Judging the National Book Award Shortlisters By Their Covers
Who Would Win if the Prize Was For Best Cover?
Book covers have always had to work hard to attract potential readers, but that seems especially so nowadays, when many of us encounter them solely as thumbnail images on a screen. They very quickly have to attract our attention and make an impression, while also indicating categorical information like genre. Blurbs may help in this process, but first and foremost there’s a visual response, a pre-literary reaction to the graphic design, color palette, even the font selection. Forget the first page, the story begins on the cover, and publishers, authors, and designers put a lot of thought into getting their look and feel just right.
To get a better understanding of their depth, I decided to take a close look at the cream of this year’s crop: the covers of the 2015 National Book Award finalists. And to do so, I turned to color and design expert Jude Stewart for help. In ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (Bloomsbury, 2013), Stewart unpacked the many meanings and historical associations given to the seven colors of the rainbow, plus popular secondary shades like pink and brown. Her latest, Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns, just out from Bloomsbury, takes a deep dive into the cultural history of patterns, from gingham to paisley. Like a graphic design psychoanalyst, Stewart has, over the course of her intense research for these projects, plumbed both the conscious and subconscious associations we bring to graphic art. Here she decodes the secret messages buried in the covers of these newly acclaimed books.
“In greeting cards they say that it’s the design that makes you pick up the card, but it’s what inside the card that makes you buy it,” Stewart told me. “That basic idea is at play in book covers as well. They want to stand out, and also entice you to open them up.”
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Speigel & Grau)
This is such a fantastic book with a rich history; the title comes from a poem by Richard Wright, and the book is inspired by the work of James Baldwin. There are only three colors here: a punchy shade of red, and the black and white, which dominate. Obviously that color palette has racial significance, but there’s something deeper at work, beyond our specific cultural references. Linguists have studied how color terms enter languages, because not all languages have the same number of color terms. When languages do give names to colors, the first are always black, white, and red. These are the building blocks of color, from a linguistic point of view. What’s more, red is a universal signifier for blood, and the associations of blood are diverse—it can symbolize courage, and love, or, if spilled, pain. So this cover is working with the most basic human palette, and because of that it inspires a very visceral reaction.
The newsprint that peeks off the side is also very evocative. It reminds me of how newspapers are a rough draft for history. The papers purport to tell the truth, though subsequent decades may find their stories incorrect or at least incomplete. There’s a sense that Coates’s book is looking between the lines to read an alternate history, a history that has not been reported sufficiently in print before. The exclamation point at the top really jumps out at me too, it makes me take note, as if this is hot off the press, a brand new edition, you can’t miss it! Even though you see bold uses of typeface on some of the other covers, and a small number of colors, this cover strikes me as powerful and unique even among this strong group.
· Ta-Nehisi Coates contemplates the history of American plunder as he walks the streets of Chicago.
· Zinzi Clemmons, on how to love Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the book that has become the #BlackLivesMatter bible.
· Read Between the World and Me in 10 quotes.
Hold Still, Sally Mann (Little, Brown)
This is a photographic memoir, and I assume that’s the author on the cover. Similar to the Coates cover, there’s a story being told here, a story that is in part about what’s not being told. Today, we understand that photography is both truth and un-truth; it can depict a shaped and manipulated reality instead of an unfiltered, fully honest view of the world. We know about Photoshop, and the way that digital tools can alter an image, sometimes in very subtle ways, making it unreal. A photo that’s been drained of color like this foregrounds the photographer’s manipulative hand; it reminds the viewers of the ambivalent nature of the medium as a document of “truth.”
On the other hand, black and white images often seem more serious than colored ones. This is a notion that goes back to Renaissance and Baroque Italy, when artists debated colore versus disegno, the tension between color and design or form. Some artists and scholars believed that color lied, that it’s a hotly emotional, distorting element. They considered forms in black and white to be more true and factual, somehow an inarguable representation of the world. Their debate, I think, still lies buried in our consciousness. Important photographs, even contemporary ones, are often shot in back and white. So the lack of color on the cover also speaks to how this memoir is going to bring forth truths that are of a serious, stark nature, perhaps even painful ones to the author.
