January 2007

Heather Smith

features

Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Worst of 2006

Back in my college days when I worked at a local bookshop, nothing was more soul-crushing than seeing the cover of Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution in the eager pink hands of shoppers. It underwent a cover redesign and price markup every few months. They’d basically just change the color scheme and make the word “new” bigger and more florescent -- a not-so-subtle attempt to convince people that it was a different book than the one they’d gotten already.

Diet books, by design, are universally hideous. But Dr. Atkins’ smug little head, surrounded by a his collection of giant pill bottles did grow on me. I think the theory was, if lawyers have their photo taken in front of books, what does a doctor have his picture taken in front of? It had a special kind of awfulness (yes, even worse than this one and this one. Well, maybe not that one.

Which is why I’ve decided to analyze the most dreadful covers of 2006 by genre. Otherwise, we’d basically be looking at a solid line-up of diet books, self-help books, memoirs of childhood sexual abuse, and books with babies on the cover in which the baby is supposed to be cute, but actually looks like a flesh-eating zombie.

So, without further ado, the (as always, highly subjective) worst of:

Post-Apocalyptic Dour Lit:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf
ISBN: 0307265439
Cover artist: Chip Kidd

It’s not like there’s ever much happening on the cover of a Cormac McCarthy novel, possibly because if what happened inside the book made it to the outside of the book, it would look less like An American Classic, and more like Louis L’Amour. Or Stephen King. So, in order to get across the point that this is fine literature, most book designers have sighed, slapped a pretty, out-of-focus photograph on the outside jacket, and left it to the reader to figure out that the book itself was all about sick mules and scalping.

Except that now, confronted with a story about a father/son duo pushing a shopping cart through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that also happens to be lousy with cannibals, the cover artist has apparently given up the struggle and just left the cover black. But not even Johnny Cash black, like “this story is too dark to even attempt visual representation.” That would sort of work. Instead, they’ve left it black with brown lettering, which is the cover art equivalent of wearing moccasins with your motorcycle jacket. Even more perplexing is the fact that the cover is done by Chip Kidd, who, of all people on the earth, ever, would be most able to whip up a cover that both conveys a sense both of literary classiness, and that the characters in the novel might get eaten at any moment.


Iraq Reportage:

Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Knopf
ISBN: 1400044871

This past year has brought on a passel of Iraq memoirs, piled up on bookshop display tables like presents under a tree, or kittens in a window. They plead to be taken home so that you can curl up with them in your armchair and gradually come to experience that unpleasant vertiginous feeling that has caused you to flip past the front page of the newspaper and straight to the movie reviews for the last -- oh, going on three years now.

But say that you feel nostalgia for the politically aware self that you dimly remember? The one who was photographed holding so many pithy signs, before you came to suspect that Magic Marker, Posterboard and Rocking in the Free World might not have been what actually ended the war in Vietnam.

Well, you’ll hard-pressed to tell which tome about How Life in Iraq Really is Under American Occupation is the book for you.  It’s not uncommon for books within a genre to mimic each other, but this lot have all melded together in a harmonious sea of grainy photography and soothing earth-toned accents. It’s like they are collectively trying to distract you into thinking that they contain ancient, non-threatening “Masterpiece Theater” style history, instead of events that are younger than your DVD player.

Chandrasekaran’s book gets ultimate badness honors here, because the cover (jeeps silhouetted against earth tones) is such a missed opportunity to play with such a great and fanciful title. To have no tin men, no dogs in baskets, (no green even) seems unconscionable.


Arty World War II Fetishism:

Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, Sandra Smith (Translator)
Knopf
ISBN: 1400044731

This is probably a bit unfair, but I am so tired of books about World War II and the Holocaust being tarted up as nostalgia porn. It’s all there -- the Schindler’s List qualities (stylish trousers/pleated skirts/discreet use of colorization/cobblestones) and its resemblance to virtually every other occupied France novel/memoir out there. It commits the same errors that that the Iraq communiqués do in that it visually places recent history into a distant and romanticized past.

While the Iraq lit uses images of sand, artillery, barefoot children with big eyes, and more sand,Suite Française reduces World War II to a black and white stock photograph of a couple turned away from the camera, the better for you to admire their aquiline features and good tailoring. An actual photo of Nemirovsky was used as the cover for the French edition and her expression -- thoughtful, modern, direct -- cuts through the nonsense of distance. She looks like she could be the woman standing ahead of you in line for coffee.


Patriotic Camouflage:

The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America by Ray Suarez
Rayo
ISBN: 0060829974

Going to the political science section of the bookstore is not unlike hitting the Barbie aisle in your average corporate toy megalopolis, except that instead of everything being pink, everything -- and I do mean everything -- is red, white and blue.

We live in anxious times, so frequently the more critical or controversial the book might be, the more red, white and blue it is, until we have a 4th of July-ish arms race between writers of all political stripes. (Except for the anarchists. They still love their black.) A few iconoclasts like Michael Moore have dared to add yellow to the mix (and reaped massive sales as a result) but the dominant trope lingers on. Even books that didn’t start out red, white and blue (like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States) now cloak themselves in protective patriotism.

Top prize goes to The Holy Vote, just because it manages to be most perfectly emblandified generic apotheosis of its kind.  The first runner-up, Culture Warrior by Bill O'Reilly which also qualified as a contender in the “scary head” category (see below) lost major points for unintentional camp value -- not a risk as far as Suarez is concerned.


Scary Head:

Jim Cramer's Mad Money: Watch TV, Get Rich by James J. Cramer, Cliff Mason
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416537902

It had to be saved for last, because scary head is, indeed, the most terrifying manifestation of bad cover art. It is interesting how the lead contenders in scary head cover art tend to be self-help books of some type. Possibly this has to do with the carny/sideshow-barker/Mark Twain character-type salesmanship of the self-help industry -- a lot of these books are sold via appearances on television talk shows, so it’s all about selling the author (or, if space is limited, just the author’s scary head) as a product.

Some aspects of the cover of Mad Money are done to perfection. Cramer’s shirt is a nice “trust me, I’m fiscally responsible” shade of blue. His body language says, “I can wrestle a bear!” which certainly draws one’s attention. But the expression is a little glazed and unsettling. I’m sure that, at the photo shoot, the photographer was yelling “Show me mad! It says ‘mad!’ Right there in the book title! You’re not mad enough!” -- so that, plus a whimsical art director, results in a book in which the author looks like if you put a knife in one hand, and a fork in the other, he’d eat you like a turkey.