Penguin Inks: Judging a Book by Its Cover ArtBooks, Featured, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on April 15, 2010 at 7:59 am
They—the ubiquitous they—tell us not to do it, and yet we do it anyway, don’t we? We judge books by their covers. The sentiment behind the old adage surely rings with the type of truth that speaks toward enlightened thinking—not just about books, mind you, but life in general. After all, the literary saying isn’t just to be taken literally but metaphorically as well, so that we don’t apply it only to the selecting of books but to the interactions we have with the very real characters in our everyday lives. We’re advised not to pre-judge the girl with the hair extensions, orange perma-tan, and bubblegum-pink lipstick to be a shallow embodiment of Plum Sykes’ Bergdorf Blondes. We’re forewarned that the girl updating her Etsy site on a MacBook at a non-Starbucks coffeehouse may not have actually ever read anything by Luc Sante—even if her so-generic-they’ve-gotta-be-from-American-Apparel clothes, horn-rimmed glasses, and bike chain coiled around her bag suggest that if anyone in the room has read something written by him it would be her. We’re supposed to look beyond these outward appearances, to take the time to get to know someone and find out what they’re really about. Hopefully we have some sensitivity and openness in meeting new people, but the truth is we make snap judgments—and in some ways, it’s a survival trait.
The Strand rests on the motto “18 miles of books.” Powell’s is the City of Books and calls itself “the largest used and new bookstore in the world.” Even if we winnow our search down to Classics, we still don’t have enough time to sort through every book on the rows and rows of shelves, stacked one on top of another on top of another. Therefore, at some point, if we haven’t researched and premeditated our purchase before coming to the bookstore, we’re going to have to pick a book based on some sort of variable.
A variable that is determined by the publisher could be anything from hardcover vs. paperback, font size to font type, and new introductions to study guides. Perhaps you’ll select the Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading edition of the Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald because it has a simple-yet-effective strap line calling out the fact that it includes “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in it, and you liked the movie so much you figure you’ll check out the source. Or, perhaps you’ll choose the Modern Library edition of A Tramp Abroad because it features an introduction by Dave Eggers, and so you figure maybe Mark Twain has become some sort of hipster icon. Penguin understands that probably one of the first variables a potential customer will notice is the cover imagery. They hope you’ll be seduced enough by newly commissioned imagery that you will, in fact, buy books based on their covers.
Penguin Publishing has a long-established tradition of inspired package design. You probably already subconsciously recognize a Penguin edition for its black spine that wraps around the book; the strip of white, branded on the front with the tuxedoed-waterfowl logo, that divides the front image from that same block of black; and the omnipresent orange type. Or maybe you own a dog-eared copy of On the Road, the title to Jack Kerouac’s book scrawled this time in reverse, black over an orange spine. This black-and-orange color combination has become synonymous not just with Halloween but with Penguin.
Where Penguin pushes the boundaries is with the cover imagery itself. While many beautiful, well-esteemed paintings have graced the covers of Penguin Classics, the publishing house has also taken risks, slapping Lowbrow Art onto their covers. Three to five years ago, we saw them take comic-book art, a genre once condemned as thoughtless doodles, to market their Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions. In 2005 Chris Ware’s graphic-novel-inspired cover art made Francois Voltaire’s Candide seem like a fantastic new satire, though in fact it was written in 1759. The American cartoonist has the distinction of creating the work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, that incited the United Kingdom to hand out its first award to a graphic novel (the Guardian First Book Award in 2001), which indicates a bit of irony: it is the validation of his autonomous work that allows him to promote someone else’s work. Then, in 2007, Joe Sacco, award-winning graphic novelist for Palestine, designed the cover for the re-release of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (though also notable for its new introduction by Robert Faggen and foreword by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk). It should also be pointed out that some publishers are not just using comic-book illustration to contemporize the covers of books but going to the extent of turning the Classics themselves into graphic novels, as in the case of Sterling Publishing’s Illustrated Classics series. Perhaps with the rise of Manga in general and Persepolis in specific, graphic novels have become commonplace—dare one say almost passé.
Leading the pack in book trends, Penguin has now turned to tattoo art for cover inspiration. Although PenguinClassics.com does not appear to be promoting the new books yet, several websites, including Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life, have reported that the publishing house will release its new Penguin Inks series this June. According to several sources, the six titles will be Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, cover illustrated by Bert Krak; J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, cover illustrated by C. C. Askew; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, cover illustrated by Tara McPherson; Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, cover illustrated by Chris Garver; Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, cover illustrated by Pepa Heller; and David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, cover illustrated by Duke Riley.
Apart from the selection of titles, the illustrators are a curious selection. Pepa Heller is an inspired choice for the New Zealand–set The Bone People since he is the owner of Bohemian Tattoo Arts in Tauranga, New Zealand. However, then why not keep with the regional theme and choose a British tattoo artist for the James Bond novel From Russia with Love, which is instead illustrated by Pittsburgh-raised Chris Garver of Miami Ink fame? More so, why select Tara McPherson for Bridget Jones’s Diary? She’s a fantastic artist. We all cheered when we saw her illustrations plastered on the walls of the title character of Juno. But she’s not a tattoo artist, even if she has, in fact, inspired many tattoos. Wouldn’t McPherson, who has created posters for everyone from Kings of Leon to The Decemberists, instead be the perfect cover artist for Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series, devoted to music?
In terms of the art itself, it redeems itself for being both true to the books’ subject matter and true to the artists’ personal aesthetic. These are high-quality works of art that are, as Penguin had hoped, eye-catching. However, it should be noted that these are illustrations done by (primarily) tattoo artists and not actual tattoos. Had Penguin really wanted to pushed the concept, perhaps they could have used their familiar black wrap-around with the white dividing stripe featuring the logo, and then used the top portion of the cover to show a close-up photograph of someone with the tattoo that the artists created.
All in all, Penguin Inks is a groundbreaking concept that helps to raise tattoo art to public consciousness and redefine notions of High and Low brow art. It furthermore, encourages readers to see literary Classics even from just a few years ago as still relevant to modern-day life. However, the Penguin Inks series could have benefited from better execution of the literary-tattoo concept.