Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Judging a Book by Its Cover, A Top Ten Tuesday Post

I'm a bit late to the game on this one, but Jillian's post has inspired me to join this week's Top Ten Tuesday event hosted by The Broke and the Boookish. So I'm sharing my top ten favourite book covers, united by a theme of my choosing. This topic ties in perfectly with some thoughts I've been having recently about the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover.'

I do just that and more often than I'd like to admit. I can't count how many times I've purchased a book simply because 'it's pretty' -- pretty being my adjective of choice when I impulsively splurge on yet another book I can't afford. This practice isn't always to my benefit. Sometimes I toss a 'pretty book' to the side after reading, realizing I've been the dupe of a clever design and marketing strategy.

Sometimes I get lucky.

Once upon a time, I had no intention of reading more of Charles Dickens's novels. My horrid remembrances of having Great Expectations forced upon me in middle school put me off him for good. Then these gorgeous clothbound editions of Penguin classics suddenly popped up on the shelves of the bookstore where I worked. This book lover was entranced by Coralie Bickford-Smith's stunning designs. I walked by that beautiful copy of Great Expectations, the very book I loathed beyond description, day after day. It called out to me every time I passed by, begging to be chosen. Finally, I caved and bought the damn thing -- it was just so pretty. (Are you noticing a trend with the pretty?)

Maybe, I thought, Dickens isn't so bad after all. Maybe I've misjudged him. While I thought about it, I picked up the clothbound Oliver Twist to accompany its Dickensian sibling. Just in case.

As the abundance of Dickens-themed posts on this blog will testify, I grew to love the author I previously despised. I credit Coralie Bickford-Smith with igniting that gradual change of heart. It was her 'pretty' book that urged me to give Dickens another chance. In honor of her influence on my reading habits, I would like to share ten of my favourite classic designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I own several of the series now and have every intention of adding to my collection.

I love the chandeliers on this cover of Great Expectations. The designs created for Charles Dickens texts are particular stellar.

The pocket watch, which Oliver is taught to steal under the tutelage of the Artful Dodger and the rest of Fagin's gang, seems like the perfect image to represent this novel. I'm admire all of the designs in this series, but Oliver Twist might be my favourite of the bunch.

The image of the birdcage is such a potent one in Bleak House. Miss Flite owns a menagerie of birds, whom she says will be released on the day of judgement. It also, I think, serves as an effective symbol for the ways in which various characters of the novel metaphorically cage themsleves to a limited existence through their obsessions with the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

The knitting needles, I presume, are a direct reference to Madame Defarge. She has the stillness of the lion before it strikes. Her eerie calm, as she quietly sits knitting, presages the violent outbursts that occur later in the novel. She is a standout character in the fantastic A Tale of Two Cities. Indeed, Madame Defarge is one of my favourite characters in the whole of Dickens's oeuvre.

I'd been lusting after this edition of George Eliot's Middlemarch for months when my dear friend Liz gave it to me as a parting gift before I left England. Therefore, this design has a lovely sentimental value for me.

Clothbound editions of all Jane Austen's completed novels have been released. The intricacy of this design for Pride and Prejudice makes it, in my opinion, the best of the six.

Illustrating the flamingos who have day jobs as croquet mallets in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is pure brilliance. I love the bright-pink-on-white color scheme.

The peacock feather motif on this cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is simply gorgeous.

The design of Emily's Wuthering Heights is another favourite of mine, probably because the image of the rose illustrates the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff nicely. It's beautiful but full of thorns. If Cathy and Heathcliff aren't prickly, I don't know who in fiction is.

And finally...Charlotte's Jane Eyre. I have a soft spot for this cover, because Jane Eyre may possibly be my favourite novel of all time. Also, it's red, a color that makes everything vibrant.

Penguin hosted a live web chat with Coralie Bickford-Smith a few months ago, and she kindly answered my question about the extent to which the narratives of the novels influence her designs. It was fascinating to hear about the creative process behind this aesthetic series. Here is her reply:

I try to read all the books I design covers for but sometimes (due to time constraints) it is just not possible and I go to the blurbs team for a chat to bounce ideas off. For me the narrative influences my creative process massively. For the hardback classics some of the final patterns are more literal than others. The peacock feather on Dorian Grey, for example, plays on the book’s themes of vanity and the superficial, whereas the leaf motif on Jane Eyre, refers directly to the lightning-blasted chestnut tree, a concrete element in the text that serves as a potent symbol of the book’s central relationship.

So, buying books simply because they would look dashing on my shelves does occasionally lead me astray. Yet it has also opened my eyes to fabulous books I wouldn't otherwise have read and helped me to reconsider my opinions on literature. Judging a book by its cover is a practice I'll happily continue.

Do you ever embrace or reject books simply because of their covers? I'd love to hear! 


ReadophileReadaholic said...

Thanx for adding covers that aren't just pictures of teenagers. These are much more adult covers.

Jillian said...

