June 2005

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Ultimate Meta Edition

Come one, come all, and witness the harrowing events that unfold as your doyenne of dust jackets defies death in this month’s three-ring circus of cover critiques. You’ll ooh, you’ll aah, and you’ll gasp with delight to behold this mind-bending edition of Judging a Book by its Cover, as we take a thrill ride through a tunnel of love paved with the covers of books discussing the design of the covers of books... don’t worry, you’re not trapped in the hall of mirrors. But it is strongly recommended that pregnant women, small children, and the faint of heart view this one from the safety of the nearest corn-dog stand.

Okay, okay, blame it on my fascination with sideshows and all things freakish, or even on my marriage to the coffee problem, but I’m totally enthused about June’s batch of books. First of all and of course most important, I endeavored to puff up my self-esteem by proving the legitimacy of my cover connoisseurship, so I herded a group of tomes on the subject of cover design. Wouldn’t you know, I discovered that my work was, in fact, so legitimate that a new book on the subject was about to be released in June -- the aptly titled By Its Cover. But alas, just as my self-puffery began to take hold, it was quickly deflated by word of the book’s delayed release. Never the giver-upper, I trudge on in honor of you, my highly intelligent and worldly-wise readers, committed to the delivery of your monthly cover criticism needs.

So, without further adieu, let us begin our look at the covers of those books concerned with the covers of books. In honor of the funhouse effect you’ll find emerging through our examination of these, I’ve daringly thrown all caution to the wind by including two very wonderful and highly sideshow-worthy books at the end that have nothing to do with cover design and everything to do with freak shows. Whatever will mother think? Nah, she’ll probably take my advice and read these beauties, the only two in the batch fitting for your leisure-time’s pleasurable perusal.

By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger
Princeton Architectural Press
To be released in September, 2005
Cover design by John Gall
ISBN: 1568984979

It comes as no surprise that two professors of graphic design history would author a book featuring such a dynamic and innovative cover, and I have only good things to say on Drew and Sternberger’s forthcoming By Its Cover. The designers play with this cover by composing it as though it were the book’s openly splayed dust jacket, with the title where the spine would be in that case, intersecting the center of the composition. Their graceful arrangement of simple shapes above and below the title makes for an elegant feeling overall, and the typefaces are perfectly chosen to accent and interplay with the theme through their vertical alignment and complimentary placement. The effect is balanced and visually interesting, attractive and powerful. This is one release I’m really looking forward to adding to my permanent collection.

Children’s Book Covers by Alan Powers
Mitchell Beazley
ISBN: 1840006935


Front Cover by Alan Powers
Mitchell Beazley
ISBN: 1840004215

Perhaps you’re just now remembering what you did last night, and wondering if your debauchery left you with a specialized karmic debt involving random instances of double vision... I’m here to tell you that your karma is clean -- as far as these covers are concerned. It’s no coincidence that these two are so similar, since author Alan Powers and publisher Mitchell Beazley are behind both. These covers get right at the gist of it, showing images of various books in the background, behind a band of titular information set off by solid color. I especially appreciate the designers’ choice to show the children’s books as strewn about haphazardly, much like we might find them under the actual child’s bed, whereas the more adult-oriented Front Cover shows its books in an organized, methodical arrangement. Not to split hairs, but I’m sure we could have a lengthy discussion of those adult-oriented reading materials that might appear haphazardly strewn under the adult-oriented bed, but let’s save that for another column, shall we? Notably, I find it entertaining that the Children’s features an image of Homer’s Iliad in the right lower corner. I may not have kids, but I have younger siblings, and when they were of the “children’s books” age, I can guarantee that not once did they request a piece of classical Greek literature for their bedtime stories.

At any rate, both of these are totally attractive, colorful, and effective covers. I can picture the reader taking this book into their “office” and examining only the cover for at least a good half hour. Oh, wait, that was me. But really, I’ve got to mention how impressed I am with the choice of vintage covers depicted on this cover: a very cool relief-print (and not at all snoozy) looking cover for Kerouac’s On the Road, a Lord of the Flies featuring a bleeding pig head on-a-stick, and the pulpy cover of Delinquent: The startling story of a teen-age gang! Believe me when I tell you, this last cover is proof that bobby socks and pointy brassieres definitely have a home in the Delinquent gang. Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is also shown, and is my pick for best cover shown on the cover of a book about covers. It’s a design by Graham Rogers from 1971 that shows a man with a huge afro, materializing out of a classical piano like a genie from a bottle. This leads me to digress, momentarily and advantageously, to an opportunistic discussion of:

Radical Chic/ Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers/ The Painted Word: Three Classic Essays
by Tom Wolfe
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 0330493728

I include this because it is my belief that no self-respecting patron of the arts should consider their education complete unless it includes a thorough reading of "The Painted Word," not to mention the readers’ good fortune in finding an edition that includes all three of these important essays. Get thee to the library. Also, this cover is executed most excellently with its subtle red, white, and blue reference to patriotism. Good things all around for this design and the words within.