The cloud pattern in the background is reminiscent of thoughts, or consciousness. The girl is holding still in the air, frozen in time, but she’s not going to be there for very long. Is she flying or is she falling? We can’t tell. That’s a very cool aspect of this image, and a very intriguing one.
· Read a profile of Sally Mann here.
The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery (Atria/Simon & Schuster)
The inky exterior blue makes this cover feel like an old print, one that might have been water damaged; there’s a great textural quality to it. It feels like a water-soaked treasure map from the deep. Of course, with ink you also think of an octopus, and the cloud of mystery that surrounds this animal. People are fascinated by octopi, and for good reason. They have the ability to camouflage themselves almost instantaneously, and they do it in a structural way. Their skin doesn’t just reflect whatever colors the octopus is on top of, it also matches the pattern. So if the surface is bumpy, the octopus appears to have bumps. Or if it’s rippled, like plant fronds, they appear to be rippled too. What’s even more amazing is that octopi are colorblind, so this chameleon-like ability happens somehow extra-sensorily. It’s extraordinary.
That other-worldliness is contrasted, though, by some very familiar elements. The orange and blue color scheme is classic, and feels reminiscent of a restaurant menu in Maine, someplace you might take a seaside holiday. The hand-drawn or letter-cut typography also give the cover a very homey feel. So it’s strange, but welcoming, almost comforting, at the same time.
If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, Carla Power (Henry Holt)
I love the deep black background in the middle. Black, like every color, conveys a symbolic meaning, but that meaning shifts from culture to culture and may not align with how we think of it in the west. For example, in Iraq—to use a culture related to the book’s topic—black is the color of ripe fruit and rich soil, arable land.
The patterns on the books that bracket the cover are reminiscent of the patterns you might see at the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in southern Spain, the pinnacle of Islamic patterning. Islamic patterns manifest many ideas about the faith. They seek to be center-less and infinite, like Allah’s presence. They try to convey an erasure of the author, so not only is there no signature or representation of any sort, but the goal is to produce a pure and unending plain of meditative visual thought in which the idea of the author is dwarfed to the point it disappears. This symbolizes the greatness of Allah.
There are twelve books here, which is very powerful number in Islam. Twelve is the first number where the sum of its component factors equals more than the number itself. In this case, the factors of twelve add up to sixteen, which symbolizes Allah’s abundance. In general, in Islamic thought there’s a wonderful mix of math, religion, and design. The patterns reflect their religious philosophy, and you can see that at work in this cover.
Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith (Alfred A. Knopf)
When you see this cover as a thumbnail it looks like one thing—smoke, or a moon reflected on the water—but when you enlarge the image you see that it’s a woman’s ear from behind, and she’s wearing a large pearl earring. That double take, the way the image forces the viewer to look closely, matches the title, in that light changes our perception of a thing.
Light is also responsible for our seeing color, and there’s an entire book on the physics of color which identifies 15 different types of color, among them structural color. A pearl’s iridescence is structural. The material, at a molecular level, causes the lightwaves to bounce around it, creating that shimmery, multi-colored effect. (“Super blacks” work the same way. These are the blacker-than-black tones created by substances that literally trap lightwaves, developed primarily with military uses in mind.) All of this is beside the fact to appreciating the elegant beauty of this cover, which evokes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But where that girl looks at the viewer, here the girl turns away, which is just as enticing. Is she trying to hide from us? It makes me very curious.
· Read Tracy K. Smith on the limits of poetry and her move to memoir.
NON-FICTION COVER WINNER: ORDINARY LIGHT!
“Ordinary Light reveals so many surprises on closer inspection, yet also reads well from a distance.”
Refund: Stories, Karen E. Bender (Counterpoint Press)
The shiny discs in the background look like coins, and also Christmas tree lights—because the image is blurred I can’t tell for sure. There’s a sense of domesticity, though. Is this a modest house, or a glamorous one? We don’t know.
Those circles make me think of the German design, Thalertupfen. This comes from the German currency Thaler, used up until the late 1800s, which spawned the English word dollar. Thalertupfen are coin-sized dots in a pattern, what we would call polka dots. The lines that strike across the top of the image add to our associations with money. They remind me of ledger lines, adding up totals. Also, with the words resting against them like that, they remind me of books upon a shelf. I like how this cover works on multiple levels.
