Menu Close

Judging Books By Their Covers

Maybe it’s cliché to start off a blog post with a cliché, but here we go: You can’t judge a book by its cover. My mom used to say this phrase to me to discourage my judgmental attitude towards people, and professors cajole you with it when the cover is from the 1970s and less than appealing. Let’s be real, though—we all judge books by their covers.

When I’m browsing the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado on vacation, I won’t even read the synopsis on the back if the cover is too busy, too provocative, too outdated. If you handed me two copies of the exact same book, I would pick the pretty one, superficial as it is. Don’t even deny it—you’d do the same.

It’s human nature, I suppose, to drift towards objects we find visually appealing. We even do this to people—you marry someone you find attractive. And while “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” what can a book cover really say about a novel or collection?

Kyle Vanhemert’s blog post on Wired tackles this question. His post revolves around Peter Mendelsund, an acclaimed cover artist who has designed artwork for old and new novels alike. But, as Vanhemert states, designing a cover isn’t just about design aesthetic: “It starts with understanding.” Mendelsund must understand the intricacies and, as he puts it, the “metaphoric weight of the entire book.” The cover must be appealing to potential readers, but it also has to reflect the core of the novel.

In the blog, Vanhemert quotes Mendelsund as saying, “It’s very tempting to read a book only for visual cues when you’re a jacket designer… ‘Oh, her hair is blond, and it’s a cold climate, and they live on a hill.’ That’s just really treacherous. Because if you read that way, you’ll miss the point of the book. And almost never are those kind of details the point of the book.” It is easy to fall into the trap of picking out an obvious image to try and encompass the book, but Mendelsund’s cover for Kafka’s Metamorphosis “quietly suggests some of the story’s major themes—perception, identity, vision” all within two images on the cover of a story.

It would be interesting to track the covers of a novel throughout history and see how it reflects the art of the time of publication. Modern covers tend to be simple and clean, while a cover from the 1980s might be brighter and more intricate. The cover can also reflect the view society has had of the book throughout the years. Take The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, for example. In a blog post on The Lesbrary, the author includes pictures of the cover for the novel throughout the years, showing the progression of society’s views of lesbian relationships through the cover art. Just looking at the covers is fascinating, and it’s thought provoking to study the covers and track the changes that are made throughout history.

In addition to looking at the different covers that have appeared for a single novel over the years, it’s also interesting to take a look at “gendered” covers. Maureen Johnson sent out a challenge to her Twitter followers to create new covers for books as though the author was of the opposite gender. The results were eye-opening and are summarized in this Huffington Post article. The “girl” covers are soft, glowing, and airy, while the “boy” covers are sharper, edgier, and bolder. The point of her challenge was to show that the cover truly does impact who reads a book—whether it’s targeted towards males or females.

Examining book covers is an art in itself. With so much though that goes into them, maybe it’s okay to judge a book by its cover after all—just make sure you’ve read the book first.

—Hannah Osborne