One of the oddities of book-jacket design is that an author rarely gets a say in how his book gets dressed. Marketing teams work with art directors to choose covers based on what will move off a shelf display. That means that here and there, books get new covers, rendering old ones obsolete — or something collectible. We asked a panel of designers, writers, and editors to share their favorite edition of a beloved book. Below, they explain why these make for impressive gifts for the reader in your life.
“There were so many tragic versions of the cover for this (adult) short-story collection from Roald Dahl. First published by Knopf in 1960 with a very sweet, retro cover — it could almost double as a Betty Crocker cookbook; the non-ironic use of hearts is involved — this version with the lips was illustrated by Omnific for Penguin’s 1970 edition, under the house’s new art director, David Pelham. He wisely gave select authors a consistent design treatment for all their titles, creating collectible series and giving designers and illustrators unprecedented visibility. I love the classic ’70s color palette here. It’d be easy (and tempting) to overboard with macabre references, given the book’s subject matter, but the simple shapes keep it minimal and playful, while the dark background lends a sense of foreboding.” — Perrin Drumm, editor-in-chief of AIGA Eye on Design
“Occasionally people make the mistake of thinking Eve Babitz’s writing is ‘light.’ There’s a playfulness to her tone that’s easy to gloss over. Maybe at first glance this first edition cover is playful too. But looking closer, the female dachshund, the shower nozzle raining wine, the solo diner at the bar, all of it vaguely reminiscent of the Chateau Marmont — it’s a tableau at once sophisticated and strange. This cover reminds me that her characters, dissolute Angelenos, are all shape-shifters, always on the verge of finding meaning, enjoying their wine in the hopeful meantime.” — Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter
“Leave Cancelled is a novel about tragic love: A soldier returns home from the war on leave to get married. But before the newlyweds can share their happiness, the soldier’s leave is canceled. He’s sent to the front and killed. Paul Rand designed the jacket and binding. The jacket was unique in its day for the die-cut holes (bullet holes). Rand’s cover speaks with a symbolic eloquence that is neither maudlin or romantic. The classic statue of Cupid levitates against a pink background. It is an emotional tour de force — the perfect evocation without the melodrama.” — Steven Heller, Co-chair of SVA’s MFA Design Department
“I love the 1964 cover of this overlooked coming-of-age masterpiece (set in Egypt in the 1950s) because it breaks what we think of as today’s rules. The colors: green and brown! The type: two different fonts, one of them technically a sans serif but not exactly, the whole clashing effect of which is jaunty, comedic, and very much jolie-laide. The novel itself — which we republished at Vintage Books in 2014 with a similar cover, albeit with slightly different colors and the addition of a tiny camel — is sad and funny, mixes the personal with the political, and remains just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.” — Lexy Bloom, senior editor at Knopf Doubleday
“The book itself is one of the harder ones of Kafka’s to read and I think the more interesting; it’s a portrait of America but one that’s slightly off. It’s based all on heresy, and there’s a bunch he gets wrong: In the opening he describes this guy coming into New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty is not holding a torch, but a sword. The ways in which he got America wrong, they feel particularly relevant right now — even the ‘k’ in Amerika. If you’re renaming America right now you might have three Ks in the title. Alan Lustig did this cover, and it took me a long time to see that that star was the clown. I thought it was just an abstracted flag, but you can see the tufts of his hair. And this is the year of Pennywise the Clown and the Trump presidency. The clown ties into a traveling circus in the book, but it does not give away too much. Good designers will do that.” — Peter Mendelsund, associate art director at Knopf
“Technically, this isn’t old, because it’s still in use. But the typography selection creates a perfect balance with the photographic treatment. You discover the main character, but just slightly — there’s more priority to the typography layout. Graphic design is highly important inside the story. The main character is a perfectionist and keeps his identity in everything, including his beautiful printed business cards. He is a psycho in the story, obviously, but he loves graphic design as much as we do, that’s for sure.” — Mike Herrera, partner at Anagrama design studio
“One of the hardest things in the world to do is design a cover that is making a play to be a Big Book. Designers get good at distinguishing the biographies from romances and such with all these subtle cues. Then there are serious cues that something is meant to be a timeless work of art — the great American novel, if you will. Normally, the front flap would have a dramatic summary of the plot of the book and the back flap would have a bio of Pynchon and a lot of advance praise. It would be surrounded with a lot of testimony and marketing. Instead, this is a big fat object, on the front it just says the title and Thomas Pynchon. There’s a sunset that wraps all the way around and less than two dozen letters. It really is just an example of the author daring you to judge the book by nothing more.” — Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram
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