Publishers put considerable effort into a book’s front cover. If you’re shopping online, the cover becomes the image that gives you a first impression, the image that influences whether you purchase the literary product, the image that scares you away. It shapes your expectations about what’s inside and it gives you a lifetime of aesthetic pleasure as it sits in prominent display on your bookshelf for years after you spend the relatively few hours reading it.
Once the book goes on your shelf, the spine becomes the only visible part. If you’re in a library or one of the ever-declining number of brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s also the spine that first announces and advertises a book’s existence and contents. (Yeah, I know. A few books are displayed face-up on tables. However, those titles tend towards “The Philosophical Meditations of Justin Bieber” and similar drivel.) And it’s the spine that announces your intelligence to all guests, unless of course you only bought the books to look smart. In that case, the spines announce your good taste until some incredulous fiend asks you about them.
In my case, the book spines broadcast my superior intelligence and I’d like to share some details with you.
As you can see, the spines range from purely functional to highly decorative to advertorial to none of the above. Derek Walcott’s publisher (you can’t miss its presence on the spine) decided to go with dull green and huge lettering for its spine. You can’t miss that spine on a shelf and you’ll never forget who published it, if you can figure out whether Omeros or Noonday is the publisher. “Derek Walcott” is obviously the title, the same way Mr. Copperfield wrote a book called “Charles Dickens.”
Penguin Classics went in the opposite direction on its spine for “Monkey.” We get tiny print for all text and a small picture for the publisher’s logo. You could easily miss this title on the shelf, but I guess they decided that their “classics” line needed to look more distinguished and illegible to the low-eyesight crowd than “Year of the Hare,” which features a cute little bunny. For a book called “Monkey,” how hard would it have been to make that spine stand out like “Hare” does? Monkeys are cute too, especially wise playful monkeys like the book’s protagonist. Ironically, the front cover of “Monkey” features the monkey while the hare is reduced to a minor detail on its front cover. I don’t get it. Why pull on people’s animal-loving heartstrings on the spine or cover, but not both? Methinks those publishing executives need to improve their marketing techniques.
“My Name is Red,” subject of a recent post, goes even further with the ornamentation while giving viewers a title they don’t have to tilt their heads to read. Considering the book’s contents, the pictorial element couldn’t be avoided and my shelf is happy to house a work of art. I wish “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” had similarly managed to recapture the interesting graphic design from its front cover.
Instead, the spine gives us blah and undersize typeface that doesn’t even fit. So yeah, that was the publisher’s error, not an issue with my cropping… but thank you for assuming I wasn’t at fault. Quit snickering.
And then there’s the Borges. Nice and colorful like a neon sign. And since the publisher and/or translator decided not to render the book’s title in English, having it on my shelf makes me look like I know Spanish. Excellent! I support anything that inflates the specter of superior intelligence I can wave over others.
That means the boring and functional “Blind Owl” spine gets lost in the crowd. That’s a shame because the novel bursts with imagery. On the other hand, such a narrow book spine might not display the cover’s ornamental font effectively.
With that font on the spine, I’d expect it to be as legible as “The” and “and” on “The Master and Margarita.” That would be unfortunate because, in the case of “The Master and Margarita,” the spine looks like it’s for a bartender’s guide to excellence in Mexican beverages.
That said, I think it’s time for me to go master a margarita. Stay thirsty for knowledge, my friends.