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Cover Up 

The lure of the surface and the rise of the book jacket

Wednesday, Nov 30 2005
The other night on Stacked (oh please, you know you're curious) the bookstore employee played by Pamela Anderson traded insults in Yiddish with a formerly ugly old friend played by Jenny McCarthy. This was after the two characters felt each other up for a few minutes, testing the buoyancy of each other's breast implants.

What, you ask, does this have to do with my column? I could say I just wanted to type the words "the bookstore employee played by Pamela Anderson," but that's merely the one-liner behind the show. Apparently the message of the episode (yes, it had a message) was an echo of the cliché that comes up whenever we talk about the outsides of books, the one about not judging, etc., etc. If Anderson's character, named Skyler, were a book, for example, we might assume -- perhaps based on her bed-head hair, revealing clothes, and enormous jugs -- that she'd be a shallow, amateurish novella, Penthouse Forum between endpapers. But Skyler has feelings, you see; she's closer to a novel ... maybe even one written by, I don't know, Pamela Anderson, called, say, Star Struck, and beginning with the line, "Why do my nipples hurt?" Just a thought.

The truth is that we often judge books -- and people -- by their covers, and it's time to retire that old saw. As Oscar Wilde is said to have quipped, "Only superficial people don't judge by appearances."

In fact, we're having a bit of a facade moment right now, what with the release of By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (recently reviewed by John Updike in the New Yorker) and Chip Kidd: Work: 1986-2005: Book One, a monograph on perhaps the country's only famous jacket designer (with an introduction by Updike, several of whose covers were designed by Kidd). Locally, there's a small show of these odd gems, the AIGA's annual "50 Books, 50 Covers" exhibit at the San Francisco Center for the Book (, which includes a couple of designs by Kidd. (Updike is not involved.)

Admitting that you like book covers as much as you like what's between them seems like it should be embarrassing, as if you're confessing that you like the fizz as much as the soda, or perhaps the glass it came in. They're just ads, right? Not exactly. As Kidd writes, "Book jackets do not sell books. ... There are many, many factors in the success (or failure) of a book, and the jacket is just a small part of it." And as Updike points out in his review of By Its Cover, "In the end, nobody buys a book jacket." A fine cover can help sell a crappy book, and a crappy cover can help kill a fine book, but in the end the title lives or dies for reasons that can't be quantified.

The writer Orhan Pamuk explains in Chip Kidd the real draw of these small treasures: "[B]ook covers are like people's faces: either they remind us of a lost happiness or they promise a blissful world we have yet to explore. That is why we gaze at book covers as passionately as we do faces." Poring over this volume, in particular, made me want to study graphic design all over again, and I think it would make anyone look more closely at the volumes on his shelves. Kidd comes across as funny, smart, ardent, and remarkably talented, and his work really can be described, as author Henry Petroski does, as "well-tailored masterpieces of graphic art."

As Chip Kidd and the "50 Books, 50 Covers" show prove, jackets have evolved into an art form of their own, worthy of careful examination. The exhibit was particularly entertaining for me because on the day I went to see it, the SFCB was mobbed by about 30 first-, second-, and third-graders from a school in Livermore. They camped out on the floor, paging through Star Wars Chronicles, an oversized tome about movie collectibles -- while ignoring two nearby titles, The Striptease Kit and The Kama Sutra Journal. One girl stood gazing at a wall of covers from the Benetton communications journal Fabrica. "What do you think?" I asked her. "Weird," she replied, emphatically and appreciatively.

Certain trends in cover design stand out in this show -- oddly disturbing photographs, a mix of antique images and modern fonts, cutouts, optical illusions, vintage printing techniques, a mad variety of typefaces on a single page, stamping. The McSweeney's crew uses several of these methods in the examples here, often to beautiful effect: Chris Ware's jacket for Issue 13 is like a classic newspaper comics page folded ingeniously in on itself, and Dave Eggers wraps his collection of stories, How We Are Hungry, in a luscious black leathery material embossed with an old-fashioned organic pattern. On a volume called Hugo Boss Prize 2004, the title appears as an amalgamation of tiny mirrored bubbles that somehow form words. Kidd's jacket for Petroski's Pushing the Limits uses a clever trompe l'oeil bulge to make its point.

One fad I particularly decry, however, is the design of a book cover with no type on it at all. In order to figure out the title of one such example (among a handful included in "50 Books") -- a stark, disturbing image of a white plate with a black hair curling at its edge -- I had to use the process of elimination, going through the 49 others and checking them off one by one. (It turned out to be, duh, Dish: International Design for the Home.) As Updike writes in his New Yorker review of By Its Cover, such a blank design "sends a subliminal message of contempt for the written word, the product being packaged."

Updike's quote points up what I truly love about good book covers: the implied adoration of the story inside. Just as a person can be said to have "let herself go" by stepping out of the house in sweat pants and unwashed hair, so a book seems diminished when its cover is less than inspired. Conversely, when a jacket is haunting, alluring, mesmerizing, brainy -- as so many of Chip Kidd's and several in the "50 Books" show are -- I sense that the text demanded it. There's no need for a metaphorical dye or boob job. The designer has read the work, tested its heft, and rendered it ... buoyant.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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