August 6, 2012

Of Shallowness and Book Covers

The other day, having finished re-reading a favorite book of mine, Fortune's Rocks, it struck me that I was initially drawn towards the novel by its cover; I remember walking into my university book-store, noticing the cover's moody, dull aqua and neutral palette and instantly picking it up.

Of course, the popular adage reiterates that one must not judge a book solely by its cover...but in my case, I must confess that I have often been terribly shallow in that respect. Rather, I should say that I have picked up books only on the basis of their eye-catching production values, cover design and photograph; of course, this is not to say that I base my reading choices entirely on the fact that a book is good-looking;) There must be substance to the style and if a book blurb or the writing fails to intrigue or pique my interest whatsoever, the beautiful design  becomes an irrelevant fact. However, it is also an irrefutable fact that pretty packaging does not hurt too at times...

Once I have bought and enjoyed the book, I have also observed that I associate that cover and cover alone with the book; whenever I have encountered different editions of the books with varying covers, the book appears and indeed, becomes a different book to much so that I can't even flip through and read it again. For me, ultimately, the cover of a book should eloquently embody the book's essential spirit - and it becomes all the more significant once you have completed reading the book. The relationship between the cover and the book's content then becomes a precious one and a jarring cover can sometimes impact the way I perceive and engage with the book.

That brings me to another peeve of mine and which has also been the subject of much debate: books by Subcontinental authors published in say, North America or United Kingdom are inevitably collectively lumped together as belonging to the exoticised narrative category. The covers are redolent of images which are ostensibly visual bywords for the subcontinent: sumptuous jewel-hued saris, saffron-hued marigolds and blood-red roses, copper urns brimming with turmeric, coriander, and chili powders, and women sporting kohl-lined eyes, flowers in their hair, and wearing melancholy expressions; all these images often have very little to do with the books' contents or writing styles. Hopefully, this trend will and is already witnessing  a decline and the books' covers ultimately reflects what the books are all about, rather than what they should be all about.

Here are a few favorite books of mines whose covers I feel embody the spirit of the book:

i) Fortune's Rocks

The novel focuses upon the metamorphosis of its fifteen year old heroine, Olympia from a girl into a woman and her awareness of this crucial fact...and how this realisation dramatically implicates so many others in her life. The novel is largely set on a beach, Fortune's Rocks in Massachusetts, United States and the ocean and the beach play an elemental role in the novel. The cover features a lone cape-robed man walking along a deserted, moody beach on a gray, overcast day; it is a dramatic, grand image and I feel it accurately captures the blend of melancholy, tragedy, and beauty that pervades the novel.

ii) In the Eye of the Sun

Described as the great Egyptian novel about England and the great English novel about Egypt, this novel too explores the transformation of an Egyptian girl, Asya al-Ulama from a wide-eyed, vivacious teenager into a jaded, world-weary woman between 1967-1980; her life is juxtaposed alongside contemporary regional political events and the title is embedded in a commentary upon the Six Day Arab-Israeli war, which took place in 1967. For me, personally, the blazing orange color palette and the cracked earth are almost akin to the surface of the sun itself, representing its the incredible heat, intensity, the inferno of energy - and thus make perfect and literal alignment with the title. Once having read the book, there are multiple other interpretations that you can tease out from the title and its bearing upon the cover. 

iii) Broken Verses

One review described the bougainvillea-strewn cover as 'exquisite' and I thought that this was indeed a beautifully styled and presented cover in as much for its appearance as its visually poetic rendering of the novel's spirit. Poetic happens to be an apt word to use in context to the novel. Focusing on the narrator, Aaasmani's obsessive denial of the fact that her activist mother, Samina has disappeared following the death of her lover, The Poet, the book deals with power of words and word-play, poetry, burnt verses, and the fascinating and dangerous relationship between the poetry and state. At one point, while attempting to untangle her thoughts, she watches bougainvillea flowers take flight and their presence upon the cover makes for a nice inter-textual reference having completed reading the book. One of my favorite covers, undoubtedly.

iv) A Story of a Widow

While looking up images for this cover, I was bemused to see that one of the alternative covers for 'The Story of a Widow'  featured - you guessed it - an incandescent silk sari. Returning to this gorgeous and infinitely more preferable cover, personally speaking, I thought it was a delightful, whimsical retro-kitsch take upon desi-style romance. Incidentally, the two roses artfully tucked in the woman's bun oddly enough reminded me of Indian state channel, DD (Doordarshan for the uninitiated:) and their women news-presenters; I still remember one of them wearing roses in their hair in this fashion. The roses have a special significance in this simply narrated story of a widow and I thought the centrally trained spotlight upon the roses in the cover was a clever touch.

v) Rebecca's Tale

Apart from the fact that it is an excellent sequel to a dearly loved novel of mine, Rebecca, the cover  also appealed to me because it was reminscent of a similar pastel drawing I created upon black construction paper back in my school-days. Linking it to the novel itself, the swirling, mysterious waters, black rocks, and the gray-jade sea effectively capture the mystery and intrigue that permeates the novel. 

Do you have a favorite book cover?


  1. Interesting post. I also choose books initially by their covers.

    Hopefully, you will read the novel I've just done the cover illustration for when it's published in October - we (the author & I) think the illustration does capture the book's spirit, although I confess I haven't seen what the graphic designer is doing with it.


  2. Glad you enjoyed reading the post:)

    Oh, I shall be looking forward to seeing and reading that novel:) it must have been pretty interesting to collaborate with the author on the project though...I am sure the author would have appreciated the opportunity as well!


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