Sunday, July 1, 2007

Judging a Book?, July 2007

By Fence

Cover design for a work of fiction must involve some sort of interpretation, don’t you think? The designer should know what the book is about and maybe even have read it. They should be aware of certain key aspects, like the physical features of any characters they might be portraying. Or at least you’d hope that the design might pay some sort of attention to the work between the covers. I know, sometimes it seems as though the cover has nothing at all to do with the book. But that is fiction, what about non-fiction books? In many cases the title will let the browser know what subject the book covers, does this mean that the design is then simply to attract attention?

In the case of Tim Pat Coogan’s The I.R.A. this seems to be the case. The design is simplistic. The author, the title and a shamrock, all on a white background. But this is slightly deceptive. Anyone who has an interest in Irish history will be aware of the name of Tim Pat Coogan. He has written many well received books on Irish history. So it stands to reason that using a large font for the author name serves a purpose. But the title is larger, and darker, The IRA, all in capitals, taking up almost half the cover. That is a lot of space for six letters. A design intended to alert the potential reader to the subject, no ambiguity at all there, but it also dominates the cover the way the actual organisation has dominated Irish history. I’d like to think that that is a deliberate effect.

And of course there is the shamrock. The emblem of Ireland, just in case you were wondering, and complete with a gun sight. A not very subtle hint at the violent history of the organisation. All in all, a simple yet effective design.

Another effective design is that of Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge. This is another non-fiction work and as the title says, it is a collection of letters. The writers are Vera Brittain and four of her friends; Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, and Geoffrey Thurlow. All four of those men lost their lives in the Great War; they are the lost generation of the title.

This cover uses an iconic image, the soldiers in silhouette, going over the trenches. There can be very little doubt as to what the subject matter of this book is. This, together with the book details are overlaid across some handwriting. The letters from a lost generation which I thought a nice touch. And then there is the recommendation from the Mail on Sunday "touching, angry, bewildered ... demands to be read". Okay, so maybe that is a little over the top, but given the subject matter, not a lot. And given the fact that all four of the soldiers who wrote the letters died, perhaps more accurate than hyperbole.

The third, and final, cover is different from the first two. The image doesn’t really tell you anything about the subject matter. Instead it is a detail from a work of art, a cartoon from 1797. Then again, it would probably be quite hard to come up with a work of art that gets across the subject matter of The Stories of English by David Crystal, as it is all about the English language, the different versions that evolved, and its history. So instead we get a colourful cartoon to attract our attention. And I suppose you could argue that the fact that the individuals in the cartoon are having a discussion means that it has slightly more relevance to the book than some others. Both the title and the author’s name are in a font that evokes a slightly old fashioned way of writing. And the quote from Philip Pullman reveals exactly what the book is about, the English language, and of course promotes the book as a "marvellous" one.

The primary purpose of most book covers must be to attract attention, and then to hopefully get the browsing individual to buy the book. Whether that actually happens depends on a lot more than the design, but I think that these three designs, in very different ways, do attract attention. And in a positive way. What about you? What is your favourite cover design?

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