Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book covers: Foreman to Salinger to Orwell and Gallimard

Since hawking books is part of my livelihood, we often find ourselves discussing book covers around our offices, which ones work and which don't. Which surprised us and which we think fit perfectly with the spirit of a book.

Once summer evening I was walking with some friends across the Plateau and we came across a box of old books that someone had discarded on the street. For some reason, we started a little game where each of us would pick out a book and then try to guess the year by looking only at the cover. It was actually pretty easy and I had some kind of knack for it. Generally I got my books right on the nose or within just a year or two of publication. And when everyone seemed impressed I couldn't really articulate what it was about the design exactly (the colors? the font styles?) which clued me in.

Gabe Foreman's A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Kinds of People
Take this book: it actually won an award last night at the Quebec Writers Award Banquet (which, sadly, I  had to miss). It's an excellent book and uproariously funny. And while Coach House does have some talented and creative designers in house, this one misses the mark in my opinion. I can see where they were going: it's clearly supposed to echo some an encyclopedia cover to fit with the title (and overall theme) of the book. But instead it looks stuffy and recalls some dry academic book that one reads once in graduate school and never touches again...

J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey
I have no idea if something about this cover screams out 2011 necessarily but the idea that good book design somehow overrides tastes and current trends is clearly wrong. Take Franny and Zooey, one of my favorite books when I was a teenager. Here is the cover of the edition I read (and re-read and re-read). I still recall so many details about the story when I see this cover (and I have no idea where my copy of this ended up: probably in a box somewhere that got lost in all my moves).

Recently I came across this cover from an online post about re-imagined book covers. I really find this one interesting and it represents a real shift. For so long, book covers seemed to be more about just titles and text rather than details from the story but this one clearly bucks that trend.
J.D.Salinger: Franny and Zooey
Clearly the artist knew about or wanted to allude to the story in the cover chosen which I think makes the book cover far more interesting. The earlier cover recalls French book covers which often (though it's changing, particularly in Quebec) have very simple covers (all those Gallimard editions with the same color, design, font and size). There are exceptions: those Folio editions (2 Euros for a paperback!) are beautiful often and only allude to the book's content with subtlety.

I tend to be the kind of reader who, when I am really enjoying the book, will stop every few pages or so and flip the book around, really examine the book cover and read every single thing on the cover again and again as I consider what I'm reading. The cover becomes an intimate part of the experience of reading the book and like the J.D. Salinger cover above, become intertwined with my experience of reading it. All it takes is for me to find an old edition of a book I once read to recall a thousand details: where I read it, where I was living at the time, what the weather was like, etc.

A Folio edition: Jean-Jacques Schuhl:
Entrée des fantômes
J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

George Orwell: 1984

1 comment:

  1. Salinger books always have imageless covers, but they still change over time. For a while I was "collecting" different editions of "Nine Stories". Who would have thought: so many ways to print the same words!