The Turner House, Angela Flournoy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The shape of the font has a great resonance with the maple seedpods, the whirlybirds. They seem to be falling against what looks like whitewashed wood, which evokes a suburban house, and also the passing of generations, since seeds bring forth new life.
Their design, along with the palette of colors, remind me of 1970s style wallpaper. In researching Patternalia, I found a book called The Literary History of Wallpaper, which documents every written reference to wallpaper from about 1509 to the 1950s. Wallpaper is often seen the opposite of the truth, because you’re obscuring the reality of the wall behind fakery. That was especially the case back when wallpapers were typically designed to look like rich materials. They provided people a way of gussying up their house without spending too much money, and so could be seen as somewhat gauche or even morally unsound. That history may or may not relate to the novel, but obviously the cover imparts a domestic feel, which seems entirely apt.
· Read Angela Flournoy on the disappearance of black neighborhoods.
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books)
My first thought was of Japanese woodblock prints, which often depict the sea in rich colors, and the waves as having a violent energy. Here, the water is churning, crashing against itself. I also thought of lishui, “water wave” stripes that were common in China’s Qing Dynasty. Bureaucrats would wear very formal robes edged in these designs. Just like in our military, more stripes would indicate a higher rank. They were often in the colors of the five phases of the wuxing of East Asian Cosmology: green or blue for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal, and black for water. I’m not sure how much any of this was on the mind of the cover’s designer, but anyone who has studied art might have come across these images, and so carried those associations with them.
Similar to the cover for Love and Other Ways of Dying, the letters are nestled in the design, but to a very different effect, given the frenetic water. Are the words sinking or rising in the turbulent sea? Like with Hold Still, we’re in the midst of movement, and have no way of telling whether the letters are overcoming the tempestuous ocean, or about to be lost in it.
The water along with the title evokes Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean Sea. What’s funny is that Greeks wouldn’t call the color of this cover blue. The name for blue doesn’t have as long a history as words like black or red. In some languages, Ancient Greek being one, blue is not even given a word to distinguish it from other colors. This is why Homer describes the Mediterranean as a “wine dark sea” in his epics.
Fortune Smiles: Stories, Adam Johnson (Random House)
When I first saw this cover I thought, because of the colors and the style, of Roy Lichtenstein and Marvel Comics. It took me a moment to notice that it resembles a scratch-off lotto tickets, which of course matches the title perfectly. Those tickets are such a long shot, you never win! And yet I want to touch this cover, to run my fingers over the scratch-off parts—there is just something so appealing in that act.
The tiger head is appropriate because tigers often symbolize gambling. Tiger was slang for the lowest hand in poker, probably because it’s pretty terrible to stumble across a tiger in the wild. And that orange banner bearing the words “Pulitzer Prize Winning” is funny too, because orange is associated with cheapness. The entire design is so tongue-in-cheek, it’s great, very vibrant. It gives me a very warm feeling for the collection. I want to like it, and I haven’t read a word.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday)
This is such a painful image. The man’s eyes appear to be on the verge of crying, his face is dry, but it looks like tears are imminent. The tension between this photo and the title just kills me. If this is what “a little life” will do, then please don’t give me a big dose!
His pose and expression are reminiscent of an infant—how he’s nestled up against his arm, and his chin is dimpled, with his eyes all scrunched up like a baby about to howl. You don’t see many photos of adults looking like this, and there is no doubt that something is terribly wrong here, something that the intense, deep contrast heightens. The book has to do with child abuse, so this image is completely apt.
The blue tone, as opposed to a standard black and white, also indicate something isn’t right. And if you look close at the font, you see the serifs are slid a bit, it’s not standard. Even at the smallest level, this cover has been designed to unnerve us, and it works splendidly.
· Read Hanya Yanagihira’s A Little Life, in 10 quotations.
FICTION COVER WINNER: A LITTLE LIFE!
“A Little Life strikes me as the standout. It’s such a bold, simple idea—and the design doesn’t at all get in the way of the extraordinary power of the photo.”