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This blog was originally posted on January 22, 2015.
Perhaps someday books will no longer have covers, but until then the physical packaging by which a book is presented to the world remains an interesting, if rather specialized, topic for semiotic exploration.
Some book covers are famous—like the original artwork for The Great Gatsby, which actually influenced Fitzgerald’s composition of his novel. Others are notorious, like those that adorn the covers of Harlequin Romances. Sometimes covers are designed simply to let the reader know what to expect, but more often they are marketing devices intended to appeal to a reader’s interests, curiosity, aesthetic tastes, or desires.
With the publication of the eighth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I thought I’d describe an insider’s view of some book covers. I have fifteen now, beginning with a book published in 1988 called Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age. It’s the only cover I had much of a role in designing. The book jacket is a deep blue, with large block serif lettering on the front, presenting the title in a kind of gold/brass color, and my name in white. I was driving for a “classic” effect: restrained but (I hope) elegant.
I had no say whatsoever in the covers of my next book. Also first published in 1988, The Signs of Our Time has three different covers: the first for the hardcover edition, the second for the paperback reprint, and the third for a Japanese translation. The hardcover’s dust jacket is an eye-catching magenta, with large white block letters for the title. A band of square images bisects the cover about two thirds of the way down, containing artist’s renderings of the Eifel Tower, Andy Warhol, a teddy bear, an apple, and a “no littering” sign. Each of these images is a visual allusion to a semiotic topic taken up in the book, thus indirectly conveying something of its contents. While a lot blander in blue with yellow lettering, and featuring a circle of images surrounding a human eye looking out at them, the paperback cover attempts something like that of the hardcover jacket, though I do not like it much.
The Japanese translation, for its part, is rather unusual to American eyes. A pocket-sized paperback with a dust jacket, it presents a white cover with Japanese characters in black, while across the bottom are the images of three yellow cheetahs in running stride. The characters present a new title for the book (The True Face of America: The Mosaic Pattern Which Can Be Seen in the Culture)—clearly something for Japanese readers curious about America—but I don’t know what the cheetahs signify. I rather like the cover as a whole, but it really doesn’t convey much at all about the book’s contents.
This takes me to the covers for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. Finding good covers for each edition of this book has always been a lot harder than Sonia and I expected. We’ve never cottoned to covers with celebrity faces on them, and have always wanted something artistic but not garish. A book on popular culture would seem to demand a Pop Art cover, of course, but a lot of Pop Art is either garish or rather obscene. Our editor for the first two editions, Steve Scipione, twice hit pay dirt in the Pop Art vein, however, by finding two different paintings by Tom Wesselmann. The first edition was represented by Still Life #31, which features an image of everyday life that includes a television set, a mountain landscape as seen through a kitchen window, a still-life table setting, and a portrait of George Washington hanging on the kitchen wall. The second edition sported Wessselmann’s Still Life no. 28, which substitutes an image of Abraham Lincoln for Washington, and a green color theme for the grey-blue theme of Still Life #31, but which is otherwise quite similar to #31. We thought we were in business for the life of the book until we discovered that there are only two Wesselmann paintings in this vein, and that while there are plenty of other Wesselmanns out there, they aren’t for us.
We’ve never been able to find any other Pop Art that works for us, so every cover of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has taken a lot of work. The art department at Bedford/St. Martin’s introduced a square block, reminiscent of a Rubic’s Cube, filled with square images of common items from everyday life for the fourth edition. And ever since then, the basic design theme for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has been one including squarish rows of ordinary objects intended to evoke the world of everyday life. While I shudder to use the word, that appears to be the “brand” image that now identifies the book, and that, too, is part of its significance.
Simon Evans, an artist based in England but born in America, has provided the cover for the eighth edition of the book. An artwork called “Everything I Have,” containing some 34 horizontal rows of tiny images of the artist’s personal possessions (everyday items like blue jeans and kitchen ware, for instance) on an off-white background, takes up the entire book cover, with the exception of blocks for the book title and authors’ names. Expressing a kind of understated grunge aesthetic, it appeals to us both thematically and aesthetically.
And this, perhaps, takes me to the final semiotic significance of book covers. A printed book can also be something of an objet d’art, with each element, beginning with the cover, designed for aesthetic effect. I’ve always valued that, but should the e-text ever completely replace the printed book, I won’t complain. As the Lorax would say, the digital book is better for the trees.
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