Saturday, September 10, 2005

Judging books by their cover

Books with badly designed covers make me cringe. Several times in bookshops I pick up the same book and wince, remembering that I winced the last time as well. It is, at that stage, not about the content. The design, the first hurdle, is where I stumble. A beautiful book can be tainted by bad design, and only an honest reprint can salvage it. Personally, I prefer covers that can be used as posters; often these use typography and imagery well, conveying to you in a moment what the book is about.

But design does not stop at the book jacket. How well the letters are spread out, how comfortably spaced the lines are, what typeface to use, how to signify the start of a new paragraph, how to design the title of each chapter; all these are dilemmas decent designers would mull over as one would a math problem or a swish of a paintbrush. Then there is the dilemma of generosity. How much can the designer give to the reader and the author without compromising his own beliefs and chances of an award? But this problem does not apply here. It is the first lot that are a concern at the moment.

Some publishers carpet-bomb us with words; Penguin in India is one of those culprits. One look at most of their books and you would imagine design was something those crazy foreigners with their subversive western influences did for a lark. After all, why spend time on how a book looks if people buy it for its content? That is an argument with no end. But I have empathy for the reader and the author. To be forced with a sea of words printed at an angle in blotchy ink on gritty pages is mildly unpleasant and bloody irritating. To see your manuscript mauled spectacularly and called a book only because it eventually has a fleeting resemblance to one can also be upsetting.

Inspiration cannot be a hurdle. Beside these books lie designs that transform books into even more of a collector's item. The Master and Margarita is one such, as is the sepia-tinted Simon Winchester's Calcutta and Murakami's and Coetzee's books by Vintage. These designs become the author's signature. Look at John Grisham. The Pelican Brief: crackled backround, beveled typeface. The Rainmaker: same. The Street Lawyer: more of the same. (Grisham is being used for the signature aspect, not the quality of design.)

The inspiration is all there. And surely publishers know how much influence good design exerts. How to describe the longing one feels on noticing a well-designed book, regardless of the subject? It is like noticing an interesting person from a distance and being convinced that compatibility is inevitable.

"There is nothing more fit to be looked at than the outside of a book," said Thomas Love Peacock, a 19th century satirist, as quoted in this piece about the history of book covers in the Guardian. A cover can be seductive if the right hands dress it, but this is not the case at the moment. For numerous designers, designing book covers is a way of latching on to immortality. Why not tap these designers who are fed up of designing leaflets and making the client's logo smaller?

Now to the point. What initiated this post was Penguin's (the one abroad) boxed set of 70 pocketbooks. They are of remarkable design, each cover radically different from the last one. They not only appear to have not been created by the same hand, but they transcend nationality and eras. The different people credited behind each book is a reason for this: it ensures that the designer is free to concentrate on one design without worrying about a 'look' for the series. And yet they appear to be part of a set. One that made me laugh had a picture of a gruesome-looking breakfast which few would survive if they ventured toward in the first place: it was for George Orwell's In Defence of English Cooking. Zadie Smith's book was eye-catching too, as was Caligula.

There are possibilities all around, especially in a country as rich in chaos as this, where every day is a visual surprise. But unfortunately good design is not seen as an end in itself, and sometimes it is not seen at all. It needs more than skilled practicioners. It needs the people who matter to truly need it back.

Here is the Guardian essay again. It is worth a read. And below is the cover of the Caligula pocketbook, taken off Jai Arjun Singh's site.

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