Judging books by their covers

Books and Visual Arts discuss the role that cover art plays in our reading experiences.

Most of us have grown up hearing the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Yet, publishing houses have whole departments dedicated to designing effective, and often beautiful, cover art. Five contributors tell us how the covers of some of their favourite books have influenced their experience of the books.

Tess of the D’Ubervilles

On the cover of my copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, there is a watercolour painting: a detail from ‘Stonehenge’ by J. M. W. Turner. When I first picked up this book, I knew nothing about Tess or Hardy, only that I liked the artwork on the cover. Having read the novel multiple times, it is still the visual element that I love the most, which is present not just on the book’s cover, but also in Hardy’s writing, and especially in the vivid descriptions of his beloved Wessex landscapes. Hardy had the ability to write endlessly (and compellingly) about fields, cows, sheep, sunrises and sunsets, all with the eye of a poet and artist.

Hardy himself held a lifelong fascination with the visual arts

As A. Alvarez explains in his introduction to the novel, Hardy was able to suffuse such descriptions with a certain ‘luminosity’ not unlike the atmospheric glow of Turner’s late paintings. Hardy himself held a lifelong fascination with the visual arts, and wrote admiringly of Turner in his notebooks. Turner’s influence is clear to see in Hardy’s writing, and I have never before or since been so delighted to discover such harmony between book and cover, or art and literature.

The Secret History

When bookshops were the only place to buy literature, cover art had more of an impact on the likelihood of a book being read that it does currently. With a large proportion of books being read online or listened to as an audiobook, is cover art as necessary as it was in the past? Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is arguably proof that cover art is less important than a book’s content, having a minimalist cover, with the author’s name in a larger font than the book’s title, and a black background. Despite its minimalistic cover art and being Tartt’s debut novel, the book has been extremely successful.

A contribution to the novel’s intriguing nature

Although the cover seems simplistic, it can be interpreted as a representation of the novel’s themes. Opening with the admission of a murder, the characters live in darkness and isolation, desperately trying to stay under the radar. A detective story at its heart, the cover art can be seen as a contribution to the novel’s intriguing nature, and its ‘can’t put down’ quality, as it gives nothing away. Judging books by their covers can limit readers, and Tartt’s brilliant novel does not need extravagant cover art to intrigue readers, as her language does it for her.

The Handmaid’s Tale

As the first thing the reader sees, the cover has an arguably crucial role in shaping perceptions of a particular book. It is understandable therefore, that visual elements of a book are granted importance by publishers and readers alike.

In print for over 30 years, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has seen a variety of different book covers. Whilst most feature the cloaked figure of an anonymous handmaid, it is the 2017 Vintage Classics edition that is the most striking. Here, the cover is used as an opportunity to showcase the key aspects of the plot, monochrome in colour except for a pop of red. Designed as part of a series by Israeli graphic designer Noma Bar, this edition was published alongside other dystopian classics, notably 1984 and Brave New World. All three covers showcase the same simplistic graphic style, characterised by bold shapes and a black background. The designer has even gone to the length of colouring the edge of the pages red, adding to the overall dramatic look.

Covers can make or break a book when it comes to first impressions.

It may be common to preach that books should not be judged by their covers, yet it must be acknowledged that they can make or break a book when it comes to first impressions.

Breasts and Eggs

The cover is what initially drew me to Breasts and Eggs. Walking into the Durham Waterstones in the middle of a reading slump, I was prepared for anything to draw my attention. And there, on the shelf, sat this gorgeous cover. Stunningly simplistic, it shows a young girl below a sea of darkness. Is this young girl drowning? Why is it called Breasts and Eggs? Is that a Mary Quain bob in 2020?!  All these questions drew me to this wonderfully complex novel – and I have no regrets whatsoever.

An expanded version of a novella of the same name, Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs centres three women, their individual difficulties with womanhood, and the strained relationships between them. The cover displays Midoriko, the youngest of the three. She fears the natural processes of her changing body, as any uneducated 12-year old would. Furthermore, her relationship with her reluctantly-aging hostess mother becomes so strenuous that it drives Midoriko to mutism. With this knowledge, it is no wonder that she is drowning in her worries, and I believe the minimalistic cover truly captures that sentiment.

A beautiful book cover is often an indicator of an equally beautiful book

Whoever asserted that books should not be judged by their covers clearly knew little about literary production. Book covers provide an excellent indication of a publisher’s estimation and commitment to a text. The production of a good cover comes at price; hence publishers are more likely to invest in cover art when they are confident in the text’s ability to compensate for its artistic expenses. In short, a beautiful book cover is often an indicator of an equally beautiful book. Not always, but often enough to make cover judging a beneficial practice.

Perhaps this is merely an indication of my own superficiality, but I often find myself drawn to the books with the best covers. The beauty of Aino-Maija Metsola’s cover art, for instance, persuaded me to purchase my first ever Virginia Woolf novel, leading me to discover my all-time favourite author. Woolf herself seems to have held cover art in high esteem, agonising over the prints her sister produced for the first editions of her published works. Metola’s covers capture the fluid and illusive nature of Woolf’s works, mirroring the abstract and atmospheric qualities in her writing. Book covers like Metola’s expound upon the blurb, communicating the qualities of a book that cannot be described in words. Consequently, book covers require careful consideration and are certainly worth judging.


Images: Jasmine Cash, Honour Douglas, Rhiannon Green, and

One thought on “Judging books by their covers

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