May 2005

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Classics Edition

I read entirely too much and confess to having relationships with books instead of people, placing expectations on them much the same as a normal person would on their confidantes. A nice paperback really turns me on, when it has the right size and shape for traveling in whatever it is I’m currently using to tote my 5 or 70 books of current interest. It needs to look appealing and feel appealing; I hate pulpy paper, that crappy stuff of mass-market paperbacks that causes a most unpleasant feeling when caressing a page with bathtub pruned fingertips, and reminds me of the brown institutional paper towels from elementary school. I need friendly font sizes that don’t cause premature use of unattractive, presbyopic eyewear. I need a spine that allows for easy identification when searching the shelves. All these I must have and more, and the current price of books justifies my insistence on such demands.

So, that being said, our maiden voyage is a look at some of the covers on various publishers’ classics lines, in recognition of FSG’s venture into the territory. The thing I love about a publisher’s decision to reissue a classic is that you no longer have to settle for some ancient edition with yellow pages, or the currently existing mass market-sized version with that previously mentioned hideous paper. You can again treasure an old favorite, proudly adding it to your library. And so we begin...

The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Cover design by Lynn Buckley
ISBN: 0374529531





Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Cover Design by Lynn Buckley
Cover painting: Le Pegasse Noir by Odilon Redon
ISBN: 0374529272




The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Cover Design by Lynn Buckley
ISBN: 0374529248

Sophisticated titles deserve sophisticated covers, and Lynn Buckley’s designs suggest her observance of this commandment. These classic titles are of a uniform size and all bear the FSG Classics tag, of a similar rectangular shape and placement to the Modern Library Classics tag. This is fine with me, because it works, and it causes no interference with the overall design. The back covers have been given notable consideration, and feature a uniform layout that interacts gracefully with the overall theme of the collection. For Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, work-worn hands clutch an old lady handbag... what’s in that bag? I'm dying to know. I may not have the answer to what’s in the bag, but I know what’s in the book: creepy, creepy stories. As far as what’s on the book, they’re simple and effective fonts with a powerful image, all contributing to a very clean design. This one is my favorite of Buckley’s designs in this review.

For Axel’s Castle, Buckley chose an Odilon Redon painting, a magical vision in impasto, which, if I do say so myself captures the book’s “imaginative literature” theme quite elegantly. The book is full of Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism on the likes of Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Stein, and Rimbaud. If I had to make my own criticism here, I might mention that the font chosen for the subtitle fades a bit into the illustration, and the title itself could stand to be a little clearer and more dynamic. Something about it is too centered, too static for my taste.

I was going to slim down my FSG selections to two, but then I came across The Asiatics and knew this would be impossible. Seeing this cover from a few feet away, I thought I saw cars, blurry and scattered on a bridge. But this photo forced me to take a closer look (congratulations, Lynn), which is how I realized that there are monkeys, I say monkeys on the front of this book. SOLD.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide
Cover design: Marc J. Cohen
Art direction: Susan Mitchell
ISBN: 0679741917





The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov
Cover design: Marc J. Cohen
Art direction: Susan Mitchell
ISBN: 0679729976

What to do, what to do with our poor Immoralist... Andre Gide’s masterpiece is cloaked with what I consider the best cover image possible. A little boy runs away from we know not what. He’s dressed in his skivvies and casts numerous shadows on the walled background, and the shimmery water in the foreground adds to the mysterious ambience. I love the choice of font here, with its starkly contrasting black and white type; the font is decidedly conservative, legal looking, generic. Not at all like our protagonist, not one little, tiny bit. If this cover doesn’t pull you in, you should probably check your pulse. I mean, where are this kid’s clothes? Why is he running? And where in the hell is he? I’m totally impressed with this cover treatment -- it inspires me to read this classic yet again, which is exactly what it was meant to do.

I declare I’m in love with this cover for Nabokov’s Stories: it capitalizes on what should be common knowledge, that Nabokov was obsessed with butterflies, and that they flit about in various ways among his stories. The real kicker for this cover is its silvery, holographic pattern of a butterfly’s wing as a background to the larger white silhouette. Holographic things are nifty. A New York Times blurb is perched comfortably in one of the silhouetted wings in an agreeable font color and style. The red title font is perfect in its contrast. I couldn’t love this cover more, and I really like Nabokov, so I appreciate that Cohen does him justice here. I shouldn’t have to beg when I tell you to please, please read "The Potato Elf" on page 228.

The risk Vintage takes in publishing their classics without the type of uniform, easily identifiable design template that most of the other publishers use sets their cover designs apart. On one hand, I appreciate it greatly, as it gives the designer increased freedom -- avoiding the need to work with a pre-ordained title font or placement of an insignia means that design elements can be pulled together more creatively, with fewer restraints. And the positive results of this are apparent in the covers I chose, because they're both effective and beautiful examples of the trade. On the other hand, because Vintage doesn't use a certain format or tag on their covers, they lack the easy identification of their brand that other lines benefit from when using those formats. In looking over the covers on the Vintage line, I find that the risk they take here has more benefits than drawbacks. They do stick to uniformity in the format of their spines, so in that way they do reap the rewards of brand identity.

