What You See Is What You Get: Judging Five Books by Their Cover

Is it ever forgivable to judge a book by its cover? As a bookseller for 10 years and a member of the Book World staff for nearly as long, I've been conditioned to frown on such a practice. But I'll admit to having been enraptured by a book's cover (and in weak moments, author photo) to the point where I plunked down cash just to have it - well before I knew if the book itself was any good. One of my responsibilities is the enviable (some might say onerous) task of opening the hundreds of packages of books we receive weekly and keeping them organized in our book room (the literary equivalent of the storied closet at Vogue). And in that role, I constantly come across books that grab my attention based solely on the covers, eliciting an irrational excitement and an urge to read it. The list is endless, but I'll share a few recent releases.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.
Who can resist that title? And the precious dog just peeking up from the bottom of the cover? I was charmed by this novel before it became Starbuck's latest must-read and hit bestseller lists nationwide. Enzo, a lab-terrier mix who longs to be human and bones up on the species by watching copious amounts of TV, recounts his life and that of his master, Denny Swift, an aspiring pro race car driver.

Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin into a Global Business, by James Harding.
The cover graphics here are simple and striking: the requisite red, white and blue solids and stripes, in muted hues, suggesting Old Glory. But it's the title that drew me in. It's always fascinated me how much influence consultants and experts in campaign strategy/spin can exert on elections around the globe. I remember being startled by a story on Tony Blair's first run for office about the team of American consultants aiding the campaign. My first thought was where were the British? In lamenting the often undue influence they have here in the States, it didn't occur to me think globally. This book, by the editor of the Times of London, zeroes in on the Sawyer Miller Group, a distinguished firm known for its aggressive tactics and impressive leverage in not just elections, but also in the corporate suites of multinationals.

The End of Food, by Paul Roberts.
That's it. No subtitle. But does it need one? With the rocketing rise of commodity prices and a critical food shortage worldwide, it's self-explanatory. And made more effective by the cover graphics -- an ear of corn set against a bold green background and, on closer examination, the realization that the cornhusks being peeled back are actually hundred-dollar bills. Roberts delves into a system of food production and marketing on the verge of collapse. High-yield crops with lower nutritional value, soil exhaustion, increased global demand taxing an already stretched supply . . . and a need to make some tough decisions.

For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, by Kathryn Shevelow.
This is one of my favorite covers so far this year. A closeup of a dog lounging on a well-worn, antique armchair with a bright flower tucked in front of him, all photographed against a backdrop reminiscent of a stone foyer in a grand English country house. Which is appropriate, as the author chronicles the rise of legal protection for animals in England, from the 18th century, when household pets became common, to the prodigious work of a long run of illustrious Brits - poets, playwrights, clergymen and aristocrats - all advocating for the rights of God's creatures, long considered mere beasts. Their influence can't be overstated, a fact for which I'm grateful, being an enthusiastic pet lover myself and one who, irrationally or not, often thinks of animals as having human qualities.

My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles, by Justin Catanoso.
My first thought was, I wish I had a saint as a cousin. How cool would that be? Then, it occurred to me that the title was misleading and meant something else entirely. Then at last I read the dustjacket and discovered that the author meant exactly what he said. Catanoso, a noted journalist whose grandfather emigrated from Italy as a youth, discovered in
2001 that grandfather's cousin was a miracle-worker. Pope John Paul II canonized Padre Gaetano Catanoso (whose image, redolent of a medieval icon, graces the cover), making him the first priest from Calabria ever to receive that distinction. Gaetano stayed behind to serve the poor while his cousin sailed for America and in so doing established an order of nuns. The author's discovery led to a fascinating quest for ancestry and an illuminating wrestling with faith.

What is the most striking jacket you've ever seen?

-- Christopher Schoppa

By Christian Pelusi |  June 5, 2008; 6:21 AM ET Christopher Schoppa
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Off the top of my head, I'd say "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." The hardback's jacket showed comic superheroes fighting it out. That, plus the title, plus the fact that it was written by the author who wrote "Wonder Boys" made this a very interesting proposition.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 5, 2008 10:16 AM

The New York Review of Books is reissuing older, more obscure books in paperback editions. Those covers usually are in some sort of bright color with extraordinarily evocative pictures on the cover. One book (can't remember the title) has a picture of a man with a hound's head. Colette's "The Pure and the Impure" has a photograph of an Asian-looking woman -- almost like a geisha -- looking away from the camera. I don't always buy the books, but the covers are enough for me to at least pick them up and read the summaries on the back.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 5, 2008 11:35 AM

Who are the cover designers? For years I'd look at who designed the covers that grabbed me and the name Chip Kidd came up over and over again, so much so that I asked for the coffee table book commemorating his work for Christmas a couple of years ago. Oddly, the cover for that book is really cool design wise but awkward in application--hard to shelve or lay flat. But I still love it. He explains a lot of what designers are thinking. Right now, I'm enamored of Lisa Fyfe's design for Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange.

Posted by: litmajor | June 5, 2008 8:27 PM

I have "The Map That Changed the World" in hardcover which folds out to reveal the first geological map of England. I love maps so this was the reason I bought the book (though I did enjoy "The Professor and the Madman" by the same author).

I still really like the art on the cover of "Life of Pi". It's simple and beautiful and really conveys alot about the story. Plus I like how the sharks and sea turtles look in the blue.

Posted by: Em | June 6, 2008 9:15 AM

Man, oh, man there are so many good books with great cover aesthetics. Considering contemporary novels and non-fiction, how about Michael Chabon's newest release Maps and Legends with three seperate, but overlapping covers cover, or Jim Nisbet's: The Octopus on My Head (just try and find a mediocre cover from Dennis McMillan publication), or John Ridley's Everybody Smokes in Hell, or Don Winslow's Power of the Dog, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, or Augusten Burrough's Dry, or...?

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | June 6, 2008 11:04 PM

Two -

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel

A Dirty Job - Christopher Moore


Posted by: aglassbookworm | June 9, 2008 10:26 AM

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