17 November 2011

Judging a Book by its Cover

So I've just read Geoff Dyer's recent N.Y. Times Book Review column about book cover art, a phenomenon in publishing dating from the 70s.  Books printed prior to that decade were, according to Dyer, somewhat “old and dreary” but by the 70s, Penguin was partly responsible for the delightful marriage of art and literature, borrowing images from famous paintings to grace the covers of their paperback series.  

Being a child of the 50s, Dyer’s column provoked my own bibliophilic memories.  I have countless Modern Library Classics on my bookshelves, identified by their maroon, green or navy blue covers adorned with nothing more elaborate than a stamped gold typeface on the spine identifying what (or who!) might be inside:  Anna Karenina; Oscar Wilde; John Donne; William Blake; Longfellow; Emily Bronte, to name but a few. There were rarely any pictures throughout the pages and those few that did turn up (most often on the frontispiece) were merely pen and ink sketches, oftentimes of the author. These books provoke a deep sensory response in me whenever I take them from the shelf and I have immediate recall of hours spent in Dana’s Corner Book Shop where the attendant scents were part library, part men’s club, part great-aunt’s attic. A Modern Library edition was a book meant for the hardcore reader, someone who needed no external folderol to tempt one beyond a hard cover in a dun red or blue into the creamy thick pages covered in old-fashioned Garamond type. 

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, like Dyer, I’m hopelessly enamored of the art-enhanced covers on books from the late 20th century.  For my money, the best among this genre must be the reprints of novels by Angela Thirkell, for which Penguin plumbed the luscious depths of Pre-Raphaelite paintings for its covers.  Each one is an aesthetic jewel, not only capturing the essence of each novel’s spirit, but also the Howards End / Room With A View aesthetic of Thirkell’s own era.  I agree entirely with Dyer that the covers of these books enhance the reader’s enjoyment -- and perhaps even understanding -- by providing a visual touchstone to the story. 

A similar phenomenon took place with phonograph record slip cases in the late 60s and 70s and many of the recordings I purchased from that period feature watery images by Monet, flowery canvases by LaFarge, imperialistic tableaux by David, and high-spirited illustrations by Toulouse Lautrec, reflecting the Debussy, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or Milhaud that waited within. The image on my recording of Tchaikowsky’s First Symphony (“Winter Dreams”) has a wintry Dutch landscape on the cover, one that drew me into the composer’s winter daydream no less than the actual music. And you could always count on a bucollic landscape by Constable or Samuel Palmer for albums that featured music by English composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, or Delius.

One could argue that using fine art for advertising is not a new thing.  Soap and Biscuit companies have been using it on their boxes and tins for more than a century, spreading a little class with the morning lather-up or afternoon cuppa. But purposely marrying a piece of art to reflect literature or music is taking this many steps higher than biscuit tins, bestowing the lagniappe of visual expression, drawing the psyche and perhaps even the soul further upward. Or inward. 


When art and literature -- or art and music -- marry, we are certainly the better for the union, and I’m grateful to Mr. Dyer for reminding me of this. 

And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go and have a cup of tea and a biscuit from a tin that has a Bruegel family cavorting in the snow. 

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