The Great American Paperback by Richard A. Lupoff
Collectors Press, Inc.
Cover design by Drive Communications, New York
ISBN: 1888054506

I promise you, I’m not repeating myself. It’s the books. A trend emerges here in the tendency for these covers to feature other covers. I swear I’m trying to keep convolution to a minimum here, but this is no game of fishing in the carnival ducky pond, no siree. But as for The Great American Paperback, how could I have anything negative to say about a cover that features an image of John D. MacDonald’s book, The Brass Cupcake? I’ll tell you how. This cover missed its chance to align itself with the cult status of its contents, and instead focuses on the “American” part of the title. From afar, I probably wouldn’t be interested in this book; but up close, I can see that the books discussed inside are going to be the pulpy, campy stuff of old. Unfortunately, the typeface and the patriotic feel it imparts to the cover obscures this book’s true beauty, which is its examination of great vintage covers like 1959’s Trailer Camp Woman and 1953’s Affairs of a Ward Nurse (Born to Be Bad). It’s certainly a matter of nuance, but I would have liked to see this cover finessed with a typeface that speaks more to the content than the title, but then I’m not wild about the title, either. To really get my drift, check out this cover, sweeter than an orange marshmallow circus peanut:

Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen by Michael Barson and Steven Heller
Chronicle Books
Cover design by Louise Fili Ltd.
ISBN: 0811815846

This cover is expert -- the typeface alone gives me enough visual information to ascertain what I’m going to get from the chewy center of this luscious literary tidbit. The designer chose to use Bud Clifton’s 1958 D is for Delinquent for this cover, and the result is a magnificent conveyance of the book’s cultish contents. I’d buy this one based on the cover alone, which is obviously more than I can say for The Great American Paperback. Although I highly recommend both books to anyone with an eye for campy nostalgia, Teenage Confidential definitely takes home the super-deluxe stuffed animal prize for best cover in this competition. Speaking of prizes...

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Warner Books
ISBN: 0446391301


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Cover design by Chip Kidd
ISBN: 0375713344

Once upon a simpler time, people had phones that connected through wires in the walls of their homes, and this was the primary mode of communication. There was no email, no information superhighway; people used pens and pencils to write primitive lettering on lined paper if they wanted to send a love letter or death threat. And in this time I speak of, the word “geek” didn’t bring about visions of code-savvy programmers with laptop-friendly messenger bags slung across their chests, oh no. These people usually used the word geek as a creative alternative to nerd, and computers were no prereq for the moniker.

But Katherine Dunn takes us to a place where a geek has a completely different modus opperandi. Dunn’s geeks are carnies, sideshow freaks that include among their claims to fame the ability to bite the heads off of live chickens. This apparently entertained people at one point, and was a lucrative occupational skill. Dunn has crafted her story around one member of a family with a sideshow legacy spanning generations, and if you haven’t appreciated the luster of this gem yet, you definitely have better things to do than to finish reading my column.

Now, as for these covers... the first edition paperback gets about as close to perfection as I’ve ever seen, and that’s even with the application of stringent expectations given my fierce attachment to this book. It shows playfully stylized creatures around a heart that’s been victim to cupid. Patterns frame the vertical borders, dancing with shapes, and solid lines form horizontal borders featuring info. One thing I love about this cover is that it allows me to perceive the artist’s hand -- I see brush strokes, not some slick, computer-generated stock. The typeface, too, is painterly, and well chosen -- it supplies a harmonious strength.

The edition of Geek Love you’ll find on the shelves now features Chip Kidd’s design, a total departure from the book’s former incarnation. It seems to me that Kidd plays up to the computeresque nuance of “geek” rather than the carnie vibe it should portray. With this new cover, I see a novel about computer geeks. This is no good. It disturbs me to think of computer geeks gaining potential anticipatory thrills from their purchase, and then putting it down in confusion after the first page. But it disturbs me even more to think that the failure to portray the book’s real agenda could turn-off readers that might otherwise buy it and love it as much as I do.

Circus Americanus by Ralph Rugoff
Verso/ New Left Books
Cover design by Alan Hill
ISBN: 1568984979

All of you who have stuck around to read the last review of this month’s column get a special treat in the form of this delectable delicacy from Ralph Rugoff. His Circus Americanus is a selective examination of creepy American cultural oddities in which the best possible weirdness abounds with the turn of every page. Some of the esoteric goodies within are essays on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Mexican wrestler Lucha Libre, and one titled “Children and Other Miniature Collectibles” that is not to be missed. My copy of this book would have been gold-plated long ago if it weren’t for the fact that the gold would obscure the cover image, a frame-worthy photo featuring a huge porcelain dog and a wrestler in full regalia seated in front of a creepy portrait of a little girl. Dig also how Alan Hill masterfully placed and designed the typefaces for title and author -- they work with the image rather than against it and are subtle enough to sit next to a red and gold face mask without an invitation to duel.

So that’s the skinny on this month’s batch. Check out next month’s Judging when Susie Bright and I team up to take a look at some of her most arousing covers, including one from her new book, Three Kinds of Asking For It.