Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Judging books by their covers?

Iona Neill dives into the world of literary aesthetics and how they influence our reading habits.

Think of your favourite book cover. It might be one that is sentimental to you – perhaps it was the first novel you read whilst growing up, perhaps it reminds you of your childhood, perhaps it belongs to a famous author or a timeless classic. Now think, what is it about that cover that draws you to the story? It could be the bold, brazen image of a dinosaur skeleton slapped onto the cover of Jurassic Park, the playing cards whirling around Alice’s head in the Penguin Classics edition of Alice in Wonderland, or the teary-eyed stare of Francis Cugat’s epochal illustration for The Great Gatsby (which he was paid a mere $100 to design back in 1925).

I can confirm I have read none of these in full – I know, I have a lot of classic novels to catch up on – but from their covers I feel as if I have in many ways experienced them already. After all, many stories can already be summarised by the imagery which later comes to define them. What is the essence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis if not the feelings captured by its original jacket – horror, mystery and intrigue. A man covers his eyes in fear, whilst behind him is an open door to a room in which darkness conceals an ambiguous creature within. This open door invites us into the world of the novella without explicitly showing us what is inside. As with much of literature, it is upon this first glance at the cover that the story begins. But what is it that makes a book cover so memorable? Is it the colour scheme, the graphics, the font? Furthermore, why have some of them stood the test of time whereas others have been reimagined or redesigned, or simply faded into obscurity?

Despite the popular saying, I am sorry to say that I often judge books by their covers. When browsing the shelves of a bookshop, what I am most drawn to is art. I hunt for the brightest colour, the most striking typography, a good-looking image with which to decorate my bedside table. On Instagram, a quick search for the hashtag #bookstagram confirms that I am not the only one. From the 57.8M posts under this category, all but a few of them are concerned with achieving a certain aesthetic, displaying books against a backdrop of flowers, fairy-lights, library shelves, coffee cups, houseplants. It is clear that literature is not only meant to be thought-provoking and interesting, it is meant to be visually exciting too. Book covers can use their beauty to their advantage, or even as a form of rebellion.

As the recent surge in popularity of e-readers has threatened to replace hard-copy books, designers have fought back, with even flashier fonts, fluorescent colours, even interactive designs. In brief, anything short of bland. Take Chip Kidd’s design for IQ84, Haruki Murakami’s multi-layered novel in which a Japanese woman one day enters a parallel universe. This features a semi-translucent jacket which provides a contrasting overlay to the image on the book’s cover, allowing two parallel worlds, and two parallel designs, to exist side-by-side.

The cover of a novel is not only a space onto which to project the core idea of what is inside, but it is also a space to explore and interact with art. In the 1960s, Penguin Publishing’s art director, Germano Facetti, began pairing science fiction novels with the works of various modern artists, allowing book covers to become the canvases for Dadaism, Cubism and Op art. The result of this are the haunting, often overly surreal images we encounter of the covers of novels such as J.G Ballard’s The Four-Dimensional Nightmare and George Orwell’s 1984. Another trend which emerged during the later half of the twentieth century was publishers using the works of old masters to illustrate their book covers; unlike the works of modern artists, these paintings belonged to the public domain and were therefore practically free to use. Now, even the most humble paperback has been transformed, and any member of the public could buy their own copy of an artwork which would otherwise only be available to view in avant-garde galleries or art museums.

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought with it a new artistic style and a new approach to designing book covers. Classics from the sixties and seventies were re-marketed to the public after having been given shiny new minimalist makeovers by their respective publishing houses. An example is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, whose iconic, brightly coloured cover featuring the ‘cog-eyed droog’ had become hard-wired into pop culture since its release in 1972. In 2005 it was given a total revamp by photographer Véronique Rolland to feature only a glass of milk against a white background. The latest edition, revealed in 2021, takes it one step further on the path to minimalism as well as abstraction – it features the words ‘a clockwork’ followed underneath by a radically simple orange circle. The cover is therefore almost useless in terms of artistic value – it says nothing more than simply ‘this is a Clockwork Orange’.

 This journey towards minimalism strikes me as, in many senses, unnerving. With many publishers choosing stock images or text over an artistic commission, could the era of art-gallery worthy book covers be coming to an end? Will Kindles, iPads and other e-readers eventually usurp hard copy books, no longer necessitating an enticing cover that jumps out at browsers in a bookstore?  Or could it be that the book cover is a dying species, destined to become more and more minimalist until everything is as austere and weird as that cover of A Clockwork Orange?

 Whilst e-reading is useful it certainly holds nothing against the beauty and tangibility of a paperback or a hardback book, especially when many e-readers are not built with colour displays. After all, when you think back to your favourite book cover, it’s most likely not even the cover that you like the most at all. Because let’s face it, nobody really remembers the cover of Frankenstein, or The Kite Runner, or the Twilight series (OK I lied, I do remember that one). There have been too many iterations and redesigns to count, and many books were first published without elaborate cover art. What we normally remember about our favourite book cover is the story it represents, and the attachment we have to that story. Of course, we can try to aestheticise books, to pair them with art or make them the star of a social media post. But the truth remains that our parents, teachers and the motivational quotes on Facebook were right. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Image Credit: Flickr (Licence: CC-BY-2.0).

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles