I judge a book by its cover. Only later do I get confirmation whether my judgement was sound or not. Like the beauty — or lack of it — of a woman, an attractive cover is the first thing that draws you to a book. Reading the blurb, flipping through the first few lines, the actual reading of the book, all come later.
It wasn’t always like this. The first ‘books’ didn’t have covers; they were parchments wrapped in cloth without any visible ‘face’. Then there were scrolls that were rolled up and stored with name tags hanging from their ends.
The forebearer of the book as we know it arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages, the ‘cover’ still a plain cloth covering. In mid-15th century Italy, copies of prayer books became standard wedding gifts among the aristocracy because of their decorated ‘covers’. Around the same time, with the invention of the moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg, books became more affordable and standardised. So the copy of a wonderful book — as opposed to the wonderful copy of a book — was available to common folk. Covers became more useful as identity tags than as portable objects of art.
Things have come a long way since the plain covers of the first paperbacks launched in 1935 by the legendary founder of Penguin, Allen Lane. Art, typography, photography, printing technology — all these visual tricks make up the intelligent art of cover design.
The power of book covers becomes most evident when one is seduced enough to want to possess a particular edition even if he already possesses the same book. I have six editions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — a Penguin Classics edition with Victorian stage actor Henry Irving (Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula) as Mephistopheles in Faust; an Oxford World Classics edition showing a close-up of a caped Bela Lugosi playing the count in the 1931 movie Dracula; a Puffin (unabridged) edition showing a red-eyed, buck-toothed fellow who resembles Tom Petty; a Wordsworth Classic edition with a Romantic painting of a Gothic castle; the Penguin Classic edition with Edvard Munch’s painting, Vampire, showing a woman with her red hair cascading down a crouching man’s body; and a stark Vintage edition depicting two blotchmarks of blood on a plain white cover. My next hunt is for The New Annotated Dracula (edited by Leslie S. Klinger) with its black and red border oversized cover with a dragon at the bottom.
Great cover art is not about having a great picture slapped on to a book. The best depict images that connect ‘sideways’ and ‘poetically’ with the texts inside. The Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition of Jim Thompson’s Bad Boy, a thinly veiled memoir of the noir writer, uses a cropped photo of an angry, young man clutching a cigarette between his lips and staring menacingly at the reader. The typography is blunt and the black and white photo above a yellow band is masterful framing.
Book covers in India are getting increasingly sophisticated and this is a heartening sight. It’s time non-English books, overwhelmingly with boring or tacky covers, also get cracking. The covers of Satyajit Ray’s books — designed by Ray himself — and a handful of others are the few exceptions. Ray’s cover of Gangtokey Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok), with its strong lines and swirling colours, remains a homegrown classic.
Book covers connect the visual with the textual in one mysterious, counter-gaze. So next time you’re inside a bookshop, pick up a book, look at its cover: a quiet seduction is in progress.