What does it actually mean to judge a book by its cover?

Is there anything to gain by looking at the contents of a book in the context of its aesthetic elements?

In 1997, literary theorist Gérard Genette published ‘Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation,’ in it Genette reminds us that works of art do not exist in-corporeally, and that we, as readers, do not receive them as such. Criticism has a habit of focusing upon the finer details of a text or painting, consequently losing sight of its tangible existence. Although structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, historicism, formalism, aestheticism, postcolonial readings all – to varying extents – pay attention to the socio-historic influences at work within a particular piece of writing or art they often risk overlooking the complex cycle of transmission that begins only once the author has written their closing line.[i]

What turns a work of art into a book? Literally, it is a multitude of specialists – editors, illustrators, publishers and printers: individuals that leave their mark within, what Genette refers to as, the ‘paratextual elements’ of the book. Para-text because these elements extend, surround and augment the contents, they are the marginalia of production. Title page, dust jacket, blurb, font, contents page, acknowledgements: each element is the result of a choice made by someone, which in turn acts as ‘a threshold’ to the text. We must remember that it is not simply the author who is a product of their environment, but also these other creators of the book. We are subject to the layers of signification added by the ‘book producers’ long before we (the readers) even reach the opening line.

The printed book cover is a relatively recent addition, dating from the early 19th Century. Books weren’t readily available objects in the 1800s, but, as literacy rates rose, paper prices fell, and printing techniques improved in efficiency, books proliferated into affordability and became commercial objects. The traditional leather bindings which spoke of wealth and longevity fell away into novelty as publishers and booksellers began to exploit the possibilities of the cover. Today, its obvious function is to attract attention. [ii],[iii] Title, author’s name, publisher’s logo, blurb, awards, recommendations (The Times, ‘A 21st Century Classic’, Vogue, ‘A truly authentic portrayal of a modern woman!’), the spine (now a publisher’s signature, in the case of Penguin’s black background, orange title and white band, or Vintage’s scarlet colour and rounded non-seraph type), and of course the cover design itself. 

It is possible to infer a multitude of things from a book’s covering – ironically not usually about the contents, but about what various people have decided about the contents. For example, Penguin’s cloth-bound luxury classics don’t reveal much about the cutting social satire and sophisticated narrative techniques of Jane Austen’s works, but they do draw Austen into an alternative market – the YA/chic lit. Similarly, a simple cover redesign and Frankenstein and Dracula can be romanticised to sit beside Twilight. And while there’s nothing inherently bad about this – the ability to rebrand a classic by changing its clothing is part of what keeps these books alive to new generations – these efforts can superficially diminish the complexity of these novels. 


An article featured by Quartz entitled ‘Acacia Fatigue’ elucidates the detrimental effects of a lazy book design. Focusing upon books which have some link to Africa – whether they were written by an African author, or are set in the continent. << Quartz posted this collage – taken from the blog Africa is a Country – of 36 book covers.

To quote Peter Medelsund (art director at Knopf) we are ‘in the age of the tree […] that vast continent, in all its diversity, [is reduced to] that one fucking tree.’ The fiery colours and ‘that one fucking tree’ would suggest that these books were perhaps cheap spin-offs of the Lion King. Alas, they are not, some are written by Nobel-Prize-winning authors, some, such as Haggard and Conrad, present questionable depictions of Africa, while others actively react against this. These books are examples of a lazy approach to both aesthetics and marketing, with designers resorting to visual clichés. Clichés that are both damaging to the works themselves and perpetuate a stereotype that, often, the works are attempting to complicate or erase. As Ishaan Tharoor puts it, ‘A decade and a half into the 21st Century, it seems that the spectre of ‘Orientalism’ still hovers over the Western publishing world’. Irrespective of plot, characterisation, narrative style or tone, these covers say ‘you like books set in an exotic setting, you’ll like this one.’ This kind of marketing expects (and encourages) readers to be stupid. Just as Amazon’s algorithms stop you having to think about what you want because ‘other people who bought this also bought…’

Bad book design can reduce heterogeneous works of art and their creators down to a clumsy glomeration of ‘woman’, ‘African’, ‘Orient’, and consequently encourage a simplistic approach to literature in general.


[i] When students study the poetry of World War One at school there are hours spent researching ‘background information’: jingoism, trench warfare and Craig Lockhart. But it’s rare that they consider the importance of textual transmission, of how Owen and Sassoon originally wrote down their poetry in the war-torn trenches, (with a stub of lead and scrap of paper?), and of how they were then transferred into the legible format we read them in today. How often do students consider the manner in which the textbooks they read them in at school present these poems? (As something worthy of analysis, hinted at by supplementary footnotes, standardised fonts, and large margins to house naïve scribblings.) Or how we would read these poems differently if we read them within a badly edited anthology, or via a blogpost adorned with clipart poppies concerning the centenary of the war? There must have been thousands of young soldiers writing poetry in order to deal with the torments and boredom of warfare, so what was it that enabled Owen’s poetry to end up on the A-Level curriculum?

These are the kind of questions that cannot be answered by textual analysis, by looking at metrical feet or etymological evolution. Furthermore, these are questions that look into the very perpetuation of literature and those who study it. They are not questions we should ignore because we think it distasteful to consider books as part of a drab commercial world, to consider that, in order to survive, art and literature must be disseminated and given monetary value.

[ii] This is something which becomes more and more difficult in both the physical and digital book-buying realms. While bookshops are so crammed full of books of every colour and size – you go in wanting Dickens and come out with Delia Smith – online vendors (Amazon & Abe) are not suited to slow browsing – to buy a book via Amazon is, to my mind, to know exactly what you want and to know you want it tomorrow. However, short of producing A1-sized books with pre-recorded sales pitches which start on opening the front page like an expensive child’s birthday card, there is little a publisher can do to make a book the first to catch the musing purchaser’s eyes.

[iii] Pedants would suggest that actually, the first manifestation of the book offered to the reader’s perception is the cover’s clothing: the dust jacket (or wrapper). Detachable and therefore constitutively ephemeral, their original purpose was to keep a book clean and undamaged (or to stop browsers reading books pre-purchase), they have however become a valuable addition to the collector’s item, to find a Hogarth Press first edition with its dust jacket intact is near impossible. However, for now, let’s amalgamate the two, let’s consider the jacket and cover as one Both are a marketing dream – a mini billboard of incentives.





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