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Never judge a book by its cover, as the old saying goes. Well, I’ve been thinking a bit about book covers recently. It’s partly down to my last blog with all the many ways to turn a book into a must-have accessory. It doesn’t matter about the contents – just scoop out the middle and turn it into a bag or lampshade.
The other reason my thoughts turned to all things covers is that last week, at a local book fair, I bought one of those old-fashioned paperback Penguins, one of those lovely ones with the orange-white covers in three horizontal bands. The first Penguin paperbacks only appeared in the summer of 1935 and for 6 old pence, you had quality fiction in a relatively sturdy well-bound book. The colour-coded books (orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for mystery and crime) were a great success and, within a couple of years, over 3 million Penguin paperbacks had been sold.
The book I bought was a collection of short stories by William Saroyan: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Now, I didn’t know much about the author – you see, I really was tempted by the cover alone – beyond that he was American. When I arrived home, I turned to read the back cover, expecting to find a biography of the writer, a synopsis of the book or some recommendations from other authors. Instead of which, I was quite surprised to find the whole of it taken up with an advert for Army Club – The Front-Line Cigarette. Seeing as this particular book was reprinted in November 1939, the advert was illustrated with a rakish-looking officer, complete with monocle, a fine moustache and with his greatcoat collar turned up – you probably know the type! According to the advert, “this is the cigarette for the fellow with a full-size man’s job to do”.
If anything, I believe that covers have become more important than ever for books. This is because the way a lot of us buy books has changed. Ten years ago, when we visited a bookshop (new or second-hand), most of the books were lined up on shelves, with only the spines visible. A few books may be turned with their fronts facing us and there were usually tables of 3 for 2 offers near the door or till, with covers upwards to tempt us. But, as a percentage of books for sale, we tended to see very few covers as we walked in. Now though, with more books being bought online, I see nothing but covers and as I scan through webpage after webpage, I often succumb to the temptation to buy more than I expected.
Some of my favourite covers are those featured in the Aubrey-Maturin series of books, written by Patrick O’Brian. Now, I’m not a great reader of sea adventures set in Napoleonic times but I was tempted to take the plunge after recently seeing Russell Crowe’s robust performance in the 2003 film, Master and Commander. Having now read the book, I still don’t know my mizzen topgallant staysail from my flying jib, but, to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. There’s action aplenty, the writing is often quite beautiful and the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, whose relationship is central to the book (and series) are wonderfully depicted. There are 20 books in the series, the first, Master and Commander, was written in 1970, with the final one, Blue at the Mizzen, written in 1999, a year before O’Brian’s death. I’ll admit to having bought a few more recently, now on my shelves and ready to read on those long winter evenings. But it’s still the covers that first tempted me. Painted by Geoff Hunt, a fine maritime painter and Past-President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, these pictures perfectly complement the books. Apparently, if like me, you admire them, you can even buy prints on www.artmarine.co.uk.
In contrast, however, there is a set of prints I won’t be thinking of purchasing. That’s not to say the covers on Simon Morden’s Petrovitch series (Equations of Life, Theories of Flight, Degrees of Freedom) aren’t striking because they certainly are. Again, the covers alone make me want to investigate the books, science fiction thrillers set in a post-apocalyptic London. I think I’d just feel sorry for the person sitting opposite me on the train!