Why You Shouldn’t Judge Books By Their Covers. Or Maybe You Should. One of the Two.

This week’s tempest in a teapot is Faber’s new cover for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Book covers have come up a lot in the last few months on the book blogs and news sites that I follow. (My favorite take on book covers is Jim Hines’ ongoing skewering of sexist book covers, in which the female characters appear with possible scoliosis so that they can show off their breasts and their derrieres.) But back to the main point. Faber’s new cover for The Bell Jar has been described as being more appropriate for chick lit books, not for a seminal work of feminist literature. Having looked at the new cover, I can see where the critics are coming from:

Looking at just the cover, would you expect this book to be about a women’s incarceration in a mental institution?

Everyone knows the old adage about judging books, but I’m a cover judger from way back. I don’t think we can help it. Book covers (when they’re done right) clue us in to the tone of the book and the intended audience. (Perhaps Faber is trying to snag readers who wouldn’t pick up The Bell Jar under it’s more tone-appropriate covers? You can see a few of the other versions in this Google search.)

To be honest, the more I think about that old adage, the less I think it applies to actual books. It’s just a metaphor. Book covers are advertisements. Some are clearly more successful than others. I suspect that critics and readers are getting so het up about this cover is because the book is such an important work and having it even remotely associated with chick lit is an insult. (Not to knock chick lit but, you know.) You have to wonder what the art department was trying to achieve with this cover.

I’ve read blog posts by authors that discuss the cover design process. It’s a tricky thing. The artist has to encapsulate the book in just one image. If you’re a well known (and living) author, it can be a collaboration. My favorite explanation of the process comes from Chip Kidd, possible the most famous book artist there is:

As usual, I think the critics are overreacting to The Bell Jar‘s new cover. But the debate does raise some interesting points to ponder. Because I read more ebooks than printed these days, I’ve found that covers matter less to me now that I make a habit of downloading the samples before I buy. For me, covers are now more of a memory aid than anything else, reminding me of the reviews I read months before in Publishers’ Weekly or Library Journal. Because I read on an iPad, bad covers don’t bother me as much anymore because I hardly see them. (And because I don’t have to worry about people judging me when I’m seen reading books with bad covers.)


One thought on “Why You Shouldn’t Judge Books By Their Covers. Or Maybe You Should. One of the Two.

  1. I thought this kerfuffle was interesting, because The Bell Jar isn't just about a stay in a mental institution. The first half of the book is dedicated to the character's time in NYC on a magazine internship, and a lot of ink is spilled on becoming and presenting the image of a perfect girl. If I remember right, there are long passages in which Plath describes compacts and other swag are handed out to the girls. And it is this pressure that in part leads to Esther's suicide attempt. Of course, to people who haven't actually read the book or non-careful readers, it is “just” a book about suicide. But what makes this book so brilliant is that it traces a lot of the societal pressures that can bring a girl to the brink of madness (and over, in Esther's case). It's not a great book cover, but it's related to the book more than a moody black and white photo of a rose.


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