Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Under the covers

leave a comment »

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What great albums do you love that have ugly album covers?”

There are two kinds of readers in this world: those who keep the dust jackets on their books, and those who take them off. For most of my life, I’ve been in the latter camp. Whenever I’m out with a hardcover, I’ll usually leave the dust jacket behind, and although I’ll restore it as soon as the book is back on the shelf, I feel more comfortable carrying an anonymous spine in public. The reasons can be a little hard to parse, even for me. On a practical level, an unsecured dust jacket can be cumbersome and inconvenient: it has a way of slipping up or down whenever you’re reading a book that isn’t flat on a table, which leads to rumpled and torn corners. Really, though, it’s a matter of discretion. I don’t necessarily want to advertise what I’m reading for everyone else to see, and a book cover, among other things, is an advertisement, as well as an invitation to judge. Whenever we’re in close proximity to other readers, we all do it, but I prefer to avoid it entirely. Reading, for me, is an immersion in a private world, and what I do there is my own business. And this holds true whether or not the title could be construed as odd or embarrassing. (Only once in my adult life have I ever constructed a paper slipcover to conceal the cover of a book I was reading on the subway. It was the Bible.)

This is particularly true of covers that aggressively sell the contents to the point of active misrepresentation, which seems to be the case pretty often. As I’ve said before in reference to my own novels, a book’s cover art is under tremendous pressure to catch the buyer’s eye: frequently, it’s the only form of advertising a book ever gets. Hence the chunky fonts, embossed letters, and loud artwork that help a book stand out on shelves, but feel vaguely obscene when held in the hand. And the cover image need bear little resemblance to the material inside. Back in the heyday of pulp fiction, seemingly every paperback original was sold with the picture of a girl with a gun, even if the plot didn’t include any women at all. Hard Case Crime, the imprint founded by my friend and former colleague Charles Ardai, has made a specialty of publishing books with covers that triangulate camp, garishness, and allure, and sometimes it gleefully pushes the balance too far. I was recently tempted to pick up a copy of their reprint of Michael Crichton’s Binary, an early pulp thriller written under the pseudonym John Lange, but the art was about ten percent too lurid: I just couldn’t see myself taking it on a plane. There’s no question that it stood out in the store, but it made me think twice about taking it home.

Binary by John Lange

In theory, once we’ve purchased a book, album, or movie, its cover’s work is done, as with any other kind of packaging. And yet we also have to live with it, even if the degree of that engagement varies a lot from one medium to another. In an ideal world, every book would come with two covers—one to grab the browser’s eye, the other to reside comfortably on a shelf at home—and in fact, a lot of movies take this approach: the boxes for my copies of The Godfather Trilogy and The Social Network, among others, come with a flimsy fake cover to display in stores, designed to be removed to present a more sober front at home. It’s not so different from the original function of a dust jacket, which was meant solely as a protective covering to be thrown away after the book was purchased. In practice, I don’t feel nearly the same amount of ambivalence toward ugly DVD or album covers as I do with books: the experience of watching a movie or listening to music is detachable from the container in which it arrives, while a book is all of a piece. That said, there are a couple of movies in my collection, like Say Anything, that I wish didn’t look so egregiously awful. And like a lot of Kanye fans, I always do a double take when the deliberately mortifying cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy pops up in my iTunes queue.

But I don’t often think consciously about album art these days, any more than I can recall offhand how the box covers look for most of my movies. And there’s a sense in which such packaging has grown increasingly disposable. For many of us, the only time we’ll see the cover art for a movie or album is as a thumbnail on Amazon before we click on it to download. Even if we still buy physical discs, the jewel case is likely to be discarded or lost in a closet as soon as we’ve uploaded it in digital form. Covers have become an afterthought, and the few beautiful examples that we still see feel more like they’re meant to appeal to the egos of the artists or designers, as well as a small minority of devoted fans. But as long as physical media still survive, the book is the one format in which content and packaging will continue to exist as a unit, and although we’ll sometimes have to suffer through great books with bad covers, we can also applaud the volumes in which form and content tell a unified story. Pick up a novel like The Goldfinch, and you sense at once that you’re in good hands: regardless of how you feel about the book itself, the art, paper, and typesetting are all first-rate—it’s like leafing through a Cadillac. I feel happy whenever I see it on my shelf. And one of these days, I may even finish reading it.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2015 at 10:19 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: