Book 1: Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
Designer: Paul Sahre
Art director: John Fulbrook III
Photographer: Getty Images
Photographer: Stephen Swintek
I first encountered this cover at a Barnes & Noble while waiting for the last Harry Potter book to be released. My sisters and I, after waiting for a few hours, decided to take photos of our creatively brilliant title interpretations of various books surrounding us on the line. One of them was Wake Up, Sir!:
It’s honestly a shame it took me years to finally read what I found to be a laugh-out-loud hilarious book, by turns massively uncomfortable, brilliantly insightful, and comically genius. The protagonist, Alan, is a washed-up 30-something aspiring writer with a drinking problem and, thanks to a lucky accident, a good amount of disposable income. Once you get to know Alan, it’s no surprise that he uses this windfall to hire a full-time manservant named — naturally — Jeeves.
The use of Garamond for this cover is perfect at communicating Alan’s snobbery and seriousness about his own writing, as it’s such a traditional typeface, and French to boot. Extra snob points! Then there’s the butler, like every person’s mental image of a butler: holding a white towel, for something; white-gloved; crisply attired in vest, tie, and suit jacket with tails.
But this butler is out-of focus, and tilted, as is the cover, author, blurb, and even the little NYT seal of award-dom! Why so blurry and wonky? Well, precisely because this is how the world must look to our protagonist, who consumes far more wine than any healthy person should.
There you are: it’s simple, intriguing, and perfectly matched to the story inside, despite my ignorant initial interpretation.
Book 2: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Designer: William Webb
Typefaces: Distressed Type / Black Beard
For anyone who’s ever picked up this book, been intimidated by its considerable length, and put it back down, I implore you: give it a fair chance. This tale of two rival magicians in 19th-century Britain is a wonderfully imagined alternate history. It’s told in a delightfully old-fashioned way (even utilizing footnotes!) and will suck you into the world it creates.
The cover certainly communicates the historical setting of the tale, with a typeface that looks like a Caslon got into a no-holds-barred fight with the Clarendon next door (next drawer?) and emerged battered and bruised. And look at that beautiful swooping ampersand! They just don’t make them like that anymore.
For a story where the language of the telling reigns supreme, a textual solution to the cover makes perfect sense. The only graphic is the simple raven, a nod to the Raven King that is a major figure in the book. Love it!
Book 3: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Designer: Rodrigo Corral
Here’s an argument for graphics that pop: who doesn’t see this book and want to pick it up? The bright colors, the rows of circles, the sassy-looking brushlike type: it definitely doesn’t look like most other books on the shelf.
It also happens to be a brilliant abstract interpretation of the satirical world Shteyngart very convincingly creates: a near-future where humanity has entered a full-blown information age where everything is shared and consumerism reigns supreme. The circles could easily be pixels, or identical products on a shelf. And in a world where everything is Technicolor, the colors are perfect.
Book 4: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Designer: Carol Devine Carson
Art director: Carol Devine Carson
Typeface: Didot (H&FJ)
This cover is the most simple and muted of the group: fitting for Didion’s heartbreaking memoir, which tells of the period of her life immediately following the sudden loss of her husband of 40 years and the hospitalization of her daughter. The simple and elegant letterforms of Didot on a neutral background communicate the loneliness and fragile strength that come through in Didion’s telling.
But what elevates this cover from good to great? The very subtle coloring of just a few letters on the front: A “J”, an “O”, an “H”, and an “N”, to spell out the name of the author’s late husband. A lovely tribute that gives the cover more meaning after the book is read. Beautiful.
Book 5: Perfume by Patrick Suskind
Designer: Gabriele Wilson
Photographer: Erwin Von Dessauer
Perfume is far and away the creepiest book on today’s list. It tells the story of a man in 18th-century France born with the most incredible sense of smell anyone has ever known. He finds great success as a perfumer, but when he becomes obsessed with harnessing the scent of women, things take a very dark and disturbing turn.
For this reason, the black void of the cover is appropriate. Everything else drops away when our protagonist focuses on smell, and in a similar way, everything else about the cover is secondary to the man on the front, closing his eyes to take in a scent. The text is beautifully treated in a script style that wouldn’t be out of place on a perfume label from the period. Overall, the cover designer has succeeded in representing smell in a visual way; the only thing that might be harder is to represent smell in words (though this book succeeds in that, too).
That’s it for this post’s roundup! Next time you’re at the library or bookstore, take a moment to admire a cover or two. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.