‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, so the old adage goes. It’s a notion which seems, in this age of e-readers and online content, more pertinent than ever. On the one hand, our ebooks do not necessarily require covers at all, and although they may well still come with digitalized versions of cover art, those are gone and forgotten as soon as we swipe on to the first page of written text. Unlike with physical copies, the covers are not seen every time we open or close our books, every time we root around our handbags to find our purse, every time we wander past our bedside table. On the other hand, now that the procurement of physical books is a choice we make as readers as opposed to a necessary action that we must take if we wish to read, the physicality and appearance of books has become part of their selling point, and they must do all they can to attract us. Happily for us bookish types, this has resulted in a real trend over the last few years for what Waterstones are marketing as ‘Beautiful Books’; Penguin’s gorgeous Clothbound Classics , for example, or Faber’s lovely Collectors Editions.
I for one, whose love of reading pre-dates the digital era, find it difficult to imagine a version of myself who does not fetishize the physical book. My home is filled with books, and I like it that way; they help me feel safe, and I find them beautiful. What’s more, I happen to believe that you can tell an awful lot about a book by its cover. You can tell a little of what the book is about, yes, but more interestingly (to a geek like me, at least), you can tell much about how other readers view that book, and how marketers and publishers would like you to view it.
Take these editions of Jane Eyre, for example. These are marketing the novel as a serious literary classic. Both of these publishing lines – Penguin Classics and Norton Critical Editions – produce books which are clearly branded: the same basic format of cover design, the same colour scheme, the same fonts. It is as if the books are part of a set, or that they all have something in common which sets them apart from other books (e.g. they are canonical, they are classics). If you look closely at the Norton edition, you’ll see that it names an editor, emphasizing the book as an object of scholarly interest. And who is that woman gracing the Penguin edition? No, it’s not an artist’s impression of Jane; that is a portrait of author Charlotte Bronte. This edition is contextualizing the novel in its real life historical context, again reemphasizing its status as a classic work of literature worthy of study.
These, however, are a different story. I love the pulpy, completely historically inaccurate image on the left hand side edition, and its melodramatic description of Jane Eyre as ‘an immortal study of undying love’. Interestingly, this edition is ‘abridged from the author’s own words’. What is being sold here, then, is not so much a work of literature (the precise words are obviously not that important), but rather a story, a plot. In this manifestation, Jane Eyre is a racy, rip-roaring tale of love, sex, and betrayal. The bold red of the edition on the right hand side is also rather sensual, if more subtly so than that the left, and the image of a key (something which seems to feature on quite a few editions of Jane Eyre) reminds me of the fairytale Bluebeard, in which a young woman discovers her husband is keeping the slaughtered remains of his previous wives hidden in the attic (sound familiar…?). Keeping with the theme of sexuality, this cover also makes me think of 50 Shades of Grey, though perhaps it should be the other way round; after all, Jane’s red room was there long before Anastasia Steele’s.
The edition on the left here is the one which most closely resembles the quoted description shown in my own cover picture for this post, in which Joanna Russ derides the clone-like cover art of 1970s modern gothic novels. Of course, Jane Eyre is not a modern gothic novel – if anything, it is a sort of urtext, a source of inspiration for those later writers – but this edition clearly works to emphasise the novel’s connection to the genre. The spiky castle, the frightened girl, and the ghoulish font all combine to create a sense of the gothic. Meanwhile, the edition on the right could not be more different. With Jane dressed in pink, and leaning passively backwards (such a contrast to the Jane I remember!), this cover strikes me as a typical historical romance cover, although Jane’s outfit here is oddly ambiguous in terms of period; she looks positively Arthurian. This ambiguity seems to me to add to the general air of idealised romantic fantasy this cover provokes.
So, while one edition highlights Jane Eyre’s gothic elements, another emphasises its romantic ones. One edition advertises a classic work of serious literature, another, a sexy romp. Which, if any, do you think is most appropriate? Do you think its possible to show every aspect of a book in its cover? Do you judge books by their covers? I would love to hear from you!