A brightly coloured book appears on a red and green background with symbols suggesting it bursts onto the page, while two brown books lie on the outskirts with the titles “A Really Dull Story” and “This book is boring”.
Credit: Emily Walkingshaw

Should we judge a book by its cover?

By Leah Hart

Leah Hart examines how far aesthetics matter when it comes to choosing a book.

The act of buying or borrowing a book must inevitably be predicated by a judgment of its worthiness. This judgment will either need to be quick – if perhaps you are late for coffee with a friend and something caught your eye in the passing Oxfam – or leisurely and careful. Either way, a book is an object marketed to visually-able individuals as we will first be attracted to an interesting image.

As a more-than-casual reader, my process of choosing books has become more unrelated to the exterior with time. After all, we university students don’t always get to be picky about our reading material. When I do allow myself the simple pleasure of choosing a book outside the curriculum, I do, however, find myself attracted to covers that reflect the kinds of stories I love most. My love of a fast-paced plot, full of action and twists, comes through in colourful cover design.

For me, as well as most readers and non-readers alike, the aesthetic matters a great deal in our attraction to books. Compared to past cultures of book selling, no period has been quite as focused on the aesthetic marketing aspect as today. The culture of using books as home decor and the concept of “coffee-table books” almost certainly contributes to this as well. Less concerned with creating great art however, modern cover-design seems to be a homogenising phenomenon. Formulae are being established for the cover-design of each genre, with the recent micro-trend of popular modern romance exclusively depicting abstract outlines of the couple within. A similar thing happens with Young Adult pop fantasy; a central ornament and the infamous title template: something of something and something. One famous example is the 2015 A Court of Thorns and Roses series, similar in both title and cover-arrangement to the 2018 Afro-Fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone. Despite sharing the outward markings of the fantasy genre, the stories themselves appeal to different types of readers.

These formulae prove to me that there is no correlation between cover-design, good or bad, and the content within, seeing as my reactions are widely different to each book I read following these trends. Alternatively, some of the greatest books I have ever read, such as The Kite Runner, have the ugliest, most off-putting covers I have seen yet. As a person who loves libraries and therefore chiefly collects my very favourite books, it is easy to end up buying several editions of the same book. Sometimes I just can’t decide between the U.S and the U.K cover, so I simply buy both. The same goes for antique books; so what if I already own that Tom Hardy? Vintage editions are like book porn. Pleasing aesthetics are an undeniable asset in the choosing process, and though it might reflect the story inside (as well as the art budget), it certainly says very little of its quality. The beauty of book buying is that it is nobody’s business but your own.


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