are too nice.
Both covers, 120 Days of Sodom and Justine, are by the same designer and are created using the same template -- elegant serif fonts and blocks of dark maroon on high quality trade paper back. Both books rely on some painting by Gustave Courbet: fleshly, pink odalisques -- one of a girl distressed at getting her finger bit by a parrot and Justine’s cover: two heavy, sapphic girls in deep sleep. Back when they were painted, Gustave Courbet was reviled for his paintings' sexual frankness and their fleshy realism and yet, the patina of time has rendered them old, quaint. Maybe we are too jaded now. In our particular world of commerce, filled with the pneumatic Jenna Jamesons and Kobe Tais of the world, I guess we are not easily shocked anymore, and the voluptuousness and the tresses of the Courbet girls hark back to an earlier era -- rendered in the pastiche and cobwebs of a Masterpiece Theatre special -- and thus, the covers are too nice. Too respectable for Marquis de Sade. They look like Mills and Boons books -- they seem to suggest to anybody without a proper art history education that these books won’t have the kind of vomit-inducing fare that Sade was infamous for. These are not romantic, bodice-ripping books -- far from it. They are revolutionary. They are fierce. The covers should suggest that you are going to feel very uncomfortable when reading them -- and not some Nora Roberts book!
of O by Pauline Reage
Reissued December 1, 1989
Pauline Reage had a faithless lover. He was intelligent, debonair, but still a world-class ass. So she wrote Story of O as a pornographic love letter to him and in turn sparked much controversy and publicity in the French press and beyond. Overtime, the book has acquired the sheen of nostalgic distance -- it doesn’t seem quite as shocking as recent releases such as The Sexual Life of Catherine M, the almost comic adventures of a ravenous art critic, and 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, the memoir/fiction book from an under-aged “O” in training. Story of O is comparatively an old war-horse in the highborn literary smut canon, and it has served as a reliable stepping-stone for many curious readers who want to graduate from the clumsy prose of Penthouse Letters, Flowers in the Attic, the milquetoast sex scenes in Clan of the Cave Bears series, or the puerile wank of The Victoria’s Secret Catalog; however, it should be noted that Story of O is just as cringe inducing as the mildest scene penned by Marquis De Sade. But in terms of comparison on the subject of covers, the Story of O cover is a much better treatment than Sade’s defanged Mills and Boons versions. Story of O is simple and stark white. No risqué pictures! The title and author are elegantly displayed in a rectangular box. The unnamed designer seems to tacitly say, “The words speak for themselves. What else can I do?” Indeed. It’s a good thing the cover is not gussied up or cheapened with Courbet paintings or the ass-crack of a girl bent over like on Molly Weatherfield’s Carrie’s Story. It would be too much, and you’d have to cover the book with brown wrapping paper so you won’t get hassled. Also and most importantly, the blank treatment of the Story of O cover gives a moment of peace and privacy to those among us who would like a little slap and tickle in their bedtime stories.
There has been many a kerfuffle over this book, needless to say. Reviews have ranged from the scathing and incoherent to more intelligent considerations such as The Elegant Variation’s thoughtful critique. The jacket design seems to also present a quandary -- at least to this critic anyway. What’s it trying to say? But it is nicely done -- crafted well so to speak. The colors (red, white, black) suggest something superficially Russian Constructivist, but the bull’s eye and the pushpin seem to be more of a sly semiotic joke on part of the jacket designer. The bull’s eye is for the critics to take aim at -- metaphysically at least, and as for the pushpin? Maybe it’s one of those open-ended kinds of jokes or riddles. Who’s the pushpin? Who’s the pinhead? Bush, the target of the assassination plot? Or the author, a pinhead for writing a book that’s an easy cheap shot for anybody with a pen?
(Note: a reader has e-mailed to say that the cover depicts an object in the book, a target tacked on the wall. This just goes to show one of the many occupational hazards of judging a book by its cover; you don't read the book and maybe you completely miss something because of this oversight. I actually thought it was amusing that I had to go through these acrobatic musings on what the cover means. But maybe my previous thoughts on the matter touch on the reason why the designer used that particular image in the first place. Anyway, much thanks to Michael for bringing this up. He also writes that the book isn't that great, so don't bother.)
Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the
War on Terror by Michelle Malkin
Regnery Publishing, Inc.
Published August 2004
Jacket design by Kristina Rutledge Phillips
Michelle Malkin, the Filipino American right wing pundit and a kind of wannabe/down market Ann Coulter, has unleashed a doozy of a book. The title is formidable. The blowback will be fierce. Now you ask yourself, does Michelle Malkin need a trip to the couch to examine her terrible case of post-colonial angst, or is she asking for a bitchslap? I asked a fellow pinay what she thought, and all I could get from her was, “Michelle Malkin is a one peso Manila slut!” Hmmmm. That wasn’t terribly productive, but it goes to show the incendiary reactions that the book and author elicit. The cover of the book in question is rather staid and boring. It’s symmetrical -- it looks like one of those tedious wonk books until you notice the pictures and then the whole premise of the cover becomes cloudy and fraught with years old political debate. The man on the left is Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and the Japanese man on the left is Richard Kotoshirodo, who did some surveillance work for the Japanese consulate before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This juxtaposition has been noticed by Eric Muller, UNC Law Professor and Japanese internment expert, and has become a point of contention between him and Michelle Malkin on their blogs as well as on many others. He says the two men are not even in the same league and shouldn’t be equated. She says differently. But aside from all this tedious back and forth, Malkin’s critics have taken upon themselves to take her book cover and Photoshop their own parody versions. Dissent and criticism is just a click away -- especially with a cover design that lends itself to an easy Photoshop job! A number of the parody book covers use off-color remarks and unfair insults against Malkin, but quite a bunch are rather pointed, clever, and funny. Favorites of this critic are as follows:
In Defense of Roadhouse: The Case for Recommending One of the Worst Films Ever Created by Jasper Kingpin (Mirrored pictures of Patrick Swayze on cover)
In Defense of the Brown Bunny: Proving That My Film is More Entertaining Than Roger Ebert’s Colonoscopy by Vincent Gallo (Two profile pictures of Vincent Gallo on cover)
In Defense of Internment: The Case for Being Afraid of Everyone by
Michelle Malkin (Pictures of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh on cover)