December 2006

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Best of 2006

Feh. Don't talk to me about 2006.

For those who like to choose books based on whether they look good in conjunction with one's new, olive-green, chunky Clark Kent glasses, or how well they look next to a single orchid  on the windowsill, or how effectively they might compel that foxy person at the coffee shop who angrily slams out their macchiato every morning to one day engage in coitus with them -- well, it's been a rough year.  For the most part, book design continued to play out ill-conceived fads that began a decade ago.  If we could only go back in time, grab Chip Kidd by the shoulders and slap him like we're in a B movie, screaming "No, Chip, No! Your whimsical use of stock photography will spawn a legion of evil robot clones!" Meanwhile, the publishing industry forges ahead in its willingness to lull the children of the Boomer generation into believing that they do not, indeed, need to wear reading glasses, ever, really, their youth is eternal, and thus every new hardcover is roughly the size of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and disturbs the line of one's messenger bag.

But it's important to keep one's chin up. Remember the airbrush? And Vintage New Directions Paperbacks? Those were dark times. We live in a golden age by comparison.

The Best Book Covers of 2006

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
ISBN: 0374272298
Cover Art: Mickey Duzyj

It may be that one day we'll feel the same way about comic-book-style illustration as we do about, say, memoirs with out-of-focus family photographs on the cover. But even if this style were on its way out, this would still be an enormously effective piece of design -- from the iconic "Sweet & Low" color scheme, to the comic strip that snakes its way across the cover summarizing the storyline in a way that echoes the hubris and relentless, can-do mercantilism of the era the book describes. The book practically begs to be read while wearing a pink sweater set, and heels, preferably while drinking black coffee.

Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison by T.J. Parsell
Carroll & Graf
ISBN: 0786717939

You know, it's hard to come up with a cover that says "buy this prison rape memoir," which makes this book's accomplishment all the greater. Especially since the dominant trope in any prison memoir is a) bars and b) more bars and c) maybe the protagonist standing with his arms crossed. In front of some bars. Nothing says "not your typical prison book" like a hot pink fish skeleton and rainbow lettering, and, to be honest, a cover this simple goes with just about everything.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0060798688

Another example of traumatic reading (Child soldiers. Killing everyone.) made easier by beautiful packaging. The cover paper is thick and matte and luxurious to hold, and the red strip of paper blaring all of the books awards and reviews peels right off, leaving you with a soothing cream-colored background filled with abstract brush strokes and a bold, hand-painted title that's just clumsy enough in its execution to pull your eye back to it again and again. The difference between this book and its earlier, hardcover edition (Stock photograph of small boys with spears, against a blue sky, looking menacing) shows just how much a book's persona can change from edition to edition. The effect of the new edition on passersby will be greatest if the book is read while wearing a scarf and a camel-colored wool jacket.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn and Quarterly (September 5, 2006)
ISBN: 1894937872
Illustration by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

There's just something so cool and noir about this cover -- so noir it's beige. Not to get all J. Peterman about it, but this looks a bit like the book that you would be reading on the bus shortly before being drawn into a complex set of seemingly unrelated circumstances, that would eventually involve you having to stab someone with the knife concealed in your inconspicuous-looking plaid umbrella. This is also one of the few editions of Japanese comics that, to American eyes, will not make you look like someone who spends a lot of time at home composing personal ads expressing one's interest in Asian women. A book like this is definitely a chance to try out your black shoes/black pants/black tie/white shirt yakuza look, as long as you don't go overboard, get a bunch of tattoos, and have to throw half of your library away because they aren't a part of your "look" any longer.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, Keith Gessen (Translator)
ISBN: 0312425848
Cover Design: Marina Drukman

Another example of a cover that gained immensely its transition from hardcover to paperback. Instead of a standard photograph of a dark and spooky hallway, we have a simple white cover with faint, handwritten narratives whispering in from all directions, while the thick "O" in the middle of "Chernobyl" distorts and radiates outward like an explosion. A really beautiful piece of work that, like Sweet And Low, manages to use design to get across the essence of the story. Outfit suggestions: all in black -- though shoot for Audrey Hepburn rather than mime.

Mountain Man Dance Moves by the Editors of McSweeny's
Vintage Books
ISBN: 0307277208

McSweeny's consistently produces some of the loveliest, most interesting-looking books out there - the sort of books that produce an intense, pointy desire to possess, if not always to actually read. The covers for Icelander by Dustin Long (Fox with a bushy tail! Gold foil detailing!) and What is the What by Dave Eggers (Resembles a Boys Own Adventure book from the 1920s! Admirably bold use of hideous mustard color!) which were also published this year almost beat this one out. All else pales, though, in the face of the heart-melting beauty of a shiny white unicorn rearing up majestically in the moonlight. To be read while wearing legwarmers, a headband, and a hopeful expression.

Next Month: The Worst Covers of 2006