Friday, August 8, 2014

Judging books by their covers

Cover illustrations have just one main purpose and that is to help sell books. Yet on rare occasions, cover art can actually be fine art, worthy of a museum. Some books may be worth owning simply because their covers are lovely to look at.

I thought about this recently while rereading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, reviewed here two days ago. I recall that when I bought the paperback for 60 cents back in the 1960s, I was drawn less by Shirley Jackon's name, which I was familiar with having read "The Lottery," than by the cover. I still think this paperback cover is the best I have ever seen. The illustration by someone named W. Teason, who also drew the cover art for a number of Agatha Christie paperbacks of that period, seems perfect to me, even though it doesn't depict anything actually in the story. Yet it captures the mood of the tale, which is about a sinister girl, fond of hiding and spying. The berries she holds, possibly poisonous, also fit in with Jackson's story. I'm sure I would have kept this paperback all these years even if I hadn't liked the novel.

My second favorite paperback illustration is the one Michael Whelan drew for Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn, first published in 1984. Whelan drew the cover illustrations for all four of Asimov's robot novels, but I consider The Robots of Dawn cover to be his masterpiece. As Teason did with Shirley Jackson's novel, Whalen captured the spirit of the story, which is about about a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, that is almost, but not quite, human. All four of the novels in the robot series are futuristic detective stories in which Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics play a part. Do a web search for Michael Whelan and you can find a stunning array of illustrations by him used as cover art for many science fiction and fantasy books. Works of Wonder, a collection of Whelan's best art published a few years ago, has this particular illustration on its cover.

As for illustrations on hardback novels, my two favorites both happen to be on books I have yet to read. I hope to read them someday, but in the meantime I am enjoying the covers. Also, the illustrations for both books wrap around the book, including both the front and back covers. One of these is the illustration John Rush did for Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, published in 1988. The novel is set in the 14th century, and I think the cover captures the time and place, as well as simply being a beautiful piece of art. Go to John Rush's website,, to see more of his work, mostly on historical or mythological themes.

Another cover drawing I particularly like is the one Mark Summers drew for Bartle Bull's 1992 novel The White Rhino Hotel. This beautifully detailed line drawing seems to reflect the story, which is about European settlers in Kenya after the first world war. Go to to see some marvelous examples of the artist's other work.

I would gladly go to a museum to see these fine works of art. Of course, I really don't have to. I have them all in my personal library.

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