Although I have managed to catch all of BBC 4’s series on the Beauty of Books and all of them have captured my imagination in one way another, the final installment; detailing the rise of the paperback book and the importance of cover design and the effect it has on the reader, was particularly great. So much so in fact that I watched it twice yesterday, even if it was just to show the bf what it looks like behind the scenes at the British Library. (Oh my god I think I would have a meltdown full stop, just look at the foyer!…and to think I’ve never been…)
The programme identifies the turning point, some time at the beginning of the 20th century, when book covers shifted from existing purely to hold the pages together (‘the bread of the sandwich’ is a metaphor that one expert so neatly uses) to something all together more dynamic. Any of you who are used to trawling second hand bookshops will no doubt have come across the colourful embossed Victorian covers that eventually morphed into the eye-catching and varied paperback books we see on the shelves today.
I often automatically comment on the cover of a book as a starting point for discussing the story that lies within. This is something that comes naturally as the aesthetic aspects of a book strongly affect any preconceptions I have, whether I like it or not. I often feel slightly shallow and guilty about this as there are books I haven’t touched because the cover has put me off. However, this feeling has been eradicated since listening to the views of experts who understand how the physical appearance of the book can really make or break your impressions, and how, if an artist/designer hits the nail on the head, a good cover can lend even more weight to a novel.
George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is used to chart the changing trends in book covers since it was first published in 1949, having had at least 15 different cover designs; from the classic old-school penguin model we all know and love to the innovative design above; clearly displaying the novel’s now iconic status by being confident enough to omit both the author’s name and the title from the front page. (Inspired, the bf picked up one of the more abstract designs seen in the programme today, despite the fact that we already own a couple of copies of the novel.)
One of the most interesting points I felt was the comparison made between the austere, post-war penguin novels and their glamorous American cousins, whose image makes Winston and Julia look like they should be on the red carpet rather than living under Big Brother’s harsh regime. I found the reasons for this (e.g. the prosperous and Hollywood-conscious society at the time being just one of them) particularly interesting as I often see these quite tacky, almost always unrealistic covers in book shops and dismiss them as bad – now I understand the historical context behind this style I feel much more informed and much more likely to pick them up as a result.
The second design studied is the hugely iconic cover for A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, a design that was apparently hastily done in time to re-release the book to coincide with the film and disliked by both the artist, and, rather sadly I think, Burgess himself. The famous ‘cog eye’ image was largely inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s vision and includes other details, such as a bowler hat and braces, that aren’t present in the book. The blank, inhuman face with the psychotic-looking eye is now so well-known that it joins the ranks of the Andy Warhol soup can and we can’t imagine popular culture without it. The symbolism represented by the ‘cog’ (i.e. in the machine) is superb and what a shame that Burgess disliked it enough to deface his copy of the novel, adding facial features to the image, perhaps to reclaim the book as his own and to make the main protagonist appear human after all.
As well as feeling that comments on book covers are now more than justified, my final moment of triumph came as, on the mention of e-readers and the like, all of the scholars/experts on the programme declared that, although convient and no doubt an impressive bit of technology, they would never ever replace the physical book, an object which, as far as I’m concerned, is one the most precious and powerful we can own (forgive me if I too am getting a little precious myself here.) If you’re travelling then great, take your e-reader, if you’re a student and have a lot of books to lug around during the day then great, use your kindle, but these machines can never replace the feeling of holding a book in your hands and turning the pages, of seeing all of those lovely volumes on the shelf in your library or living room. Most importantly…it is much safer to take your beloved paperback into the bath. Happy days!