Baudelaire in English by Charles Baudelaire, et al
Penguin Classics
Cover design by... Charles Baudelaire, basically
ISBN: 0140446443





On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Penguin Classics
Cover photograph: FPG
ISBN: 0142437255





Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Penguin non-classics
Cover design by Daniel Rembert
ISBN: 0140042520





On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Penguin Books, reprint edition
Cover design by Daniel Rembert
ISBN: 0140042598

According to the back cover of Baudelaire in English, the poet had intended this sixteenth-century engraving to be the cover for Les Fleurs du Mal. It’s morbid, classical, gothic. But I would have liked to have seen the designers, who are not named anywhere, get a little more creative by, for example, setting the image in electric blue against a red ground. Its really too safe for a character as eccentric and radical as Baudelaire. Nevertheless, I find it admirable that Penguin found a way to allow Baudelaire to choose the cover image more than a hundred years after his death.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.... oh, terribly sorry, I must have fallen asleep looking at this cover for Kerouac’s On the Road. To be perfectly honest with you, I think the FPG stock photo that was thrown on this cover is a real snooze. Someone at Penguin should lose a pinky over this. If they were hoping that the power of the book’s reputation would do all the work, I’m sure that’s true for those already familiar with the title, but new readers aren’t going to be enticed by this fuzzy car imagery. The back cover reads: “Pulsating with the rhythms of fifties underground America, jazz, sex, illicit drugs, and the mystery and promise of the open road...” Which forces me to ask: did the person working on this cover even bother to read that? Again, no designer is named anywhere here, probably due to the lack of any design. Viking books actually has a hardcover version that uses a similar image -- look it up to see how Penguin could have used it effectively. This cover makes me think of grandpa taking the kids to get a tastee-freeze after a 4-H meeting, but grandpa got everyone lost because he just had surgery on his cataracts and was wearing those optometrist-issued big, black, senior citizen wrap-arounds. Too bad they didn’t go to Daniel Rembert, cover designer for Penguin’s Dharma Bums release, to fix this; Penguin has Bums on their “non-classic” imprint, so maybe that tells you something about their attitude toward classic covers. To their credit, they did issue, more than ten years earlier, an On the Road that was in fact designed by Daniel Rembert. Why they’d release another with the snooziest cover on the planet when this beautiful rendition is already in circulation, I do not know, but I suspect it has something to do with marketing, money, or both.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, et al
The Modern Library Classics
Cover design by Wendy Lai
ISBN: 0812970063

Wendy Lai’s cover for this most ancient of classics makes it look fresh, edgy, and exciting. The background is neutral, and appears to be a close-up photo of the cracked landscape of some dry, dry land. Font is shown in spring green, orange, light blue, yellow. A blurb at the top is unobtrusively incorporated into the cover’s overall theme, and the Modern Library Classics tag is integrated through a series of circular shapes in a line across from it, in the same color as the tag. Even the spine of this book is interesting and dynamic, and is different from the front cover but adds a harmonious accent. I’m drawn to this cover again and again, every time I lay eyes on it.

The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, by Nikolai Gogol
Signet Classic
Cover: Urban Landscape with Monastery, by Aristarkh Lentulov
ISBN: 0451529545





Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
Vintage Classics
Cover design by Barbara de Wilde
ISBN: 0679776443





The Best of Oscar Wilde, Selected Plays and Writings, by Oscar Wilde
Signet Classic
Cover: A Stolen Kiss, by Marcus Stone
ISBN: 0451529340

When I think of Gogol’s Madman, I don’t think of sunny yellow. But this cover is somewhat redeemed by the title’s ironically flowery font and the use of Lentulov’s skewed, cubo-futuristic painting. Interestingly, Signet is an imprint of Penguin, and given all of the covers I’ve reviewed from these people, it seems they’re of the school of thought that says classic book covers should just have a classic painting slapped on them and be on with it. To thoroughly explore the depth of my pain concerning this issue, I contrast this cover against Vintage Classics’ Dead Souls, also by Gogol. Barbara de Wilde lights my fire with this design, an original, thoughtful creation rather than a recycled representation of an existing image. Don’t get me wrong -- there are times and places where using someone else’s art is a great idea. I just don’t think it’s the best choice in most cases.

I often find myself in the situation portrayed on The Best of Oscar Wilde cover: a woman seems to have fallen asleep on a garden bench with a suitor in pursuit at her side. She’s collapsed in boredom from the tiresome routine of having men constantly begging for her affections. She thinks, maybe if she pretends to be sleeping, they’ll finally leave her alone. Unlike some of the other covers I’ve looked at that feature classic paintings, this one actually works, as it interacts with the rest of the cover. Stone’s painting is accented by a sensitive choice of background color featuring some subtle patterning, and the chosen fonts are both sophisticated and complementary to the rest of the design.

Classics earn their title because they have the unique ability to transcend time and place. They have the power to appeal to a wide range of people and have left the realm of books for that of literature. It may be tempting for some publishers to let their classics titles have the snooziest covers of all, but I think this is a sinful error. There is a danger in having initiative to re-issue classics without the initiative to give the public a new way of conceptualizing the work. A renewed sense of excitement for the literature between those covers can be elicited by outfitting them with decidedly dynamic and fresh imagery, and these types of details are what I think make a classics line’s covers successful.