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It is a truth universally acknowledged…

December 14, 2011

…that a good cover can help a book get off the shelves and into the home of a reader. As much as we try not to judge appearances, it’s awfully difficult to go through the many rows of books in a store without being drawn to the aesthetically pleasing. Since I’ve been in a Jane Austen-y mood, and book cover design seems to be a topic that people find interesting (according to my WordPress Dashboard), I thought I’d pander to my own fancy and the will of the Google searchers, and do a little feature on the best and worst treatments of Ms. Austen’s works here. I have the plain Barnes & Noble Classics editions of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, the kind with generic classic paintings on the front. I’d love to have some of the prettier editions featured below!

A little background

Reading and writing played an important part of Jane Austen’s life from an early age. She collected some of her own childhood works, written sometime between the ages of 12 and 18, in what is now known as Juvenilia. The satire in these stories show that even at a young age, she had a good time poking fun at the culture of her time. Her first sophisticated early work was Lady Susan, a dark story that stands apart from her other novels. After that came Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice), and Susan (Northanger Abbey). None of these works were published until over a decade after they she wrote them, beginning with Sense and Sensibility in 1811. As far as writers go, she was very productive throughout the majority of her life. Unfortunately, due to her family’s tenuous financial circumstances and illness in the last year of her life, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were not published until after her death in 1817. It was also not until this time that Jane Austen’s identity as the author was revealed to readers. It’s been a while since my last bit of research into Austen’s life, so this was a nice refresher for me. I’d completely forgotten about her earliest works. Reading about her death makes me quite sad, but I am glad we have all her work available to us.

A lovely collection of Austen's novels published by Richard Bentley in 1833. They were sold at a 2010 auction for 3,360 pounds (about $5,237). I would have paid a lot more for these babies!

The Good

1.Coralie Bickford-Smith
Bickford-Smith is the senior cover designer for Penguin Books, so I have to like her. Penguin classic covers are almost always fabulous, and hers are no exception. She designed clothbound covers for a number of classics, including the works of Dickens, the Brontës, Carroll, Shakespeare, and of course Austen. She uses lovely patterns on these clothbound hard covers with a clean, elegant, and simple design. I love the muted colors.

2.Ruben Toledo
The debonair Toledo is an artist in New York who has had illustrations published in The New Yorker, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times. He’s also done work for retail, CD covers, etc. The only Austen book he’s done is Pride and Prejudice, and he’s also done The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Dracula.

3.Jessica Hische
It took a mild amount of digging to find out who designed the beautiful Barnes & Noble leatherbound classic series. The fabulous Ms. Hische is a designer and illustrator whose has created quirky and typographically enchanting works for everything from GQ to Golf Digest to Target to Tiffany & Co. to NY Magazine to Maryland SPCA to O magazine to…well, you get it. Here are her gorgeous leatherbound Austens designed for Barnes & Noble.


4.Jillian Tamaki
I wasn’t sure if I liked this one on first sight, but when I saw the work put into it, I had to appreciate it. Tamaki is an illustrator and cartoonist who has done work for pretty much every major publication you can think of. This particular project was for Penguin, and is unique in that she embroidered three book covers, including Emma. She also did The Secret Garden and Black Beauty. The joyful, bright colors and stitchiness make me wish I’ve read Emma, and isn’t that the point? Of course, every individual book isn’t hand-stitched, but according to Tamaki’s blog, the books are printed using a “sculptural-embossing technique that will emphasize the stitches.”

The full cover spread

Tomaki working on Emma. I nabbed this photo from her blog. Click to visit her there.

The Bad

1.

With what I can only describe as Disney-Princess-Barbie-style ugliness, Penguin has just lost a lot of respect from me. From the seemly subhuman plastic faces to the creepy smile on Emma’s face, to the way the characters just kind of fade into the background, these covers amaze me. I don’t know whether I should look away in terror or delve deeper in search of the answer to my pressing question: Why? Why do this to perfectly good books? Granted, Penguin’s also bird-themed children’s book publisher, Puffin, published them, so they’re aimed at younger audiences, whom I suppose should be literate. But at what cost? Children can appreciate good design, too!

2.Greetings from Spain

As for this…either Lizzy has hypothermia or this is Spain’s spoof of the novel, aptly titled “Pride and Poltergeists.”

3.

Aside from what is aesthetically bad, classics tend to suffer from design that depends on generic images, such as those below.

Sure, some of the books end in everyone getting happily married, but if that’s all you got from it, I think you need to try out some books at a lower reading level.

4.Inspired by Vampires

The success of Stephenie Meyer’s books has certainly influenced today’s young adult books, but does it have to change the perception classics as well? The above image (Tribeca Books) references modern young adult style, but it really has nothing to do with Persuasion. In a discussion of modern treatments of Jane Eyre, a fellow blogger noted:

“… as a designer and observer it pains me to see a disregard for the content within on book cover designs, which could make a potentially iconic work into just another meaningless, dispensable thing. I’ve always aimed to follow the dictum that content dictates style and not vice versa.”

I can’t agree more. Check out her blog to see some more egregious young-adulty book designs. But this does lead to what is possibly my favorite bad cover…

Not only does it LOOK like New Moon, but for those of you who don’t read Spanish, the text on the bottom right says, “Bella and Edward’s favorite books.” Now, I haven’t read Meyer’s books, so this claim could be true…or some Spanish publisher could be making up stuff to get these dusty old classics off the shelves. But you know, Edward and Bella’s story is pretty much the same as Elizabeth and Darcy. Right?

The…comics?

I don’t know how I feel about this. Actually, that’s not true, because at first glance I hate it. I love Austen, I love certain graphic novels…I’m not liking the combination. I mean, I love both peanut butter and eggplant parmesan, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna go put them together. These comics, adapted by Nancy Butler and published by Marvel, have gotten fairly decent reviews. My initial reaction is, how can one stay true to Austen while limiting her words to small squares of exposition and bubbles of dialogue? The beauty of Jane Austen’s work is in the voice. Reviewers have expressed issues with the art style of Pride and Prejudice in particular. Here are samples of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:

Sense and Sensibility

Pride and Prejudice

The bit of Pride and Prejudice especially makes me feel that I would loathe the comic as a whole. Just look at the sisters. They look like comic book porn stars that got lost and accidentally wound up in Hertfordshire. One reviewer wrote that the art style can’t decide whether to be modern or 19th century, and I can see that conflict in the first couple pages. Plus, it looks nothing like the cover, which I find odd. Granted, the style of Northanger Abbey looks pretty cool, but I haven’t read the original, so I can’t properly judge it. If I see these in a book store, I’ll sit and test them out.

***

Whether or not I like how it’s presented, Jane Austen’s work has persisted some 200 years, and not for nothing. She was an amazing writer, both in her own time and ours. Her satire and comic perceptions of society remain relevant, and have found ways to impact generation after generation. The novels, stories, and letters she left for us to enjoy will always remain timeless.

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