I recently finished reading a secondhand copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a gripping re-construction of the senseless murder of the Clutter family in 1959 and an investigation into the minds of the the killers, combined with testimonies of those close to them and the deceased.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capotek64

I had picked up this copy of In Cold Blood (published by Signet, 1980) together with a 1975 edition of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent at Nijinski. Both books are excellent and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend anyone to read them. My only gripe is the unimaginative and cheesy covers of these editions!

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When I showed AB the books and lamented about the awful book art, he said that such cheesy book covers remind him of “cereal boxes in the supermarket, shouting for your attention.”

How many times have I returned a book to the shelf or purchased an unknown title because of its cover? Too many times perhaps. I know it’s superficial and one should never judge a book by its cover. But it’s tough to abide by this when faced with such dreadful book designs.

What about you?

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This brings to mind an interesting BBC documentary about book design that I had watched sometime back. Titled “The Beauty of Book: Paperback Writer (Part 4)“, this episode focuses on George Orwell’s 1984 and shows how this classic has been reinterpreted by artists through the decades.

Particularly amusing is the sensational cover of the US edition, published in 1954 by Signet, which featured Winston Smith looking like a macho Hollywood star with attention-grabbing headlines and propaganda messages. For more information and observations about this cover, see the video from 07:45.

You can also see an overview of different 1984 book covers at Flavorwire.

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I dislike such in-your-face book covers and very much prefer sublime and elegant designs. For instance, those featured in Pushkin Press Collection and published by Persephone Books:

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Tigre @ 117 Rue de la Brasserie03 - journey by moonlightk64

While English book covers tend to be colourful and varied in style, French novels feature a uniformly classic design that is uncluttered with black and red text printed on a white or cream cover. Perhaps the underlying implication is that the contents are so well-written that no marketing or advertising is needed to promote the books.

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What is also striking is that this minimalist look hasn’t really changed through the decades. A 1961 copy of Simone de Beauvoir’ Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée – which I found in an antiquarian bookshop in a small town in the south of France – is a case in point.

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If there is any additional design element on the cover of French titles, it would usually be that of a small square image or an abstract drawing. Still keeping it simple.

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Broadly speaking, French book art would be unequivocally superior to that of English books.

Except for one major ‘flaw’, which AB pointed out to me: The text on the spine is printed such that it appears upside down when the book is placed face up on the table! Not very practical at all and I wonder why this is so. Any idea, anyone?

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24 replies on “Never judge a book by its cover

  1. I think it is because book spines are meant to be read on the shelf when tilting your head to the left. Something about reading up making more sense than reading down (when on the shelf).

  2. Reblogged this on Here be thoughts and commented:
    I’ve rejected quite a few books based on their cover design. But I’ve only become conscious of that now, after reading this blog post. I especially dislike gold and silver, glittery covers that dazzle in the light of the sombre bookstore and look so out of place!

    Read this article to know about different approaches to cover designs and a nice recommendation of two books and of a BBC documentary.

    1. Hi Aamil, Agree – it’s all about striking a balance (between minimalist/non-distracting and something inspiring perhaps) when it comes to cover art. Thanks for pointing out the broken links!

  3. Nice article. Agree quite a lot with you. The minimalist covers are wonderful, but I do like a bit of cover art every now and then. BTW, I think your links to ‘Persephone Books’ and ‘Pushkin Press Collection’ are broken.

  4. I generally ignore the covers but I do read the dust jacket notes which normally contain a few paragraphs on the plot and a bio of the author. I like simple covers too. The Penguins are classic. To be honest my consumption of fiction is relatively modest and a lot of my books are old book club editions. I have a whole stack of Dickens that were given to me in 1969 – I know that because I dated them 🙂 The covers are plain red with some embossed thistles on them. Publisher was T. Nelson & Sons limited. I suspect they were as basic as possible to keep costs down. Contemporary fiction if I buy it at all tends to be as an E book. I read Vector Threat by Tom Clancy recently – no idea what the cover was like! The French books are very elegant. I must have a copy of 1984 somewhere. I’ll try to find it and see what is on the cover. Do you follow Jayde Ashe? She is passionate about books too. Well worth reading her posts.

    1. I don’t remember coming across much of classic Penguins in the bookstores in Singapore – most books seemed to have colourful and/or decorated covers. I’ve picked up a few older Penguins at a secondhand bookstore in Brussels, the oldest being a 1959 copy of A Many Splendoured Thing (which caught my eye because of the author’s Singapore connection!)

      I don’t think I’d take to e-books very well. Partly because I already spend so much time staring at electronic screens (laptop, work PC, Blackberry) every day. And mainly because I just like feeling a book in my hands and sometimes, the musty smell of old books too! I recently purchased several Pushkin Press Collection titles (they were on sale) – I like their size and the quality of the production is fantastic.

      Yup, I follow Jayde Ashe – she made a Christmas tree out of her Penguins! And thanks for the Brainpickings link – it’s always a challenge to decide what to read and not read, as with many other things in life!

  5. I, too, am known to judge books by their cover… I guess it’s only natural; we tend to do this with everything in our daily lives, including people, don’t we? On the question of print direction on the spine, I agree with figtree23 above: whereas UK/US and generally English language books titles are printed top to bottom which makes it easier to read when they’re stuck on a table, the rest of Europe prints bottom to top so the title is easier to read then they stand on shelves.

    1. We only have English and French books, as well as two Chinese books, at my place so it’s interesting to know that English language books tend to have their titles printed in an opposite direction from European books. I find it easier to read from top to bottom rather than the other way round 🙂 Chinese books are easy to read when placed upright as you read from top to bottom, like you would in traditional Chinese.

  6. Nicely written, I too tend to prefer a book I want to read with a good simplistic cover.
    Although, sometimes I do tend to buy books I love to read, even though I can’t stand the cover, if I can’t find a better looking copy.
    Yes, I’ve noticed all french books, have a different spine, which has to be read with your head tilting to your left, when on a bookshelf that is, unlike English books where you tilt your head towards the right. Have no idea why.

  7. flipping through the pages is a much better to check out a book..one which I follow…btw, if you enjoy Orwell, do try out his first novel, Burmese days…a little depressing, but quite good!

    1. Good to know, I’ll make a note of it. I really liked “down and out in paris and london” too – fascinating how he got by with so little in the two cities during the 1920s.

  8. Nice to see I’m not the only person left in the world who thinks simple design is better. 🙂 And that you read *real* books – tried an eReader for a while, but *nothing* beats paper in your hands (nice hard cover even better). Covers don’t get to me as much as the cheap printing process used by some publishers, though.

    1. I love well-produced books, feeling the paper between my fingers, sometimes even the print of the letters/words, the smell of the books, sticking little bits of paper in between to mark favourite parts… Cheap printing and production don’t bother me too much but I get a little irked when pages fall out due to worn-out glue on the spine.

  9. In a similar vein I compare American and UK covers of the same books. Generally I find the British ones to be a little more intriguing, less literal. It is true that continental European titles tend to be published with more minimalist covers. When I lived in Italy I noticed it. Sometimes I like a little more bang for my buck when it comes to a design that will draw me in to discover a new novel. But it is certainly true that a well-designed cover will catch my eye and make me buy. I do love the font used on your Capote cover though!

    1. I love a well-designed AND well-produced book – from the aesthetics and how the pages fill in my hands to the book binding and font used. Pushkin Press Collection is one of my favourites 😉

      I saw your post about choosing a spring jacket for your book. They all look great! I’ve not read your book so am not sure what would goes well with it.

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