Long before we were admonished about racial profiling, we were instructed on the horrors of all superficial considerations through the mother of all finger-wagging reminders: don’t judge a book by its cover.
I take issue. A cover can tell you a lot about a book, including what the publisher thinks it delivers, and, in the case of those successful authors who have control over the marketing of their books, how the writer sees the book from a visual perspective. In that spirit of veneer gazing, I’ve compiled this short list of books that I’ve judged by their covers. And in the tradition of most of today’s book critics, I judge with a poisonous combination of impunity and ignorance, not having read any of the books under consideration.
A collection of essays by this Oprah-certified author. The cover depicts two impossibly bright, multi-hued toucans in flight, against a tropical jungle of sorts. The toucans remind us (or at least me) of Toucan Sam, and therefore of children being rushed to elementary school by overloaded suburban mothers. In other words: Barbara Kingsolver’s target audience. The image of the toucans looks suspiciously superimposed, a manipulation consistent with the author’s output. The image is an obvious attempt to reify the book’s title; these marvels of nature are a small wonder themselves. Get it?
Stupid White Men
The latest from the heavy-handed satirist who burst onto the scene with “Roger and Me.” Here, we move from the spiritual marketing of Kingsolver to in-your-face shtick. The cover is a comic book illustration of Moore towering over a group of stereotypical businessmen—the eponymous stupid white guys—around the table. The title is handled in screaming comic book typography as well. Whatever trouble the book’s title might have run into with the PC crowd is mitigated by the fact that the stupid white guy is Moore himself.
First to Die
This is a brand-name author with a built-in audience, so the publishers feel they can tease the reader. He mainly appeals to people who like the books you can find in the supermarket, but feel embarrassed to buy books in the supermarket. The cover features a giant number one, and behind it, vignetted, a moody, trashy photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge. Someone is going to die, (others will follow, presumably), and the bridge is somehow involved. It’s a thriller, to be sure.
The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits: Short Stories
This cover is an example of a trend which finds book art directors harvesting classic paintings, both to intrigue and credentialize. This form of visual quoting means to say, “we have serious intentions here.” (Sometimes it’s legitimate; Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pear Earring used a Vermeer painting on the cover because the book’s protagonist was a fictionalization of Vermeer’s pearl-earring wearing babe). Here, I don’t know whether this is a commissioned piece done for the book, or whether it is an existing painting (either in whole or cropped) that I should recognize, but don’t. Yet despite its allusive nature, the cover is actually quite vulgar—a woman’s legs, crossed at the ankles, with several rabbits scurrying around her feet. For a post-modern approach, that’s surprisingly literal. And why are there so many rabbits scurrying around? I presume that even when a rabbit impregnates a human, the yield is large. What seems to separate humans from rabbits is that rabbits just keep on reproducing, while this woman, legs crossed, is trying to stop her centralized rodent infestation.
Errors in the Script
An absolutely wonderful cover—a must-read. The artwork is again a painting, but this time its Cézanne’s “The Kiss of the Muse.” You have to read the book to know that it is a reference to a poem contained within: “The Muse Addresses the Poet.” The painting is upside down, simultaneously giving a shout-out to the poets of the past, and promising something of a new point-of-view on traditional themes, while offering a jokey nod to the title. Perfect choice for a neo-formalist poet, and the painting is really gorgeous.