Judging Books By Their Covers – Cassia Price explores the Problems of Cover Design

Day by day, e-readers are making the trade of physical books more competitive, and though cut-outs and matte effects do not change a book’s content, cover art is becoming bolder and more experimental as a result of competition. There is a unique relationship between two art forms when a book is made which is perhaps relatable only to a film and its score, a reminder of just how necessary an attractive or striking cover is. The quality of the cover creates a distinct expectation of the writing inside, and so choosing a cover is one of the most important decisions a publisher makes in the process of a book’s release, especially in the ferocious fiction market.

 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral

 

Books have been design objects for centuries, and are often bought in this capacity by those who have no interest in the content, but rather in their aesthetic effect. The Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, dating back to the 7th or 8th Century and now in the British Library, were encased in embellishment and never designed to be opened, despite the sacred words within. Cover art can often reach a state of independence from the words within, and, in some cases, cult status among those who have never read even the book. Examples include some of the most recognisable books of 20th Century, and many modern novels too: the cover of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (see above) have posters, pencil-cases, and all manner of other merchandise based on their covers.

 

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat

 

Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott
Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott

 

The current trend for cover art seems to be simplicity, with advertising for factual books like Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott showing the public how effective an uncomplicated design can be. However, fiction remains a little more decorated, and this can lead to disastrous covers, especially in the teen fiction section, despite this genre recently occupying many top spots in best-seller lists. While the Twilight Saga has striking colours and images on its covers, similar books like Cassandra Clare’s present a series of messy, poorly composed covers. Both are what one might call (however fondly) “trashy” but the differences still definitely command one’s expectations of the inside. A similar effect can occur with classics, as seen below in the contrasting Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Great Gatsby. The gloomy figures have a very different effect to that of the vivid example above, and yet they have both been chosen to represent the same story. Judge the book for the words and the object for the art, but judging a book by its cover can clearly only get you so far.

 

The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen
The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen

 

A problem with the increased pressure on a book’s appearance, its outer art, is that its contents can never be twinned exactly with a different medium. The pairing does not become a diptych, bonded by subject matter, however many editions are produced. They remain advertisements for the contents, just as full of untruths as adverts for anything else. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons simplicity has become so popular (see the new Penguin Hardcover Classics but risk a much lower bank balance), so that expectations are stripped away and abstract ideas can have precedence and judgement is reduced. Keep buying books for the reasons you always have, whether that means literature or design, because if you are reading this blog you probably care about the continuation of art for its own sake.

 

If you are interested in the best and worst of cover art, Flavorwire has an article on this subject, and a Dutch Booktuber, Sanne Vliegenhart, has a wonderful video on her favourite covers. I recommend both.

 

Photos thanks to:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gatsby_1925_jacket.gif

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Fault_in_Our_Stars.jpg

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/11/23/book-review-10-billion/

http://www.businessinsider.com/great-gatsby-book-covers-2013-5

 

Why Study Art History? Economics student Helena Roy discusses…

In July 2012, I went to northern Italy with AHA to study Art History for two weeks (I had never studied it before). After a gap year, I have now started university… studying Economics. Some may dismiss my trip as contrary, perhaps unnecessary; but there is an intrinsic value to studying Art History even if your speciality lies in another subject.

Art History gives you a sense of perspective you can’t gain anywhere else. Aristotle argued that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’. Art uncovers that significance in the myriad of political, social and religious thoughts it conveys. Where literature offers fictional allegory, art offers visual symbolism – Orwell analyses the class system through animal fables, whereas Lowry does through paint.

The social state of the working class in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, as shown by LS Lowry in 'Oldfield Road Dwellings, Salford', (1927)

An obvious benefit (the clue is in the name) is that art reveals a plethora of historical sources. Dry statistics can only teach you so much: art can communicate emotional details about events. Who has not been moved – even if disgusted – by Picasso’s Guernica and the chaotic destruction it depicts? That the bombing of Guernica caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs is informative, but in a wholly different way.

Picasso’s 'Guernica', (1937) – conveying the terror and intensity of war

My enthusiasm for the subject stems from the two weeks in Italy. Art History is the most fantastic travel companion. Appreciating and seeking it out facilitates deeper understanding of a place’s culture – how better to see consumerism in 20th century America than in Andy Warhol’s work, or understand the power of Catholicism in Italy in Baroque altarpieces?

Andy Warhol’s 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' (1962), the epitome of post-WWII American consumerism, on display the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Nothing beats viewing art in its contextual setting… 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' (1602) by Caravaggio – part of a cycle of paintings situated in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In a time of dire employment prospects, students are turning to lucrative and traditional professions, allowing these to consume all facets of their interest as a means to realising that place on that bank’s graduate programme. But becoming a one-trick pony saps the energy and novel viewpoint someone can bring to the workplace. Work can only be balanced by hobbies you enjoy: study Art History, and you can benefit from it infinitely. (Picasso once said that ‘the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’) Besides, it is relevant to countless professions in itself – journalism, consultancy, law, marketing and branding to name a few – and vital to Britain’s economic health (the sector accounted for 1% of GDP in 2011, and pays on average 5% more than the UK median salary).

Ultimately, studying Art History engenders a broader attitude to life. Art is something everyone can relate to. It is the impetus for conversation and debate, and introduces you to a new sphere of people. To understand Art you need to understand its political and social history. Art is painted against a backdrop of archaeology, anthropology, literature, design, science, geography – and innumerable other subjects. This interdisciplinary approach gives you a mammoth diversity of perspective.

In an era that relies so heavily on visual literacy, Art History offers invaluable lessons in the study of civilization. We are surrounded by things that demand our vision – film, advertising, architecture. Kafka said that ‘anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Art History offers the broadest education possible in analysing what you see, and discovering beauty in unexpected places.

I went to study Art History after a friend did an AHA trip and spoke of nothing else for the summer – she is now studying Chemistry at university. Art History need not be esoteric – it is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, but mistaken, to doubt Art History’s significance without trying – so find your nearest gallery, visit churches or museums while abroad, or just start here!

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.