one-off at the wrist


I was thinking yesterday about the future of fiction book covers [given the forward march of electronic means of  storing and selling ‘literature’ and the ongoing debate over the survival or extinction of the book as a physical entity] whilst rereading Peter Mendelsund’s excellent article about the process of jacketing works of fiction [particularly in regard to his being asked to judge a competition to design a new cover for Lolita] and wondered whether we are at the same crossroads as reached in the mid 1980’s with the gradual death of the LP record and its excellently sized 12 inch sq. site for displaying ‘art’, [interestingly in many framing shops you can now find large cases displaying discs and album covers together, in much the way that successful artistes would have celebrated their gold or platinum selling recordings, intended as bona fide artworks], or whether, as electronic readers can also function as digital photo-frames, we are on the verge of a golden age for cover design?

It has always seemed strange to me that although it is possible for books, with their covers, [aside: one rarely sees stripped books at flea markets anymore. Presumably surplus paperbacks are more likely to be remaindered than pulped these days?], to be collected as legitimate artworks in their own right, and an interesting intersection exists between artwork for/on book cover and book cover as/made into artwork [think Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s doctored book covers or Jamie Shovlin’s Fontana Redux for instance], that this area has always remained under-explored.

Shovlin’s set of ten lost covers, 2003-05

Indeed I could never understand, going into the Murder One bookshop on Charring Cross Road [now sadly defunct] and seeing the book cover flats that were for sale, and knowing there are those that buy every new edition of a book just for its different cover, much like the collectors of picture disc LPs, phonecards or stamps, why there are not more collectors of books as artworks, or more accurately, for their artwork. [arguably most bibliophiles are primarily interested in a book’s rarity as an object rather than its artistic value?]

Certainly book cover design is a fertile ground for anyone interested in the broader aspects of Culture [anthropological/sociopolitical etc etc] as just like other artworks, it can at any point in time tell us much about the then current styles of design, latest thoughts on the workings of the human mind, even contemporary political concerns and prevailing worldviews [look for instance at Nabokov scholar and translator Dieter E. Zimmer’s collection of Lolita book covers of the last 57 years]. And one would think there is a sizable but finite enough field of ‘quality’ covers (i.e.) beyond the vast majority of nondescript, mediocre, bland offerings [the more guilty genres Romantic or Fantasy fiction with their tropes of swooning heroines and bemuscled swordsmen respectively? Or Science Fiction, with its love of often obliquely tangential titles, leaving one often wondering whether illustrators have even read the book/what brief they have received?] from which to collect.

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to hope that the quality book cover collecting field of choice will actually expand given that digital and self-publishing options now allow authors rather than editors, publishers and art directors, with their take on the constraints implicit in the marketing and selling of books, to decide what adorns and augments their stories. Frankly I have always been somewhat amazed at how easily it appears that most authors have ‘given away’ the rights to the wrapping of their efforts or not even understood that carried out intelligently it can provide so much more than a mere illustration. It can provide, as with Böcklin’s incorrectly titled painting Isle of the Dead an ‘image to dream by’. [Indeed as a writer I find the images I choose as covers are more often than not the actual catalyst for the narrative.]

Thankfully there appears to be enough interest, no matter whether book covers remain viewed as merely wrappers of text rather than as collectible artworks in their own right, or whether books continue to coexist as physical entities or become completely digital, in the challenges and complexities of book cover design to ensure they will survive for as long as there are contents to swaddle.


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