A great choice for the top ten! I love that you explain all of the intricacies of the covers. Since I haven't read all the works, I found that fascinating! I have the Little Women clothbound, brown with pink scissors, which I think is awesome. :)

Diana said...

ReadophileReadaholic: I'm glad you enjoyed these! I've been a fan of this design series for a long time, so I was excited to highlight some of the editions in this post.

Diana said...

Jillian: I love that cover of Little Women too! Narrowing my list down to ten was so difficult. There are so many fantastic designs I left out.

Brooke said...

I of course love the peacock cover! Every time I walk past it at work, I want it more and more! And I often buy (or don't buy) books based on their covers. I probably shouldn't be so judgmental of books, but I am...

John McLendon said...

You have accumulated some beautiful books, Diana. I have the Bleak House book, but I haven't summoned the willpower to read it yet. I think though that the problem with these lovely books is that you can't go to town with marking your favourite passages and the all the sundries, to everyone except yourself, that you would normally highlight with zeal! A book is a book is a book is a book is a book is a book.... go Gertrude Stein.

Brittney Belle said...

I judge books by their covers ALL THE TIME!!! And that's why pretty covers are particularly dangerous for my wallet since I work at the bookstore. The penguin cloth bounds are gorgeous. I also love the bargain leather-bound classics.

preethi said...

I love this - I completely agree that the way books look can make a huge difference. I'm way more attracted to old, beat-up books than shiny new paperbacks. :)

And your sweet comment (coming from such a clever writer) totally made my day - thank you!

lace, etc.

Cassandra said...

I wish I could afford any of those!!! The covers are truly lovely and if they've brought you to like Dickens then they must be heaven-sent! ;)
Since I don't earn anything and my parents are not as supportive of their daughter's love of classic literature as they should be, I always have to go for the ugly paberback 3€ editions.
Even my Dickenses are ugly :(

Diana said...

Brooke: I can see why you especially love the Oscar Wilde peacock cover! I admire your fortitude in resisting it. I lasted approximately two weeks with that one. :)

Diana said...

John: It's true what you say about keeping these in pristine condition. I, as a self-imposed rule, don't mark them. But I've found a compromise with those sticky page marker things. What are they even called? Hmm...

I'm jealous you have the Bleak House. I think the next book I buy from the series will be that one. I adore those birdcages.

Diana said...

Brittney: I'm glad you and Brooke also buy books because they look good! I was worried I was the only one who had a weakness for 'pretty' books.

I also collect the leatherbound series. They're such good value for money and so aesthetically pleasing. People have complained that they're not very easy to read from, but I don't mind their size. :)

Diana said...

Preethi: And you've made my day with yours! Thank you. :)

I used to insist on pristine-looking books...until I discovered antiquarian bookstores. Now I adore books that are 100+ years old and look worn and read. It's bad for my wallet though, since these are much more expensive. If I had the money, I would drop hundreds of pounds on these in a moment. Eek!

Diana said...

Cassandra: My parents, miraculously, were always quite willing to buy nearly all the books I wanted growing up. I don't know how I got so lucky? Can you tell them they're hindering your education? ;)

Seriously though, while it's quite nice to have pretty books, it's what's on the pages inside that counts!

JoAnn said...

Those Penguin covers are beautiful and I love how you talk about each of them. Wuthering Heights is the only one on my shelf, but I'd love to add a few more.

Diana said...

JoAnn: I think Wuthering Heights (along with Jane Eyre) was the first one I bought. I fell in love with it immediately!

Karen K. said...

I love the Penguin clothbounds but since I already own most of them in paperback (some in multiple copies) I can't justify buying more! I do have the clothbound Middlemarch which I bought at the Borders liquidation, but that's it.

I'm very sorry that I can't buy the one that I really do want, the clothbound edition of Madam Bovary. I think it was a limited edition, only available in Britain. It's purple pink and it's just gorgeous.

Diana said...

Karen: Yes, I've tried to not buy the clothbound edition if I already own the book and have been moderately successful in abstaining from many of these as a result.

I, too, loved the limited edition of Madame Bovary! I'm not sure why its production was so short lived, but I wish they would bring it (and the limited edition Crime and Punishment) back to the shelves.

Karen K. said...

I saw a copy of Madame Bovary on sale at Ebay once for $80. It's gone and I've never seen another since. Still regretting that I didn't spend the money. :-(

Diana said...

Karen: Oh, no! I hate regretting not buying a book. I once passed up a first edition Virginia Woolf that was 50 pounds at an antiquarian book fair. I truly couldn't afford it at the time, but I still think about it as 'the book that got away.'

Thinking about it, I don't think I've ever regretted buying a book.

Kevin Varney said...

I bought a clothbound copy of Great Expectations, but after I had read a 2nd hand copy. I didn't like Dickens at school neither, but I found it the most moving book I've ever read, once I gave Dickens another chance.

I also like the clothbound covers of Hard Times and Bleak House, but not so much those of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. However, I will eventually get around to reading all of them.

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