The Anatomy of Books: Skin & Flesh

This is the first piece of a four-part series on the anatomy of books. Most of these observations are taken from my own experience and library of knowledge. The thoughts below are not written from the perspective of a designer but from an avid reader who appreciates meaningful design. 


As the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Challenge avoided.

Covers are the skin and flesh of books. They’re the easiest to judge, just as faces and external body images are vulnerable to scrutiny. They form our first impressions, despite any attempts to be neutral and open. Inevitably, the publishing industry has turned to visual appeal in order to increase market and online sales, so the old adage is not difficult to avoid. Still, there is a difference between attractive design and meaningful design, a design that complements the novel and embodies its essence. Covers are set with one daunting task in mind: representation.

Peter Mendelsund is a prolific designer who began his post-college career as a pianist but later switched to design in order to support his family. He’s the one behind several iconic covers such as the Pevear/Volokhonsky Crime and Punishment and the Vintage paperback edition of Ulysses. Mendelsund recently redesigned the covers of a majority of Italo Calvino’s works, the process of which is recorded in The New Yorker. He tends to rely on the effects of visually gripping shapes to convey key themes, and the continuity of these sparse yet evocative covers is quite stunning.

covers by Peter Mendelsund

covers by Peter Mendelsund

John Gall is another face behind notable designs, most recognizably Murakami’s works:

covers by John Gall

covers by John Gall

And then there are the classic designs, the major players in the field: Penguin Classics and the Oxford collection. The Penguin covers opt for a fusion of modern touches and a focused visual, and the Oxford editions are similar, though their covers achieve a type of scholarly representation (which is acceptable, given that their editions tend to focus on the innards: extensive notes and essays).

Penguin Classics

Penguin Classics

Oxford World's Classics

Oxford World’s Classics

Speaking of collections, publishers have also embraced the idea of “deluxe editions” and “classic series” with thematic covers. Case in point: Jessica Hische’s extraordinary Drop Caps and Hardcover Classic collections, both of which rely heavily on typography, Coralie Bickford-Smith’s Clothbound Series, and Milan Bozic’s Harper Perennial Olive Editions drawings.

There are also tactile effects that can be applied to covers, such as a debossing, mirrored foil, glow-in-the-dark print, silk lamination, die cutting, etcetera, but these are limited to printing presses and costs. (Subtly brilliant, to implement tactile effects on a tangible object. Perhaps it’s the rise of ebooks that could account for this?)

And who could forget the old jewels that are just outrageous to look at—they show how easily the perceptions of design can change over time and how difficult it is to create a timeless cover:

look at that brooding Hamlet. and those clowns. and the outrageous fonts. incredible.

Still, covers are only covers—there is so much hidden underneath to be explored, from the basic structure of a book to choices in typefaces to the material and quality of the paper. Oh, and, of course, the writing itself.


Further browsing: Alvin Lustig and the book cover archive.

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