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A Historian Judges Books by their Covers

By Guest Author
May 18, 2021

I took a look around the internet recently to find the first use of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’m a historian, so I’m endlessly fascinated by the beginnings of things. As usual, there are many versions of the origin story for this metaphor.

The one which most sites (and literary critics) seem to agree on is that George Eliot used a similar phrase in her novel, The Mill on the Floss. Two characters discuss how different books of sermons have similar covers, and one of them might be a disguised work by Daniel Defoe, The History of the Devil. One character then says, “But it seems one musn’t judge by th’ outside.” After that the phrase just seeps into culture, though it might have been popularized by a 1946 murder mystery.

Writers and readers are also judgmental about book covers, which makes sense. But the first judge of a cover is the publisher. Choosing a cover is a marketing decision, as well as an artistic one, and it’s not surprising that tastes in book jackets reflect culture and social change. Which leads me to a concept that publishers have embraced over the last few decades: re-issuing classic novels with their original cover designs.

I love this.

Again, I’m a historian, so retro is my thing, but I also enjoy the first-edition covers because of what they say about the historical period in which they were issued.

Take The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925. The jacket featured a slightly unsettling woman’s face floating above the New York skyline, which a few reviewers and fans refer to as “Celestial Eyes.” It’s a deep blue embodiment of the flapper era, in my opinion. Some critics say that author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the cover into the novel, instead of the artist creating the image from the book itself. Whatever the reason, this cover has appeared on many re-issues over the years.

I own a reissue of To Kill A Mockingbird which has the beautiful original tree design on the front. Is this a reference to the tree in which Boo Radley left gifts for Scout and Jem? Most people agree on this interpretation. I am happy to see this on my bookshelves because it reminds me of the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother gave me a library copy of the book to read when I was…well, I was so young I don’t even remember how old I was. She handed me the book and said, “Read this and you’ll understand my childhood in 1930s Arkansas.” Looking at the original cover gives me back this meaningful moment.

I recently discovered the flip side of the trend toward publishing original book covers of classic novels. The website Pulp The Classics takes book design to a whole, noir level with artwork more suited to the wire book racks in the corners of 1950s drug stores (where the more disreputable books were kept).

For example, the site’s cover for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows the Monster in a leather jacket on a motorcycle, like Marlon Brando in the movie The Wild One. The cover reads, “This Kid was Born on the Wrong Side of the Lab.” For more hilarity, take a look at the website:

Funny or deeply moving, book covers are an important part of our lives, whether we are readers, writers, or artists.

About the Author: Lynn Downey writes about the strong women of the American West.

Guest Author
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