January 2006

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: That Fickle Pleasuredome

Though I frequently jest that the advent of the cosmetic lobotomy is well overdue, my reverence for the brain and all of its afflictions is really quite boundless. Like every aspect of human anatomy, the brain begins as a mere clump of specialized cells; later, it forms a tube that eventually differentiates itself from the spinal cord and then populates the whole of the skull (Darwin award recipients and some leaders of the free world excepted). In appreciation of both the pleasures and displeasures this three-pound ball of nerves affords, January’s Judging gives a satchel of brainy titles the full bookslut treatment.

An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman
Cover design by Rodrigo Corral
Cover painting: The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743246721

So the story goes like this: Of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa was the only mortal. She was a beautiful woman with wavy hair, and quite the looker -- until she made the mistake of defiling Athena’s temple by getting naked with Poseidon. Whether it was a consensual pairing or Poseidon was an abominable rapist, Athena was so offended by the affront that she turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, so that this once beautiful woman became the historical mascot of ugly.

Elsewhere, Perseus was in a pickle. A powerful royal jackass wanted to marry his mom, and he wasn’t having it. The jackass thought he was clever and set a trap for Perseus so that he’s compelled to retrieve the head of Medusa -- and turn to stone in the process. Instead, Perseus turns the mythical tables and presents the head to jackass and his court of royal pains in the ass.
However, on his way back home and with Medusa’s head in his Hermes messenger bag, Perseus spots Andromeda about to be eaten alive by a particularly bad mannered sea-monster, and again, he wasn’t having it. Instantly falling in love with Andromeda, Perseus scoops her up last-minute like, proposes, and complies with his bride-to-be’s request to peek at his snaky spoils (of course, as reflected in water to prevent her stonification).

It’s this last bit we see illustrated on the cover of Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind, although Edward Burne-Jones is awfully generous in his depiction of the supposedly horrid Medusa. Perseus and Andromeda hold hands tenderly, and he stares at her as she peruses the fruits of his labor.

Curious as to the modern equivalent of Perseus’s presenting his lover with a pre-conjugal Medusa viewing, (dinner and a movie?) I really couldn’t pass up this cover -- or Diane Ackerman in general -- in a feature dedicated to baleful heads and other enigmas of the mind. Inside, the author refers to the brain as a “petite tyrant inside a ball of bone” and “that fickle pleasuredrome.” Classically elegant, this jacket suits perfectly the caliber of writing it envelops; that Rodrigo Corral chose such a subtle image for Ackerman’s work truly warms the cockles of my winter heart.

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson
Cover design by Tom Brown
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743241665

This paperback is designed with such stealthy artistry that its genius is only revealed on prolonged examination. And I mean this in a good way, because I can only take for granted those covers that don’t have noticeable warts begging for excision.
Mind Wide Open is spelled out in letters that float off the page on opening doors, creating illusory dimension. This is most excellent, as is the stark color scheme, but what really gives me goose bumps is the subtlety with which “National Bestseller” is incorporated on the uppermost edge of the composition; likewise a quote from Steven Pinker near the spineward edge. Refreshingly devoid of pretense, this cover is intelligent and assertive. Designer Tom Brown delivers a visual interpretation of the text that makes even the most tyrannical of petit tyrants seem capable of taming.

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves by Curtis White
Cover design by Laura Beers
Harper San Francisco
ISBN: 0060730595

Curtis White describes his threefold purpose for writing The Middle Mind in its foreword: to make something beautiful, to misbehave, and to win/persuade his audience. Whether the text actually achieves all of these ambitious objectives definitely depends on the reader, since White unceremoniously bashes other authors -- including Nick Hornby, David Brooks, Joe Queenan, and Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture author John Seabrook -- which is not likely to “win” them over. Misbehavior: check.

What really sets off my highly sophisticated uh-oh alarm is that White uses his whole book to decry other works of contemporary cultural criticism for their “flimsy” content and lack of cohesive argumentation, but ultimately flimsifies his own work. Rather than expound on his own ideas, he condemns the repetitive metaphorical expundiations (yet another conveniently invented word) of the other critical dialogues. If the complaint is that no one is creating anything intelligently worthwhile, why not stop examining those insufficient works and make “something beautiful”? Instead of complaining about Harry Potter passing for art in the American mind, why not make some art of your own? While criticizing the authors he considers fluffy, White himself fails to make a work of enduring consequence.

Understandably, no author photo graces the back cover of The Middle Mind. However, the front cover’s design by Laura Beers is appropriately cold, if understated. The book’s title is displayed in black and white on the marquee of a ghost-town’s movie theatre, apropos in consideration that the author will most likely be hard pressed to find anyone to sit next to him, for fear that their middle mind might provoke his scathing pontification.

The Barmaid’s Brain and Other Strange Tales from Science by Jay Ingram
Cover design by Raquel Jaramillo
Cover art by Les Jorgensen/Photonica
Henry Holt
ISBN: 0716747022

Brimming with obscure facts and written with the most eloquent of non-fiction voices, The Barmaid’s Brain is that rare example of a science-themed book that neither insults the intelligence nor presumes previous topical exposure of its audience. Ingram covers topics from cannibalistic worms (“Consumed by Learning”) to “The Effect of Witchcraft on the Brain,” and even touches on the question, “Can we really tell the difference between sanity and insanity?”

The beauty of this cover includes the way the word “brain” breaks the borders of the composition’s black frame, and spills over onto the spine’s design. A phrenology head enclosed in a circular space radiates sun-like rays, suggesting the energetic properties of the brain with witty ease. An unassuming blurb from Psychology Today is spot-on: “Eminently readable essays.”

Strange Behavior: Tales of Evolutionary Neurology by Harold Klawans
Cover design by Martin Ogolter
W.W. Norton
ISBN: 0393321843

Don’t let the “evolutionary neurology” part scare you off. This book, scientific though it may be, is totally accessible and enjoyable. Klawans is instantly likeable, so much so that even his aversion to “films you have to read” reads more like an endearing foible than a crying shame. Like Ingram’s work, Klawans creates a book that is intellectual without being stuffy, and educational without the carbuncle of academic stodginess.

Martin Ogolter’s cover design is nothing short of wonderful. It invokes the onlooker’s curiosity and begs for closer inspection. The silhouetted form with its one wide eye peeping out looks strange indeed; an appropriate balance of coy playfulness and mysterious secrecy teeters pleasantly in this composition.

Nerve Storm: Poems by Amy Gerstler
Cover design by Tom Knechtel
ISBN: 0140587039

Amy Gerstler’s poetry is something I keep on my bookshelf the way some people keep $500 bottles of wine: I’m waiting for that perfect occasion, when all circumstances converge to create an agreeable mental weather system in which to properly savor its rich bouquet. Of course, when I’m ninety-three and still have some of her works as yet unread, lines like “the flare of my past crimes/ so like corpse light,/ or foolish fire” may no longer have quite the same élan.

There’s a lot to love about this cover, which features Tom Knechtel’s painting, “Servant of Two Masters.” It’s dark and weird -- see the bottom right corner with a brawny man wearing a petticoat and ball gown -- and makes for a visual doppelganger to Gerstler’s poetic spectre. The font is well chosen, title strategically placed, and the “Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry” is placed modestly under the author’s name. Since you asked, my opinion is that all of Gerstler’s works have been given expert treatment on their covers: see Medicine, also with Tom Knechtel’s cover art, and Ghost Girl, outfitted with a gothically sublime photo from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.