You CAN Tell a Book By its Cover

By Poison Ivy,

My library reading group (it’s practically a law that women must join one) just read a classic tale of Norwegian pioneers of the late 19th century in the Dakota prairie, Giants in the Earth, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag. It was on a lifetime list of important books to read that I’d had knocking around in my files since high school. This book was published in America in 1927, after Rolvaag, a university professor in Minnesota, oversaw its translation from the Norwegian in which he originally wrote it. I talked the group into reading it. Since this book was so antique, the more squeamish members, the ones who won’t read any sex or violence, were willing. They knew there would be nothing in so old a book to offend their sensibilities. Eighty years old! But what beautiful prose.

All our copies were old, too, because the book is seldom read anymore even though it is a classic. (Willa Cather’s similar classics get more reprinting, so it’s possible to find new printings of O Pioneers! and My Antonia.) Turns out having a new printing is a significant issue. One lady in our group refused to read the selection because she did not like the antique typeface (the font) and the overall old-fashioned look to the book. This lady wouldn’t read a book only because of how it looked. How weird is that? Yet she’s the most daring reader in our group, who thinks nothing of reading all kinds of tough modern nonfiction as well as fiction. She hasn’t suggested a sugarcoated book for us to read yet. But she said this book looked too much like something one is forced to read in high school, in that it had a library binding, the kind put on a book that is going to get a lot of wear over many years.

What the heck does this have to do with romance, you wonder? Well, a while back I talked about buying books (or borrowing them from the library) because their covers appealed. I don’t think I had considered just how often we turn away from books because their covers repel us. Or the presentation of their insides.

For instance, not being an historical romance fan, I pass right over any cover that purports to be one. Especially covers that feature a great sweep of cloth and flesh, but don’t pin down the historical era or the country precisely. These vague, swashbuckling covers strike me as mere eye candy for women. These covers signal bold, warlike heroes, and highly girly, self-willed heroines of olden days. A clash of egos reverberates through hundreds of pages of breathless adventure and passion. These books are catnip to many romance readers. Alas, they leave me totally cold. A cover art appearance of the famous Italian model, Fabio, never meant anything to me. So these covers repel me. I don’t even look at them closely. Sure, some have pirate ships in the background and others have medieval castles, and still others have the hero Not Wearing Any Clothes. But I just don’t care.

When certain mainstream romance novels started having covers with just a flower or two on them, or a tasteful string of pearls, instead of a man and woman embracing, I also steered clear. Not my kind of book, and the covers, so similar in style to each other, were once again plainly telling me that the books inside were all of the same ilk.

Meanwhile, covers with crude folk art drawings signal a different kind of read altogether, a more mainstream story. It’s often a small town setting with a plucky tale of a young girl with no education who finds herself a brand new family. A lot of what are called Oprah books have covers like that. I stay far from them, although the reading group has required me to at least give them a try. Life of Pi (by Yann Martel) had this kind of cover although it has nothing to do with a small town or a plucky young girl. But it’s definitely a mainstream read. (I found it to be more like a comic book story than anything else; I guess magic realism and comics are two sides of the same coin.)

I’ve heard romance readers disparage the already classic chick lit style of retro cover art (those stick-figure women wearing stilettos), but it’s certainly recognizable. The pastel backgrounds are a tipoff, too. A number of humor books have come out lately with similarly styled covers, obviously aimed at the same demographic that buys chick lit. Well, if it’s not your thing, it’s easy enough to recognize.

And what about Nazi thrillers? Those swastikas on the cover are a specific promise about what’s inside. Likewise, very dark, usually black covers with spilled blood on them, or a partial face of a man with eerie, glaring eyes. No serial killer stories for me, thanks, and these covers tell potential readers quite clearly that there is violence and nastiness inside. Murder mysteries have a whole bag of tricks to signal to readers whether the story is a cozy, or a police procedural, or a gritty tale of urban anomie, or even a period piece taking place in the 1920s at some ritzy house party. It’s all there on the cover. Big houses, murder weapons, mean streets, and art deco jewelry are common representations.

And what about the book itself? Aside from the reading club lady, I have a friend whose eyesight is very poor, so reading anything but a hardcover book with relatively large type is difficult. He doesn’t even look at the mass market paperback racks. I know other people who never glance at the hardcover books in a store, knowing that they cannot afford to spend three times the cost of one paperback just to get one book. So they aren’t even looking at the covers, just the book format. Similarly, classic children’s stories such as A Wrinkle in Time are often packaged in two formats, the chapter book style for younger readers (wide pages, thin spine), and as a mass market paperback for slightly older readers. It has been said that chick lit buyers don’t want to be seen with mass market paperbacks in their hands, hence the standard that chick lit is usually in trade paperback size. So format really does mean something to readers.

Of course after eighty years, I have no clue how Giants in the Earth first was presented, other than knowing that in 1927, dust jackets on hardcover books were just that, paper jackets to keep the leather bound books from dust. Art on such covers was highly optional; some had it, and some did not. I do know that this book (and I read a first edition, but with a library binding) had no interior illustrations, and no frontispiece. But there was an endcover page with the outline of a man pushing a plow…